Journalist: Amy Stewart
AMY: Hello and welcome back to SciSection. I'm your journalist Amy Stewart for the SciSection radio show broadcasted on CFMU 93.3. FM radio station. We're here today with Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill's Office of Science and Society, acclaimed author, and expert debunker of pseudoscience. Thank you so much for coming on the show today. Dr. Schwarcz.
DR. SCHWARCZ: That's my pleasure.
AMY: I think to get started, how about you give us a little history of your education and your career so that our viewers can get to know you a little bit?
DR. SCHWARCZ: Okay, well, my PhD is in chemistry. And I kind of look at chemistry as the thread that ties all the sciences together. Because if you have an idea about what molecules are all about, and how they can react, you have a pretty good idea about how things in the world can happen. So from chemistry, you can really spread out into virtually any kind of science. And that really is what I do. I mean, I've been interested in, in science, since I was in grade six, which is a couple years ago. And it's kind of an interesting story that I like to tell, especially to students how it all started. Because it was in such an unusual fashion. It happened when I was invited to a birthday party. And my friend's parents had hired a magician to entertain us. And he was a teenager, not particularly good. Most of the tricks he did, I've long forgotten. But there's one that he did, which was not only memorable, but actually it turned out to be life changing, because he showed us three ropes. And he said that he was going to defy nature, and blend these three ropes into one. But he needed a magic invisible chemical to do this. So he reached into his pocket for this invisible chemical that is sprinkled on the three ropes and then magically, it turned into one long rope. Now I was pretty intrigued by that. Obviously, even at that rather young age, I knew that there was no invisible chemical that could do this. So I began to wonder, not about how he did that. But about why he used that language. Why say invisible chemical, instead of hocus pocus or Alakazam, or abracadabra, which are the usual magic words. So I went to the school library. And I took out a book on chemistry, and I took out a book on magic. And I followed both of those ever since. And it might seem that this is a very strange pair of bedfellows because chemistry is a hard science firmly rooted in the laws of nature. And magic as a performance art is quite the opposite. Because what does a magician on the stage do? They do things that seem to defy the laws of nature, right, levitate things into the air, make something disappear and reappear, all of which you know, defies scientific explanation. And of course, when I started to look into that, I saw that well of course, it only appeared to defy scientific explanation. And there was a perfectly good explanation. When a lady was made to lie down on a bed and rose into the air. There was a scientific contraption that was involved in this, it was not a question of defying gravity, right? And then I started to see that mostly to the uninitiated, science can look magical too. Because you pour two solutions together, you get a colour change. Unless you know something about indicators or clock reactions, it seems inexplicable, it seems magical. The difference is that in science, of course, we try to take out the magic and provide the explanation. Whereas the magician, of course, always wants to hide the explanation to increase the entertainment value. So I saw that there was a way to get people excited about science by weaving in a little magic. That's how it all started. And then when I started to read more about chemistry, you know, even you know, at a young age, I saw the fascinating connections that it had to everyday life, that no matter what we were looking at, whether it was food or medicine, or cosmetics, or pollution. The thread that tied all of these together was chemistry. So I knew that this is what I wanted to go into in university, and I did and while the teaching was very, very good. I was somewhat disappointed, because I had been reading on my own all of these interesting things. But they didn't appear in any of the courses that I was taking. You know, I mean, I was taking phys-chem and quantum mechanics and all of this, which, which, you know, were kind of interesting in and of themselves. And, of course, I learned how to perform well, in those. I mean, you, you know, you learn how to do it, you'll learn how to apply the equation, but what bugged me was I didn't see any connections being made to anything. I mean, I didn't see why learning the Nernst equation and physical chemistry was going to be of any use. Until the end of that phys-chem course, when out of the blue, the prof would have been teaching as the whole semester, just mentioned about something about batteries, and the Nernst equation, and all of a sudden, you know, things plopped into place. That's the reason that we're learning all of this, because it had a role to play, you know. And he had, if he had just said at the beginning of the course that this has application, while learning about how batteries work, it would have made all of the difference. So that's when I decided that if I ever had the chance to go into academia, I would make sure that the students understood why they were learning what they were learning. And while it isn't always the case, that there's an immediate application to everything, but you have to show them that there's light at the end of the tunnel, when you're carrying out a chemical synthesis. It's not just to memorise something, but understand why this is important, and what potential it has. So I started to infuse into my gen chem lectures, you know, what I thought were interesting things. And students found them interesting. And then I, you know, heard that they would go home and discuss these things around the dinner table. And I started to get invitations from parent groups to speak to them. And you know, it started to roll on from there. And then I started to teach courses here at McGill, specifically on food and drugs and cosmetics and talk about some of the pseudo science that is in there. And I started to separate them from nonsense. And then 23 years ago, the university said, well, let's do this on a more formal basis and created the Office for Sciences and Society, which I direct. And our mandate is really to demystify science and to separate central nonsense. And as you can imagine, these days, that's quite challenging, you know, especially over the last two years, where COVID has not only infected us with the virus, it has also infected us with a tremendous amount of pseudoscience and, and nonsense. So that's kind of where, you know, we stand that's been the history of, of my career. And along the way, I had lots of invitations to speak. And 42 years ago, was asked to do a radio show, which I'm still doing, which is the longest radio show on chemistry in the history of the world. Probably the only show on chemistry in the history of the world. And I've worked on the Discovery Channel for 20 years. And so I kind of specialized in interpreting science for the public and separating myth from fact.
