I am a Professor of Chemistry at McGill University in Montreal and Director of the McGill Office for Science and Society which is dedicated to demystifying science for the public. I deal with issues that relate to the public's understanding of science especially when it comes to matters of toxicology.

I write a weekly column for the Montreal Gazette entitled "The Right Chemistry," have authored 15 books and host the longest running phone-in show on science in history every Sunday on Montreal's CJAD (also available on the web).

The topics I routinely deal with include nutrition, GMOs, alternative health practices such as homeopathy, medications, cosmetics, cleaning agents, and controversial chemicals such as bisphenol A, phthalates, fluoride, PCBs, mercury and flame retardants. I emphasize separating sense from nonsense. My hobby is stage magic and I often use conjuring principles to demonstrate to people that seeing is not necessarily believing. In this context I often discuss UFOs and psychics who claim to have abilities such as bending spoons with the power of their minds or performing surgery without making an incision.

I am looking forward to your questions today.

proof: http://imgur.com/T0k1Qso


THANKS FOR THE QUESTIONS! This has been very interesting. Remember our website: mcgill.ca/oss - and you can continue the conversation with me on my FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/joeschwarcz?fref=ts. Of course, you can follow the Office for Science & Society on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/McGillOSS?pnref=story) and Twitter (@McGillOSS) for all things sensible!

Comments: 151 • Responses: 41  • Date: 

jlynnl15 karma

It seems that regardless of the weight of scientific evidence around the safety of advancements like GMOs and vaccines, there is an ever-growing crowd of people that do not trust science. Is it realistic to think that there will be a point at which this won't be the case, or will there always be dissenting outliers like the anti-vax crowd and the anti-GMO crowd?

DrJoeSchwarcz26 karma

There always have been dissenters and conspiracy theorists and always will be. The GMO story is an example of how the public has gotten something completely wrong. Most people who are anti GMO don't even know what GMO's are. The Food Babe is a classic example. She is a shining example of scientific illiteracy and its consequences

DrJoeSchwarcz14 karma

I think in 50 years people will look back and say.."I can't believe there ever was an argument about GMOs"

Da_Fino12 karma

As a former student of yours, I must say I really enjoyed the World of Chem classes. My question is twofold: First, are MOOCs the future of education? Second, what is your favourite question asked on your radio show?

DrJoeSchwarcz16 karma

Massive on line courses are great...for our Food course last semester we had 30,000 people from 170 countries sign up! As far as questions go...just had one this morning froma filmaker who wanted to know how you make a man "steam" as he is running through the snow naked

dragonfly199310 karma

what is the most complicated magic trick you do?

DrJoeSchwarcz11 karma

Oh...good question...I love Sands of the Desert...Place different coloured sands into "ink"...mix them up and dip my hands in, separate the and come out with dry sand...then make the ink turn clear to show nothing left behind..Doug Henning did it on stage

BrutallyHonestDude7 karma

Did you watch Breaking Bad?

As a Professor of Chemisty, what were your thoughts on the subject of Walt using his Chemistry skills to cook Crystal Meth?

In all seriousness, do you find many Chemistry students turning to the trade? What's being done to minimize that?

DrJoeSchwarcz13 karma

Chemistryis neither good nor bad...you can turn your knowledge towards developing new drugs, plastics or fuels..or towards poison gases or crystal meth. Our task is to educate students to put their knowledge to the benefits of society. But that being said, Breaking Bad is an entertaining show!

jlynnl7 karma

What is your opinion on the course involving (among other things) misleading information about vaccines taught at Queens University by Melody Torcolacci? What role does a university have in terms of respecting instructors' control over their course content, and how can that be balanced against the need to be factual and not feed into (oftentimes) dangerous movements like the anti-vax crowd?

DrJoeSchwarcz16 karma

Queens has handle the problem correctly by removing her from teaching. But the provost also said, unbelievably in my view, that the university is not for or against vaccines! Ridiculous.

TCox567 karma

Dr. Schwarcz, I too am a former student in the Chem181 class and really enjoyed your viewpoints. My question is how do you feel about Dr. Stephanie Seneff comments that 50% of children will be autistic by 2025? Her claim is that glyphosate is the culprit based on a correlation chart :-)

DrJoeSchwarcz21 karma

Seneff practices and publishes junk science. She is a computer specialist with highly suspect knowledge about agriculture and science in general...she is not to be trusted...her co-nut is a guy who calls himself an "independent scientist" which means "unemployed"

Dfunkaholic6 karma

In the US there are a lot of states that are banning chemicals that are in certain products, no matter the amount and that are not based on scientific studies. What are your thoughts on governments out right banning chemicals in products? Should it be left up to individual states or should the federal government be the one banning chemicals?

