Guest Blog: “Dr. Joe” makes science more understandable

Guest Blog: “Dr. Joe” makes science more understandable

“There has not been a day that I have not looked forward to coming to work. “Performing” in front of large classes is always fun, but it’s the other part of my job, interacting with the public, that really spices up my day. As soon as I get into the office, I start checking my emails and phone messages. There is always something interesting, something novel. One day it may be a panicky call from a sock importer who had a customer complain of a rash he claims must be due to some chemical contaminant. That took a little investigation, but eventually we managed to trace the problem not to the socks, but to the leather boots the gentleman had been wearing. It seems he reacted to dimethylfumarate, a substance used to protect the leather from fungal contamination.

Another day may bring a query about the presence of lead in lipsticks (there isn’t any appreciable amount) or the safety of veggie burgers because of the hexane residue used in soy processing. A total non-issue, as it turns out. Then there are the truly bizarre questions. Is it true that you can relieve restless leg syndrome by putting a bar of soap under your sheets? I doubt it. Or, can you protect yourself against the flu by placing bowls of onions around the house? I wish. Some questions I just can’t answer. 

Dealing with such questions is rewarding in more ways than one. It places my fingers on the public’s pulse and tunes me in to what areas of science I really need to keep up. This is really helpful, given that I host a weekly radio call-in show, which is sort of like having an exam every week without knowing what material is to be covered. I’ve learned that there is great interest in the controversies that surround bisphenol A, phthalates, bottled water, vaccines, acupuncture, dietary supplements, naturopathy and homeopathy, so I certainly have to be current with these issues. Unfortunately there is a distressing side to delving into these as well, one finds a stunning amount of poor science and outright quackery. Desperate people are easy marks for the quacks and are ready to spend outrageous sums on useless water alkalizers, detox foot baths and spinal decompression regimens.

One of my most satisfying activities as director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, which incidentally is a unique venture-unmatched by any other university, is keeping people from falling for such schemes. I try to do this by discussing the scientific method, emphasizing the difference between anecdote and evidence, and introducing the concept of peer-reviewed literature. I try to point out websites that can be trusted, such as, and ones that cannot, such as I like to go home each night, hoping that somehow, I helped someone somewhere.”

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