AMY: That is quite the exceptional life and career you've led so far. Just from like, your moment of inspiration with a magic trick. I think that's kind of rare.
DR. SCHWARCZ: I like to tell that story, because it shows that you never know the twists and turns your life is going to make and just how one little escapade like that had such a long lasting effect. I wish I knew where that guy was these days, because I'd like to speak with him and maybe even thank him for, you know, stimulating what has become a rather interesting and productive career.
AMY: Yeah, absolutely. And I think you highlight such like a an important point is that there's such like a disconnect between all the amazing science that has done especially in the the pure sciences like chemistry and physics, and then, you know, like, general society, and I think that's what causes a lot of the misinformation is like there's no one there to bridge all of this data and information that's being generated and to like, connect the two. I definitely saw a lot of that in the beginning of my undergrad where I never really understood the purpose of anything like you said, I could learn how to do it and I could like, apply it on tests and exams, but I didn't really know why I was doing it right.
DR. SCHWARCZ: And it makes all the difference when you know the why not only the what, but the why. Because the purpose of science is to serve the public, I mean, that's why we do things, you know. It's not just out of intellectual curiosity, it is because it's applicable. And, you know, we know the important role that nutrition plays in our life, that medicine plays in our life, and the concerns about pollutants and toxins in the environment. And in order to understand these concepts, and to know how to handle them, and more importantly, to know what is important and what not, what is worth worrying about, and what is not. Well, the way that you learn all these things is through scientific education. It doesn't mean that everyone in the world has to be a scientist, I mean, obviously not, that's not going to happen. But the same way that you, you strive to become literate, and being able to read and write, one should also strive to become literate in science, it just part of our culture, it's part of what we should know about, you know, and you can, in fact, appreciate science, and even become quite knowledgeable on it, without
knowing all the underlying pinnings. You know, I mean, you don't have to know how to solve quantum mechanical equations, in order to understand how fluorescent lights work and you know what the consequences might be. It's enough to know that someone else knows all of that. And they know how to use that to develop useful substances for our life. But I think everyone needs to appreciate the value of science, and also, how we in the scientific world know what we know, you know, why should someone who listens to me about the folly of detox about you know, using coffee enemas to ward off cancer or, you know, some ridiculous thing? Why should they believe me? Or why should they believe me when, when I would say that, you don't have to worry about the calcium propionate that is used as a preservative in your bread. And that's why it becomes so important to describe how science functions, how in the scientific world, we know what we know.
It all comes down to the scientific, peer reviewed literature. That's how we disseminate information. Researchers carry out studies. It's useless unless others find out about what they've done. So communication is critical.