DrJoeSchwarcz11 karma

When it comes to politics, the public is right even when it is wrong. In many cases the bans are a response to public fears which are mostly unjustified. But there are some legitimate issues...we know more today about toxicity and can make better decisions. Unfortunately too many decisions are based on emotion rather than science.

alfiealfiealfie6 karma

I've written about the Food Babe and her army of pitchfork waving internet hordes.

She has recently managed to get BHT removed from cereals despite an, erm, less than robust evidence base. What are your thoughts on this?

DrJoeSchwarcz23 karma

The Food Babe is a wart on the face of science. She has no understanding of toxicology, chemistry...or any other scientific discipline. She presents herself as a champion who is going to save us from evil industry. Unfortunately her arguments have traction with the mostly scientifically uneducated public and indistry gives in to her nonsense.

TCox562 karma

Foodbabe has no idea that BHT occurs naturally in phytoplankton, so if she is against it as she claims she should not eat seafood.

DrJoeSchwarcz13 karma

I just got the Food Babe's book...looking forward to dissecting it

beernerd6 karma

Has the anti-vaccine issue come up on your show yet? If so, how did you handle it?

DrJoeSchwarcz11 karma

I have to handle the anti vaxxers all the time...the benefits so far outweigh the risks that it isn't even close....I tell them that we have eliminated smallpox, polio in North America....etc...

IKingJeremy5 karma

The topics I routinely deal with include nutrition, GMOs, alternative health practices such as homeopathy, medications, cosmetics, cleaning agents, and controversial chemicals such as bisphenol A, phthalates, fluoride, PCBs, mercury and flame retardants.

Those are some fairly controversial subjects that have people with strong feelings on opposite sides of the spectrum.

How do you deal with people that are so set in their beliefs that they refuse to even listen to reason on issues where you are obviously more well versed in?

DrJoeSchwarcz26 karma

We can't win the war against scientific illiteracy but we can win some battles by explaining the science clearly. The ultimate answer though is to improve scientific education at the elementary and high school leveles

dbaker31885 karma

Where are a couple places you would recommend to people that want to self educate themselves on health myths? Places you get your knowledge from?

DrJoeSchwarcz14 karma

Modesty prevents me...ahhh...no it doesn't. Our website www.mcgill.ca/OSS is a good place to start. Quackwatch is an excellent site as well and I highly recommend "Science Based Medicine" which is an outstanding site. Also Tim Caulfield is one to follow @CaulfieldTim

OverwhelmedByCorgis5 karma

Ducks! Apparently you have a collection of rubber ducks.
1) Why did you start collecting rubber ducks?
2) Which one is your favorite?
3) Do any of your ducks have a particularly interesting backstory?

DrJoeSchwarcz12 karma

I do collect ducks! They represent quackery..and many of teh ones I have come with an interesting history. I don't know if I have one favourite...I have mad scientist ducks..superhero ducks...rabbi ducks...

mem_somerville5 karma

What would you say was your most effective take-down of bad science info, and why was it effective?

I ask this because I read a lot about the different strategies for scicomm, and there's a lot of debate. Do we make nice and draw people in? Do we dope slap? Do we need to do both things at different times?

Personally I don't think there's one right way, but hearing about particularly effective cases might be informative.

DrJoeSchwarcz12 karma

The best bet is to make sure you have your facts lined up and you explain the difference between peer-reviewed research and most of the stuff you see on the web

thesilverbullet884 karma

What do you think is the most important, yet most widely misunderstood scientific concept that the general population should be informed about?

And the follow-up question... Why do you think such gross misconceptions are prevalent?

PS. Loved taking your classes in McGill - probably one of the best teachers I've ever had the privilege of being taught by. Thank you for everything you do!

DrJoeSchwarcz15 karma

There are so many misconceptions! But the one I fight all the time is the belief that something that is natural is better than anything synthetic. Nature is not benign! Viruses, bacteria, bolutin, ricin, poison ivy are all natural

t3nac4 karma

what is the average of the following numbers: 100, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20, 20


DrJoeSchwarcz2 karma

I'm sure if I say 28 you'll tell me I'm wrong for some reason...

GhostOfWhatsIAName4 karma

Good day, Sir, this question is completely off topic: This is a very curious spelling of your name and gives me kind of a hard time pronouncing with my German background. Where does it come from?

DrJoeSchwarcz4 karma

It is the Hungarian version

4a4a3 karma

What convincing argument can I use to get my wife to back off the "essential oils" ?

The awful smells are driving me insane!

DrJoeSchwarcz5 karma

Douse her with some synthetic perfume!

canhaim3 karma

McGill Student here!

