Quackbuster Joe Schwarcz takes on charlatans

Meet Dr. Joe: chemistry professor, radio host, newspaper columnist for the Montreal Gazette, author of 13 books and tireless tub-thumper against pseudoscience

Who you gonna call?

Photograph by Christine Muschi

The prognosis is not good for charlatans. Nor does the future look bright for wellness practitioners—the earnest touch therapists, energy healers and reiki masters—who post their business cards at health food stores. Those operating on the margins of the scientific and medical communities were served notice last November when Joe Schwarcz received a $5.5-million grant to further his work as Canada’s leading quackbuster.

“He’s the Carl Sagan of Canada,” said Lorne Trottier, the philanthropist who gave the endowment to McGill’s Office for Science and Society (OSS), where Schwarcz is the founding director. When Maclean’s reached Trottier via phone in Brazil, he was reading about climate science. “Like Joe, I’m appalled by the amount of sheer nonsense out there about health, the environment, everything,” said Trottier, co-founder of electronics company Matrox.

“Dr. Joe” is the public face of the OSS, as well as a working chemistry professor, radio host, newspaper columnist for the Montreal Gazette, author of 13 books and tireless tub-thumper against pseudoscience. The OSS was established in 1999, and McGill brought in Schwarcz, along with fellow chemists Ariel Fenster and David N. Harpp, to educate the public about matters of food, health, nutrition, medication, cosmetics—and misleading claims and possible fraud. The chemists and three interns offer continuing education classes, symposiums and public lectures. Working with the new cash injection—the interest from the $5.5-million endowment, minus the costs to run the annual Lorne Trottier Public Science Symposium to promote public science awareness—Schwarcz and his team have approximately $130,000 each year to extend the OSS’s reach and ensure the office continues when Schwarcz, 64, retires.

“Some of the quacks are well-intentioned. Some think they’re on a mission from God, and some are out to make a buck,” said Schwarcz, sitting in his office in McGill’s chemistry building, where he got his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1973. A carpeted room full of awards, the OSS is a curiosity shop with a bookcase full of antique tonics and Schwarcz’s collection of rubber duckies—his “quacks.” Beside the main door, there is a framed program from Houdini’s last performance. “I fell in love with magic as a kid, and that’s when I first tuned in to how easily people can be defrauded,” said Schwarcz, who still uses magic to entertain his grandchildren, but deploys the scientific approach to investigate commonly held beliefs and suspicious marketing claims. “People don’t want their minds confused by the facts, especially if they’re seeking a health cure, eternal youth or a lucrative career selling supplements.”

Schwarcz is taking on health fads like acai berries and noni juice, rhinoceros horn aphrodisiacs, coffee enema cancer cures (“You can’t find the people who gave testimonials—they’re dead”), anti-wrinkle diets, crusaders against artificial sweeteners and detox products (“any scheme that claims to detoxify the body smacks of quackery”). He takes issue with health tips propagated by celebrities like Suzanne Somers (“She claims mistletoe extract helped her breast cancer; never mind that she had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment”), and Demi Moore, who swears by leeches. “Websites for herbal supplements are the worst, bilking the public out of millions of dollars,” said Schwarcz, who scans hundreds of Internet sites a week. “They all sell the same conspiracy theory: their cure from the Amazon is being suppressed by the evil alliance between science, doctors and Big Pharma. Look, there is no conspiracy to keep cheap, effective cures from the public.”

Last year he came under attack when he wrote in the Gazette about a chemical in McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. “People were in a flap because McNuggets have a small amount of an additive called dimethyl polysiloxane, which is also in Silly Putty. Like all additives, it’s regulated. The problem isn’t the dimethyl polysiloxane. The real issue with McNuggets is that they’re high in fat and salt,” said Schwarcz. “Well, one camp accused me of being bought by McDonald’s. The other accused me of not being venomous enough in my attack.”

Schwarcz now plans to focus more inquiry on homeopathic medicine. “It’s contrary to everything we know about physics and chemistry,” he said. “Homeopathic medicine contains virtually nothing except shaken water. Health Canada gives their products an official number—a DIN-HM number—which is inappropriate because it implies safety and, here is the important part, efficacy.”

“We’re not in a position to debate this,” said Stéphane Shank, senior media relations adviser at Health Canada, referring to the issue of efficacy. “Health Canada approves the homeopathic products, but not the practice.” No doubt for Schwarcz, this debate and many more are far from over.


Quackbuster Joe Schwarcz takes on charlatans

  1. We need more people like Joe Schwarc.

    • The next mandate should involve a ban on Big Pharma advertising.  It spreads hypochondria.  The result is an overuse of the country’s medical resources.  The funds should be used instead for the budget deficits in the health care area, as a penalty.