So you write it up, you submit it to a journal, The Journal sends it out to reviewers, the referees, and eventually there's a lot of back and forth. As you know, when it gets published, or it gets rejected. It becomes part of the scientific domain. But we never set store by any one study. It's a question of consensus. And you have to be familiar with the scientific literature in order to see where there's consensus and when there's not about scientific issues. But it's important for people to understand why something that appears in the peer reviewed literature is more reliable than an article that you might read in the National Enquirer, or indeed, even in Discover Magazine. Peer review is the essence really of science, but it is not to suggest that it is beyond criticism, because peer review is done by people. And people are, you know, imperfect, let us say, in many different ways, many scientific research can be wrong because of honest mistakes, you know, people make mistakes and measurements, etc, that can happen. But unfortunately, fraud also sometimes rears its ugly head. And this can make its way into the scientific literature. And the classic example is that horrific paper by Andrew Wakefield, who suggested the link between autism and vaccination, and that was published in The Lancet, which is one of the world's top peer reviewed medical journals. How does something like that happen? Well, the reviewers of an article, of course, cannot redo the research. You know, when you get a paper to review, this is usually work done by several scientists over years, that you are asked to evaluate. And you have to expect that everything that you see written down, is exactly what they did. And that the results were arrived at, in a proper, honest scientific fashion. I mean, maybe mistakes can happen. But you don't want fraud. But you're not going to pick that up if someone is going to submit fraudulent results. A reviewer is not going to pick that up. Because, you know, I mean, you work on the basis that this was all honest work. But if it isn't, it might only emerge years and years later, when someone for some reason tries to duplicate that, that work and can't. And that's exactly what happened in the case of the vaccine and autism supposed connection, it took about 20 years, until someone discovered that this was fraudulent work, that, you know, the data just were essentially made up. And by that time, we had epidemics of measles that we hadn't had for decades, you know, so, no peer reviewed research is not set in stone, we have to realize that. And that's why we always look at the broad picture, we don't look at only one paper, you look at everything that is out there, and try to filter out the important pieces of work from the mythical ones. They the, you know, mistake laden ones, the fraudulently laden ones, because unfortunately, those are there. But if you look broadly enough, there will be consensus that emerges, you know, it won't be accepted by everyone. I mean, you know, we look at something like climate change, which one would think is, as well documented, as anything can be documented? And yet, of course, we still have people who say that no, this is not not the case. And that, you know, it's just a random variation in climate. And, you know, we don't have to go crazy worrying about carbon dioxide. And, you know, there are some legitimate scientists who claim that, but 97% of all climate scientists who work in this area, totally agree that humans are involved, we're putting out a lot of carbon dioxide, it is potentially catastrophic, and that we need to do something about it. So there will be naysayers, always about every issue. But you know, when you have 97% versus 3%, you believe the 97%?
AMY: Yeah, you raise an excellent point, the peer review process, it's not immune to its errors. And I think as scientists, we always need to question the source and methodologies and papers we read. It's there that I think meta analyses are like a vital tool for evaluating the outcome of a particular topic. But thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Schwarcz. This is all the time we have for this episode. But we will be continuing this discussion about scientific misinformation in a second episode. So to our listeners out there, stay tuned for that for now. Thank you again for listening. And thank you to Dr. Schwarcz for such a fascinating interview. To listen to the next episode, and all our latest interviews, be sure to find us on global podcast platforms.
AMY: Welcome back section listeners. I'm your journalist Amy Stewart. And today I have the second part of Dr. Joe Schwartz’s interview, where we're going to dive into the dangers of scientific misinformation and how to approach people who are spreading it. As well, we're going to talk about making science a more accessible topic. If you haven't heard part one, be sure to find it available on global podcast platforms. All right, let's get right into it. This is a podcast mostly for undergraduate students. But we do have all different kinds of listeners, a lot of people who aren't overly involved in science. So I was wondering what kind of advice you would give to students to try and identify pseudoscience and try to identify the nonsense from the sense?
DR. SCHWARCZ: It's a very good question, and there isn't a simple answer. Because you really do have to immerse yourself in science in the scientific world to know where reliable information comes from. And as I said, you know, you have to be familiar with the scientific literature. So you always ask the question, when you hear some claim, where did you get this information? Where does it come from? And when you're dealing with pseudoscience very often, you know, they will start stuttering because they don't know exactly it's they've heard it, they've seen it on Tiktok. You know, they've seen it on some bloggers' websites or, or whatever. So, what I tried to do is to guide them in that way and say, Well, you know, you'd think that that's really reliable, who was saying this, what is their background? Is it in line with the scientific consensus, but it
It's very difficult to squash conspiracy theorists, they have always been with us. And they always will be. Why? Because science doesn't have all of the answers. And we do not claim to have all of the answers. So whenever science leaves a void, the charlatans and the pseudo scientists rush in, and they fill the void. They have all the answers, you know, usually wrong, but they have all the answers. And that is, is generally very seductive to people. Because people crave answers, they want solutions to their problems, you know, it's part of human nature that when something happens to you, when something goes wrong, like an illness, the first thing you start to think is, what did I do? Where did this come from? You know, what did I eat? Or, you know, how was I affected by that this happens? And very often, in science, we don't have a clear cut answer for that, you know, COVID is a clear example. I mean, we still debate how this virus entered our life. You know, I mean, there, there certainly are theories with a lot of backing that it came from, you know, one of these wet markets in Wuhan. But there are some people suggest that it escaped from a virology lab, or that, you know, even that it was purposefully disseminated, you know, who do you believe. And I, this is, again, where you have to track people towards the published literature and see, you know, how reputable are the people who are saying this,
so, no, there isn't one set formula that will allow you to, you know, separate the sense from the nonsense, you have to put in a lot of work, and you have to read, you know, all over the place and see what has backing, you know, where is there experimental evidence for it.