What are your thoughts on Gamma Ray treatment of food for disinfection purposes and why is it not becoming a common practice to increase shelf life in the food industry?

DrJoeSchwarcz7 karma

The reason it isn't achieving the popularity it should is public fear of radiation...many think the food becomes radioactive which of course it does not. Gamma radiation is an excellent way to reduce the risk of bacterial infection from food.

Princess_Kate3 karma

Do you have a sense for what % of the Canadian and American public actually believe in the insane number of bad science practitioners and their advice?

DrJoeSchwarcz10 karma

I think as high as 40% of the public have wrong beliefs about science...that is about the % of Americans who believe in Creationism

dbaker31883 karma

What is your opinion of water ionization to increase the ph of drinking water to improve health? What is the science behind your opinion?

DrJoeSchwarcz16 karma

There is no science behind "alkaline water." It is an outrageous scam!!! You cannot alter the pH of the blood by drinking alkaline water and suggestions that cancer can be treated like this is pure quackery

Haggisboy3 karma

I regularly catch your radio show here in Montreal and think it's great. I'm curious though. The same station that hosts your show, also fills up their weekend overnight hours with infomercials promoting various "health products" that make dubious claims. Of course they preface every hour with a statement saying these claims have not been validated by the FDA, but still, do you sometimes have trouble reconciling how a radio station that give you air time, contributes to the dissemination of quackery in the quest of advertising revenue?

DrJoeSchwarcz10 karma

I have had many discussions about this...I have no say in what the station broadcasts...it is a question of money..as it often is in everything. I at least have managed to keep the quacks off my show...even the chiropractor ads

listofstarbucklovers2 karma

Hi Dr Joe! I was just wondering what you think is the healthiest option to use on a frying pan for cooking - Pam, butter, olive oil..?? Thanks for doing the AMA!

DrJoeSchwarcz6 karma

Not olive oil...has a low smoke point. PAM is fine if you are worried about calories..I use canola oil

Dekra012 karma

Dr. Joe, have you considered pitching your own show? I for one would love to see a science based, non scripted, honest and factual television show debunking some of the quacks out there. I remember watching Bill Nye and bob McDonald when I was a kid. Dr Joe's show would be great!

DrJoeSchwarcz5 karma

I did segments on the Discovery channel for 15 years and had a year of my own show which was called Science to Go. Too much work! I still do many segments for different TV shows...one is coming up this Friday on the Fifth Estate on the "Wheat Belly" book

NormBethune2 karma

So what is the deal with GMO safety? At the chemical level, I've never heard a good argument against GMOs. They seem pretty safe for consumption. But the idea that GMO crops could have negative impacts on local flora and fauna seems very plausible. We might accidentally screw up a natural system. Is there any robust research about this?

DrJoeSchwarcz8 karma

The amount of research that has gone into GMOs is astounding! Of course there are problems...mostly environmental such as insects and weeds developing resistance. That was totally predictable...that is how biology works. And there is also the "what if." But if we always worry about that, we never will get anywhere. All we can say is that at this time the benefits outweigh the risks...and the risks have been extensively investigated. GMOs are not the answer to allof our agricultural problems but they are a valuable tool.

alfiealfiealfie2 karma

My friend's sister is anti-vax and her two kids, 4 and 6, are unvaccinated.

She won't listen to the scientific evidence and instead trusts her anti-vax peers. Is it science's job to keep trying or are they lost causes?

DrJoeSchwarcz4 karma

I don't think we can give up. As unfortunate as the current measles cases are, there may be a silver lining in the cloud here. People are waking up to the problems of no vaccination...measles is not like the common cold. The anti-vaxxers just keep parroting the nonsense that is out there on the web....they never ask the appropriate question which is "what does the evidence show?"

alfiealfiealfie2 karma

To add: my friends sister doesnt seem to compute evidence the same way we do, she relies on emotional responses, I think. Is this fair?

DrJoeSchwarcz4 karma

Emotion will trump science

Dekra012 karma

Dr Joe, I believe you are of Jewish decent and if I recall correctly You are not religious. How have you separated faith and science? Furthermore, was this ever a difficult topic to address growing up? I believe science can unit mind kind while religion only separates us. What are your thoughts?

DrJoeSchwarcz7 karma

Science and religion are not mutually exclusive..the vast majority of religious scientists do not believe that the world is 6000 years old. I find I have no need to practice religion.

DrJoeSchwarcz4 karma

As far as Judaism goes, I think one can adhere to cultural principles, which I do, without the religious aspects

Dekra011 karma

How do scientists practice their faith knowing most of the religious teachings are as factual as homeopathy? I for one was never able to believe Adam and Eve and the creation of the Earth etc etc. btw, I was invited to partake in a chem class you hosted my last year of high school. To this day I regret not going into chemistry!