  2. I saw Dr. Schwarcz speak several years ago, and he was very balanced and fair, and completely entertaining too!  I wish we could have many more like him, the pseudoscience is everywhere.  I recommend his books often to my patients who are tempted to go down the road of useless supplementation.  Keep it up Dr. Joe!

  3. Keep up the outstanding work, Dr. Schwarcz! You’re a hero!

  4. Dr. Joe deserves every bit of recognition that he gets, and I was very pleased to see that a Canadian has made such an impression on behalf of rationality and fair play. Congratulations, sir!

    James Randi.

    • My skeptical nature highly doubts your identity as really James Randi, but if you really are him, thank you for all your work on skepticism

  5. let your food be your medicine proper foods eaten raw will build your immune system.thus your body will fight off many more illness than a person ingesting a non nutritional diet

    • yea…but now even we are worried about pesticide, hormone injection and antibiotics use for poultry…what is left ? Should there be very strict regulation about it too

  6. Congrats Dr Schwarcz!  Keep up the amazing work!!

  7. All hail the Quackbuster General :-)

  8.  Quote: Demi Moore, who swears by leeches
    Answer: He’s a chemist. He is obviously not equipped to be an authority on health. Leeches and bloodletting has been used for thousands of years. It is NOW called iron reduction therapy. It is the most effective anti-oxidant there is. They have been shown to be effective in a myriad of diseases.
    “Iron deprivation may represent the first really efficient antioxidant, preventing oxidative stress in all subcellular compartments, tissues, and organs.”
    “Therapy by taking away (iron) has a great potential for many different diseases, all of which share ROS-mediated mechanisms.”
    “The discovery suggests that bloodletting, done early enough, may have slowed staph infections by starving germs of iron”

  9. Every one congrats Dr. Schwarcz, as is befitting, but no one thanks Lorne Trottier who put up serious money so here is my thanks.

    • That is thoughtful of you, but don’t forget that he gets his name on a building. One that will probably be around long after Joe Schwarcz is forgotten.

  10. “We’re not in a position to debate this,” said Stéphane Shank, senior media relations adviser at Health Canada, referring to the issue of efficacy. “Health Canada approves the homeopathic products, but not the practice.”

    So Health Canada’s role is not to ensure Canadians get medicine that works? Then why do we have it at all? I guess I’ll start selling life saver candies as a cancer treatment…

    • Should they ban them instead? Most homeopathic products contain zero active ingredients. It would be like banning warm tea as a cold treatment.

  11. Go Dr Joe!  I love your work – have all your books.  I’m sad you’re fighting a losing battle though – so many stupid people in the world (even among the so-called “educated”).  Wish they could come up with a cure for stupidity.

  12. Health Canada approves the products because they respect freedom of choice for health care, #1, and #2 they may well be accepting of its proven efficacy. Sweden’s government just ordered and had finished (by a well-qualified scientific panel) an extensive study of homeopathy that was very positive to the point where they now want it on their National Health Care Funding. People like Scharwcz and other so-called quackbusters are self-righteous oppressors of innovation whose “science” is nothing but another religion aimed at some sort of justification for being a self-proclaimed leader of the medical new world order.
    Seriously, why don’t you start a country and put up an iron wall, and all your advocates can become citizens! But leave the rest of us alone.

  13. That last quote must have been taken out of context and is misleading, suggesting that Health Canada disapproves of homeopathic practice. The truth is that Health Canada has *jurisdiction* over homeopathic products, while health *practice* is a provincial jurisdiction. This is why homeopathy has been regulated as a health profession in Ontario.

  14. This article is typical of the propaganda campaign against alternatives to “big-pharma” that have enjoyed so much success in the last decade. It’s disgusting how you use extremes and false assumptions to make your case. What’s worse is that you haven’t done the real work, to uncover the real story – that is the assault on health freedom and health innovation by mainstream big medicine. You make the claim that “homeopathy” is “contrary to everything we know about physics and chemistry”. Clearly you don’t know much about physics and chemistry. At a recent medical conference last week, a Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist lectured on his work in uncovering the effect ultra-dilute homeopathic potencies have on DNA expression and the structure of water. You should be ashamed of yourself for acting as a mouth piece for those who would deny progress and access to health alternatives which are affordable and work better than the dangerous, expensive drugs big pharma peddles.

  15. Dr. Joe is a spokesman for the chemical industry. I don’t trust a word he says. Shame on all of you who have swallowed chemical industry’s propaganda. As a Canadian intellectual, a retired professor and intelligence analyst, I am thoroughly ashamed that he happens to be my compatriot. Shame on Macleans’ for expressing the self-serving chemical industry’s point of view.

    • Dr. Shwarcz speaks for good science.

  16. Health Canada has no labs of its own. It merely examines articles provided by the industry. It doesn’t protect the health of Canadians, as it basically rubber stamps industry self-serving data. There is a conflict of interest: Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency registers pesticides on behalf of the industry while at the same time aspiring to the protection of Canadians’ health.