But unfortunately, a lot of the pseudoscience nonsense, can be made to sound very credible. These people I, you know, be grudgingly have to give them credit, sometimes, they're very good at what they do. You know, like, when, when you take a look at the, the anti vaccine co conspirators, you know, they dig through the scientific literature, and they're very good at cherry picking data. And, you know, they will pick out numbers, and twist them to make it sound palatable, you know, like, you and as you know, you can with statistics, you can lead people astray very, very easily. And you can mine the data, torture the data until it reveals what you want it to reveal. So you can look at mortality statistics, and, you know, cherry pick them and show that, that there are more people dying from COVID, who have been vaccinated then who have not, you know, but of course, it's a false argument. And it's, it's one that is, you know, relatively easy to, to sweep away with the proper scientific information. I mean, usually, you know, I, you know, I tell people look, there will always be people who die from COVID. And if we had 100% of the population vaccinated, then 100% of deaths would be from people who have been vaccinated, right? And that people usually understand how, you know, ridiculous that is, and that doesn't mean that there's a link between vaccination and mortality. So you also have to when you're in this you know, the business that I’m in, of trying to separate the sense from nonsense you have to learn the analogies to use, the arguments to use and and and what works and what what what doesn't. Admittedly, when you know, when you do live in this world, and you see all of the nonsense and then all of the the ridiculous arguments, your first reaction is to try to hammer away at them and, you know, call them stupid and liars. And it doesn't work.
That just alienates these conspiracy theorists, even more. And then you get accused of being in the pockets of big pharma or whatever. So that's why, you know, my technique is along the lines of giving them the rope to hang themselves by using the appropriate questions about well, you know, why do you think that that's true? Where did this come from? You know, did this research come from someone at Harvard or MIT or McGill? Or uOttawa? Or did it come from the Food Babe, you know, who has a blog with huge numbers of followers? You know, who believes that if you can't pronounce a chemical, you shouldn't be eating it, you know? So are you going to rely on someone like that? Who determines the level of toxicity of a substance by the number of syllables and its chemical name? Or are you going to believe someone who has been in the laboratory and has done the research and has done proper randomized controlled double blind studies? So you know, it's a complex business, trying to undermine all the nonsense that is out there.
AMY: I imagine it must take great patience to do this things, ask these questions, and slowly lure them in so that they’re, like you said, hanging them on their own rope.
DR. SCHWARCZ: It does, it does take patience, because some of the arguments are just so outlandish, you know that the whole COVID vaccine business was designed by Bill Gates, so that we can all be implanted with microchips. So that someone, they never say who, someone can follow us, you know, around them. Sometimes, you know, the arguments are just so absurd, that they're, you don't even know what language to use. So you also have to know whom it is worthwhile to debate. And where you may have a winnable argument and when not, for example, I mean, I used to, at one time, get all upset and debate the creationists, you know, who, who claimed that the world was created. According to the Bible, just a few 1000 years ago, when Adam and Eve were the first people, and then they believe the Bible to be literally true. Despite the fact of course, that we have all kinds of evidence about the earth being billions of years old, from radiocarbon dating, to artefacts of all kinds. But it is not worthwhile debating those people. Because they're, you're debating science versus faith. You're not it's not that it's not a level playing field, you're not even on the same playing field. And you're never going to convince someone whose beliefs are faith based. You're never going to convince them with scientific arguments. Because, you know, I mean, they will just argue, well, yes, God created the world as it is 5000 years ago, including all of the artefacts that look like they are billions of years old. And then when you say, Well, why would God want to do this? And then the usual answer is, well, we don't know what God's purposes. So this is where, you know, we have to say, Okay, well, you can go ahead and you know, have your beliefs like that. And this is just not worth arguing about. Or another example would be the Flat Earth Society. Now, the fact that such a society exists in this day and age is bizarre to say the least. No. And we're not talking, believe me, we're not talking about a handful of people. We're talking about hundreds of 1000s of people.
