A sit down with Dr. Joe

McGill professor Joe Schwarcz talks research, publishing, and teaching chemistry

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Joe Schwarcz is the director of the Office of Science and Society (OSS), a group of three McGill professors dedicated to communicating information on the topics of food, health, medicine, and cosmetics.

The McGill Daily: Who is, or should be, responsible for interpreting university research for lay readers of the popular press? Is it the role of science reporters to inform the public?

Joe Schwarcz: It is the responsibility of universities to publish what they’re doing. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was the university’s responsibility. It’s not like there’s a plethora of scientists writing for newspapers, or at least writing well for newspapers. I think newspapers would much rather have a science writer with a solid science background, but that’s just not what is happening.

What is happening is these writers emerge from journalism schools, and one of the big problems that I see with the ones that are trained in traditional journalism is that they are trained to give “the balanced picture” of anything that’s controversial. So they will go and interview experts on both sides of a question.

Wi-Fi, cell phones, Bisphenol A – whatever it is, you can find an expert to support anything. The ones they find will be the ones willing to talk and they’ll get two opinions that are quite diametrically opposed. And they’ll write the story as if those are equally weighted opinions, and that’s never the case. The truth is always in between, but it’s always closer to one side than the other. One scientist may have the majority of the scientific community standing behind him, while the other is a flake with a few supporters, and that doesn’t come across. Instead what comes across is here you have one expert saying this, and here is another saying that, so it’s left up to the reader to choose what they want to believe. In most of these controversies, there is a pretty good consensus on one side, but [journalists] go overboard in trying to be “fair” in presenting both views. But the real fairness is to present both views in the properly weighted way. You can’t dismiss a view just because it’s not a popular view.

Of course in history there are examples of less than popular views turning out to be true, but those are rare exceptions. These people like to portray themselves as modern-day Galileos. They’re the ones that know the truth and the scientific community is wrong. And this is what I see all the time in the AIDS and vaccine business: big pharma colluding with scientists to prevent cheap natural treatments from being sold.

MD: You’ve written several popular science books. For whom are your books written?

JS: I try to write in such a way that if you have a reasonable intelligence you can get something out of it.

It’s my belief that you can write scientifically, [and be] informative and entertaining without being trivial. There are lots of books aimed at the public on scientific topics. There are many good ones, but most are oversimplified or too complicated. It’s hard to get the right balance, and having a little whimsy there always works. Humour makes the medicine goes down. To me, what is really the key is to make the connections to daily life. To show people that there are reasons for studying this and it’s not just to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. Especially chemistry, which is probably the most applied of all the sciences because it’s the thread that ties all science together.

MD: What’s it like publishing a non-fiction book? What are the standards of that industry?

JS: The standards in the publishing industry – like in any other business – are what the market will bear. Publishers will publish what they think will sell. Why do you think books by Suzanne Sommers on bioidentical hormones sell? What the hell does she know about anything? Her contention is that estradiol [used in hormone therapy] should be isolated from the urine of pregnant horses instead of created synthetically. It’s absurd, but there she is writing books on this, and people are lapping it up. What does she know? Zero.

MD: You mentioned feeling angry toward chemistry teachers you had in the past that were so lackluster with the subject. Do you think that’s happening with McGill?

JS: I think it happens everywhere.Just like in any other business, it’s a bell curve. You have really good people, really bad people, and mostly mediocre people, but in the teaching business, it’s more serious. Just like in the medical field, mediocre is not good enough. You have to capture the kid’s imagination. You take a kid in elementary school, or even in high school, and their picture of chemistry is just writing equations and doing stoichiometric calculations without ever seeing why you’re doing that and where it’s connected. It’s missing the boat.

MD: Do you do anything with education systems or high school science teachers?

JS: I speak at a lot of teacher conferences. It’s very easy for me to go and speak to a bunch of high school teachers and show them things, how you make things interesting, because I only have to do it once with them, but they have to go back to the schools and do it six times a day with six different classes.

MD: And then the next year and the next year…

JS: Right. When you have a workload like that and no technical support, it’s all nice to say “here’s this demonstration that you could be doing and here’s a story you could tell and all that” but, given the real practicality of what happens in high schools, if you want to give a demonstration in class, you have to go in the prep room. No one’s going to do it for you. It’s pretty hard to get motivated.

MD: How do you feel about using popular science books in high school curriculums, rather than pop bottle explosions, different coloured flames, and other magic tricks?