DrJoeSchwarcz2 karma

Thanks for that comment...Ithink most religious people do not try to mesh science with beliefs

Dekra012 karma

Dr Joe what do you feel is needed at the elementary level of education to foster scientific curiosity, good practices and generally educate our young before they fall by the wayside? In my opinion curriculum has been watered down. What can elementary schools do now to help set up our students success in understanding science in the future?

DrJoeSchwarcz7 karma

We need to educate our elementary teachers better...and I think we are doing this now at McGill with a course dedicated to teaching science at that level

jacobflood_561 karma

What is you opinion on self-proclaimed body hacker Dave Asprey? Both in terms of his obsession with toxin/body inflammation as well as his advocation of modafinil?

DrJoeSchwarcz3 karma

He has no scientific background...he rose to fame by putting butter into hos coffee...should get together with the Food Babe

nelsondussault1 karma

Should homeopathic products be considered fraudulent since they contain nothing besides excipient ?

DrJoeSchwarcz3 karma

Depending on the extent of dilution..some homeopathic preparations do contain tiny amounts of the original...still of course useless. Homeopathic products do not need to be banned..except for "nosomes" which claim to be alternatives to vaccination

LBeedell1 karma

Hi Dr. Joe, a former WOC student here,

I just read the letter to Dr. Boon, I too am baffled as to why they would even consider this kind of homoeopathy research. Do you speculate that they are getting funds from vested interests for this, or that they are trying to disprove a silly idea for the 100th time?

I understand if you can't comment until you've received his response. In the meantime here's my brother's satirical song on the world of homoeopathy and pseudo-science that I think you'd enjoy:


DrJoeSchwarcz1 karma

There has been no response to the original letter or to my newspaper column on the issue from anyone at U of T. Very hard to understand why funds would be wasted on a scientifically bankrupt idea when there is so much good research that could be done.

dbaker31881 karma

What is your opinion of intermittent fasting? My knowledge gained so far is that a person's metabolism can only be changed to through age and lean body mass, so fasting or eating multiple times a day are just two sides of the same coin. They are tools to help stay within your daily calorie intake goal. What is your thoughts on the matter?

DrJoeSchwarcz8 karma

Intermittent fasting is not the answer...proper diet coupled with exercise is. I know it sounds simple...that's why it is hard to sell..people want magic

yawrey1 karma

Hi Dr. Schwarcz, it was a pleasure and a privilege to attend both WOC Drugs and Foods, I've learned tons of fascinating stuff about science!

My question would be regarding marijuana. It seems the political stigma around this drug is slowly shifting with all the good things that seem to have come from legalization in Colorado, (most importantly, money!).

Do you believe there is enough medical and scientific evidence to justify for marijuana to still be illegal solely based on its effects on health? Do you personally believe this drug should be legalized?

Thanks for taking the time to do this.

DrJoeSchwarcz5 karma

We are learning more and more about the therapeutic uses of marijuana and we are seeing laws being relaxed...but there is also a downside...driving issues for one

yawrey2 karma

Absolutely, if legalized, there will have to be more laws regarding the use (restricted to one's home, no driving...). There's a company that's now producing a marijuana breathalizer, http://www.cannabixtechnologies.com/thc-breathalyzer.html

But I'm asking more about your opinion, do you believe the upsides of legalization would outweigh its potential risks?

DrJoeSchwarcz5 karma

I don't think it should be generally leaglized...you are still inhaling compounds that are potential carcinogens...when it is used purely for pleasure the benefits may not outweigh the risks

Youre_Government1 karma

Hello Dr. Joe! I was wondering if you have any opinion/comment on the added benefit/harm of electronic cigarettes?

DrJoeSchwarcz5 karma

The jury is out...but the detriments appear to be piling up...still better than tobacco but not inoccuous

Youre_Government1 karma

Thanks for the reply! Another thought- how long would you expect for there to be some more or less conclusive results on the topic? I get that there is always the possibility that one day new evidence turns things around, but I mean to get to the point that we are today with how much we know about traditional cigarettes. It took ages for that, but I would assume that starting with where we are at with science, it would be considerably sooner. Years? Decades?

DrJoeSchwarcz3 karma

Probably a decade...which is not long when it comes to science

Natasaurusrex010 karma

What is the mechanism by which genetically modified foods, when ingested, are bad for humans?

DrJoeSchwarcz9 karma

There is no evidence that GMOs are bad for the health and there is no plausible mechanism why they would be. In most cases there is no vestige of the genetic modification in teh finished product. For example soy oil that is made from GM soy is in no way different from conventional soy oil