Pseudoscience / Science Criticism / Science Education

Book Review: Is That a Fact? by Dr. Joe Schwarcz

Three words fly in my head in a tight formation, constantly looping back to my consciousness as I watch the video: “such a shame.”

The video is one of the many amateurish agglomerations of stills and monotonous voice-over narration that seem to populate the skeptical trenches of YouTube. My friend Andrew, whom fans of our podcast will recognize as an undeterred consumer of skeptical content, is absorbing its facts. For me, though, what takes over is a feeling of disappointment at what could have been. Such great content, such unskilled presentation. Such a shame.

Presentation and pedagogy make the medicine go down so much easier. I excelled at organic chemistry in university in large part because of the teaching talent of my professors; I know a few college graduates who came to hate carbon-based chemistry because of the lack of talent of theirs. Knowledgeable university professors are not necessarily (and I would claim are often not) great pedagogues.

Dr. Joe Schwarcz has made a name for himself all over Canada and especially in Montreal because he knows how to digest the science to make it palatable to the public and because he represents accessible skepticism: a yearning for evidence that is not marred by anger or cynicism. His latest book, Is That a Fact?, undertakes a journey of small steps on a path that takes its readers through the carnival of pseudoscience, the morass of half-truths and, finally, the relatively safe road of reproducible scientific knowledge. This journey is made all the more enjoyable by Dr. Schwarcz’s surgical use of words and his mastery of public writing.

I learned that Twinkies can apparently help you lose weight. The story of professor Mark Haub shows that calories in/calories out is what really matters. “You can lose weight even on a nightmarish diet, as long as you keep the calorie count down. But at what cost?” Your health might perhaps be saved by some antioxidants, omega-threes, Double Helix water, or apples. Or maybe not. In fact, don’t apples harbour n-octanol and n-butanol, among hundreds of chemicals? Maybe apples should be stuck with the all-too familiar “known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm” label. Dr. Schwarcz delves into its history and reveals that qualification is earned by any substance shown to cause “any sort of cancer or developmental problem in any animal, at any dose.” This means that human hormones, like testosterone, make the list. And this is the middling stuff: there’s all-out quackery afoot.

When writing about homeopathy, the author comes up with an elegant way of reminding his readers that homeopathy contains no active ingredient: simple arithmetic. “[…] The label states that every gram of product contains 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For anyone, except perhaps homeopaths, 0.85 and 0.15 add up to 1, leaving no room for any other ingredient.” In such quacking company one can also find Braco the Grazer who will apparently heal you with his silent gaze all the while never claiming he is a healer. “He’s a clever man,” remarks the author. “A lot more clever than the folks he gazes at.”

Of course, by the end of the book, the author inevitably returns to his passion: debunking chemophobia. Perhaps the most important message of Dr. Schwarcz’s public science effort—the idea that we are all chemicals and that worshipping at the altar of the all-natural is a fallacy—is given full reign in the final third of Is That a Fact? Phthalates, polyvinyl chloride, aluminum, and bisphenol A are all expounded upon by someone who can separate the facts from the fears. While bisphenol A has been labelled a “hormone-like substance”, we often forget we are exposed to the estrogens of “milk, chickpeas, soybeans, vegetable oils, cabbage, flaxseeds, and oats.” Perhaps the best lesson on chemophobia to come out of the book can be found at the end of the story entitled “It’s in the Can!”:

“While you’ve been reading this little piece, hundreds of people have died from hunger, lack of clean water, poor sanitation, and a host of preventable diseases ranging from malaria to AIDS. By contrast, we have the luxury of worrying about traces of chemicals contaminating our ample food supply. A prescription for a dose of perspective is in order.”

Caveat emptor: the younger science aficionados may be put off by the recurring trips through history. Dr. Schwarcz shows his love for historical trivia, such as Ben Willmore’s Divine Elixir and 19th-Century herbalist Samuel Thomson’s pukeweed. While these factoids help demonstrate that quackery has been, is, and may always be, the Twitter generation may lose their interest when the book turns back the clock. These time travels however are always short-lived as the author has learned the lesson of attention deficit and keeps most chapters at only a handful of pages each.

For public science education to be effective, it requires impeccable presentation. Dr. Schwarcz can always be counted on to write about the chemistry of the world in a way that is both entertaining and educational. Another balancing act at which the book succeeds is pointing out the flaws in bad science while still convincing the reader of the importance of the scientific method. “Certainty is elusive,” Dr. Schwarcz writes in his introduction. “Facts are supposed to be based on evidence, but the problem is that with more research, evidence sometimes changes. The fact is that science isn’t necessarily white or black; it can come in various shades of gray.” Is That a Fact? the cover asks. The journey is even more engaging than the answers.

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One thought on “Book Review: Is That a Fact? by Dr. Joe Schwarcz

  1. Pingback: Interview with Dr. Joe Schwarcz on Within Reason | Cracked Science

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