JS: Sure. But it has to be a blend of everything. The most important thing is to see the connections. To see why it is that you’re doing it. It’s more than just an intellectual exercise. One can argue that you do trigonometry and calculus as an intellectual exercise [because] it teaches you a method of thinking, it teaches you logic, whatever, but let’s face it – no one is ever going to stop you on the street and ask you to differentiate an equation. But there are going to ask you why they get a scale in their kettle, or whether bottled water is better than tap water.

Even kids in chemistry, most of them will not be practicing chemists. They will end up in all different kinds of areas, so you don’t teach them all as if they were going to become research chemists. Don’t teach them like that. The ones that do become research chemists will learn what they need to know along they way.

MD: You’re critical of a lot of non-fiction books. Are there any authors you enjoy?

JS: Isaac Asimov. What is really unbelievable is the amount that he produced, both science fiction and non-fiction. I remember hearing an interview with him where he made a point of the fact that he never writes anything twice. Everything he ever wrote was first draft. He just had that talent. I don’t – I go back and forth and agonize over words. He just sat down and wrote. Sagan, also.

MD: Any contemporary authors?

JS: Dan Gardner in Ottawa is excellent. He has some science background – he’s not an academic – but he has gotten the grasp of it. I think he has both a law and a science degree and now he just writes, but the trouble is that there are a lot of people writing that shouldn’t be writing. Take a look at some of the stuff out there. Everything is toxic, everything is chemophobia. Most people who write about science don’t know anything about science. There is just a market for it.

MD: China recently set a 20/20 vision for science that “places a new emphasis on translating the research into technologies that can power economic growth and address pressing national needs such as clean energy.” Research funded under this vision will focus on nuclear fusion and nuclear-waste management, stem cells and regenerative medicine, calculating the flux of carbon between land, oceans and atmosphere, materials science, information technology, and public health and the environment. More importantly, this year’s budget for the National Natural Science Foundation of China will increase by 70 per cent. In contrast, an editorial in Nature that was published about a year ago bemoaned the lack of a similar concerted and coherent vision for science policy in Canada. They made an argument for reestablishing a science adviser that has the direct ear of the prime minister and coordinated lobbying by scientists in order to set a purposeful and clear national agenda for science. I know this a hugely complicated issue, but do you have any general thoughts on the current state of integration between Canada’s scientists and policy-makers at the federal level? Do we have areas of focus? Who is choosing them?

JS: I’ve spoken quite a few times to parliamentary and senate committees. On the Bisphenol A issue, generally – usually, it’s always related to toxicity. In May, I’ll be going to Washington to speak to congressional aides. You don’t speak to the congressman, but they have huge staffs and each will have someone in charge of all this “toxic stuff.” Though I must say that whenever I’ve testified in front of these committees [on environmental issues] in Ottawa, I was surprised by how well prepared they were. There were quite a few physicians in parliament and obviously, they’re the ones that volunteer for these kinds of committees and they were very well prepared.

We should have a committee or a person who advises the Prime Minister, but lobbying is a double-edged sword. You see what happens in the US where lobbying is such a big deal and it’s mostly industry-based. Companies have lobbyists that try to twist the arms of congress people and it’s hard to have that kind of lobbying for science, especially academic science. But these are complex issues and one thing I’ve learned over the years is that no matter what issue you look at, it becomes more complicated the more you look at it. You have to take into account more than just the chemistry of it. Like in the case of Bisphenol A: it plays such an important economic role. When you talk about banning the use of substance, that means jobs. It means affecting other industries and when you’re in government, all of those things have to be taken into account. It’s so simple-minded to exercise the precautionary principle and if there’s the slightest thing that anything in any way can cause danger, eliminate it. Life doesn’t work like that. It’s always a question of weighing the risks against the balance.

MD: What are the current activities of the OSS? Where would you like to see the office go in the future? Are you recruiting new members?

JS: To tell you frankly, it’s hard to recruit. To do the kind of things that we do takes many years of experience. There’s no young person whose going to come in who is adept at looking at all the different kinds of things that we have to deal with it. It’s not going to be easy to find someone that can eventually come in and take over, but we are looking, because I think it’s too important a process. There’s tremendous hunger out there for scientific knowledge and it [should be] fulfilled in a proper, unbiased way, without allegiance to any companies, just the scientific method. And that’s why we have developed a following, because we’re not in the pockets of anyone. But if it isn’t available, they will end up listening to [someone] on a soapbox screaming, and those are the ones that talk a good game but are usually peddling something, an idea, or a product, but it’s not science-based.