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
Joanne Latimer
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.