AMY: It's mind blowing.
DR. SCHWARCZ: Yeah, who believes that the earth is flat. They have conferences, they present scientific papers to try to prove, prove this. What is the point of getting into an argument with these people? I mean, you're not going to convince them and they're certainly going to convince you that the earth is flat. So you know, you also have to learn to pick and choose the battles that are worth fighting, where you have a chance of putting people on the right track. And there is a chance for some people, you know, my experience has been that there's a segment of the population who is properly educated, who know how the world of science works. You don't have to worry about them. They, you know, they're not going to become believers in flat earth or start believing that the moon landing was faked. Okay, that's okay. Then you have the other end of the spectrum of the other end of the bell curve, let's say who have such strong beliefs about whatever nonsense, it may be that you're not ever going to convince them, their minds are closed. These are the and you know, the dedicated anti-vaxxers, forget it. You’re not going to convince them. But then you have a pretty large segment of the population in between, who are understandably confused, because it is a confusing world. Information changes. One day we were told, don’t eat butter, it contains saturated fats, eat margarine instead. Then we find out well margarine has trans fats so maybe that's not such a good thing either. But that is indeed the way that science works. Information evolves. And it's all part of the process of the scientific method, that you change things when new information becomes available. So yes, it certainly seemed like at the beginning of COVID that wearing masks wasn’t appropriate because we didn't think it was transmitted through the air. But then of course as information accumulates you change. And this isn’t because we were wrong, it's because you can only make decisions based on information you have at any given moment. And it's perfectly natural to change whatever you’re saying about a scientific issue, that's the way that science works. So this is also very important to impart to people, that you should not be accusatory, because some scientist said one thing and now is saying something else because they have applied the knowledge that has been gained since. So there is that middle section of the population who is legitimately confused because they are being bombarded by one day this next day that. And there by giving them the proper science as you know at that given time, telling them how you know what you think you know, and why you feel confident in telling them this at this given time. Those people can be swayed one way or another. So that's the segment of the population that we need to concentrate on. So you know, what I've learned in this business is that you have to know when to stop banging your head into the wall because it's useless so you have to attack the problems that have possible solutions.
AMY: Absolutely, being very thoughtful with it I think will make a big difference, I mean some of the extreme cases you talked about it seems like a lot of these people's beliefs or notions about science are ingrained and are apart of themselves and it soften hard to debated with someone when what they believe is intrinsic to them and a part of their identity. So I feel like you'll never get through to a person like that but if you can make the science more accessible to the largest part of the bell curve.
DR. SCHWARCZ: Well that's why I keep coming back to the important thing is to try to explain how science works and how knowledge accumulates and that it’s a series of small, incremental steps taken by many people working in conjunction in the world that eventually leads to applicable knowledge.
AMY: That's honestly all the time we have for today but I think I could sit here and talk with you forever, you just have such an interesting perspective and such great insight into this world and I’m very interested in combating misinformation as well. So for any of our viewers out there who would like to learn more, I think you have a radio show?
DR. SCHWARCZ: We have a website, maybe that's the best way, which is McGill.ca/OSS. And lots of interesting stuff there we have a weekly newsletter for free which you can sign up on our website. And I've also got a lot of books, my latest book is called “Quack Qauck”.
AMY: Which I’m currently reading.
DR. SCHWARCZ: Which talks about a lot of these kinds of issues.
AMY: Yeah I absolutely recommend that book, I'm not quite done it yet but it's the perfect read. Everything is quite short, but you go through the process so well of how you approach the person and how you approach the issue and debunking it. And it's quite humorous as well so I'm really enjoying it. Thank you so much for joining us today Dr. Schwarcz, it's been an honour to have you on the show.
DR. SCHWARCZ: Ok, thanks very much.
AMY: That’s it for this week of SciSection. I’m your journalist Amy Stewart and make sure to check out our podcast on global platforms for our latest interviews.