Fact-checking with Dr. Joe

by Tim Hornyak, BA'95

Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill’s Office for Science and Society
 and a fellow who has very little patience for misrepresentations
 of scientific facts.

If you like checking the labels on food and drinks, here’s an ingredient that might give you pause: brominated vegetable oil (BVO). It’s oil that’s been bonded with the element bromine, which has been at times used in flame retardants, gasoline and pesticides. Recently, however, BVO has been in headlines because Coke and Pepsi are removing it from their drinks amid pressure from public campaigns that declare it’s a health hazard. Not surprisingly, McGill’s resident chemistry myth debunker Joe Schwarcz, BSc'69, PhD'74, has weighed in on the controversy.

“Perhaps the confusion comes from the term ‘brominated’ because some flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are indeed brominated,” Schwarcz, director of McGill’s Office for Science & Society, wrote in a recent blog post. “But these are chemically quite different from brominated vegetable oil.”

Schwarcz went on to explain that BVOs basically ensure that citrus-style drinks such as Gatorade have an even distribution of flavors. He maintains that although an excessive intake of bromine can be toxic, the sports drinks themselves should be avoided simply because they have little nutritional value, and not because they contain a normally harmless ingredient.

BVO is just one topic in a long line of chemistry myths, puzzles and controversies that Schwarcz has tackled over the years in his public lectures, books, TV appearances and newspaper columns and as the host of “The Dr. Joe Show” on CJAD radio in Montreal.

His latest book is Is That a Fact? Frauds, Quacks and the Real Science of Everyday Life. It takes readers on a debunking trip through the outright canards, shaky claims and media hype surrounding everything from genetically modified organisms to organic foods to bisphenol A (BPA), the synthetic compound said to be linked to a range of health problems from obesity to cancer to reproductive problems. Schwarcz has criticized some consumers for accepting unverified claims, but points out in Is That a Fact? that even scientists writing in peer-reviewed journals can publish information that turns out to be wrong -- to devastating effect. It took years for British surgeon Andrew Wakefield’s paper in a 1998 issue of The Lancet supporting a putative link between autism and measles and mumps vaccinations to be proven fraudulent. By that time, measles fatalities attributed to a decrease in vaccinations were on the rise, Schwarcz notes.

The age of information overload, he says, demands that we have the proper mental tools to separate sense from nonsense. Here Dr. Joe answers a few questions about telling science fact from fiction.

 You've written many columns and books on separating hype from fact. What inspired you to write your latest work?

Pseudoscience seems to be spreading like wildfire and scientific education is not keeping pace. By enlightening readers about the scientific method and the role that science plays in our lives I hope to shed some light into the dark crevices of pseudoscience.

What in your mind are some of the most egregious examples of pseudoscience you have addressed?

These are numerous, ranging from nonsensical cancer treatments and dietary supplements to misunderstandings about GMOs, endocrine disruptors and food additives.

Aside from gullible consumers who shell out for the latest miracle diet or colon cleanser, who else is harmed by the quack cures and misinformation circulating in the media and online? Who is the 'ultimate loser' here?

The quacks create a distrust in conventional science, particularly medicine, and can distract desperate people from therapies that may have a chance of working in favour of ones that have no chance. Popularizing wrong information can never be right.

You take issue with popular characterizations of BPA and state that over 6,000 studies have failed to find this plastic component harmful to the average consumer. Yet doesn't common sense dictate that it's probably a better idea for synthetic chemicals whose properties and effects may not be fully understood to not be included in things like baby bottles?

In the case of baby bottles, yes. Because there are supposedly “safer” alternatives such as glass bottles. But in other products the issue is much more complicated because we may know less about the replacements than about the chemicals now in use.

What can be done to beat back the charlatans, and those who unwittingly repeat their claims, and help protect society from more pseudoscience?

Start proper scientific education with an emphasis on the scientific method from grade one. As early as grade five, there should be emphasis on how we know what we know by explaining the peer review system.