Over 300 rubber ducks sit on shelves and desks in Joe Schwarcz’s office at McGill University.
“It’s partly folly,” Schwarcz said, “but I like to be surrounded by quacks because it’s a constant reminder of the extent of quackery that is out there, and the need to fight it.”
Schwarcz is a professor of chemistry at McGill University and the director of the Office for Science and Society. Schwarcz has spent over four decades trying to combat misinformation, especially misinformation related to science, a lot of which comes from pseudoscientists, colloquially known as “quacks.”
"I would be more concerned if I was saying the same things today as I was saying 30 years ago, because it would mean that we've not evolved, and we have evolved."
“COVID was a gift for the quacks, because when science doesn’t have the answer, and they claim that they do, people will go for it,” Schwarcz said. “I think what we learned from the pandemic was how quickly misinformation can mushroom where science is just too uncertain.”
The Office of Science and Society was created nearly 25 years ago when McGill University decided it wanted to formalize the community outreach Schwarcz and his colleagues were doing.
“There was already such a tremendous amount of misinformation out there,” Schwarcz said. “Universities have a role more than just teaching our students. We have a responsibility to the public at large.”
Alongside his work in the Office for Science and Society, Schwarcz hosts a radio show, “The Dr. Joe Show,” writes a newspaper column and has written 19 best-selling books. He said it is important for scientists to share their work, but to spend time ensuring that the information is clear to people who may not have the same experience with the topic.
In interacting with the public, who aren’t all experts in science, Schwarcz tries to share that science is fluid. He once had a former student who approached Schwarcz decades after taking his class, pointing out that Schwarcz had said that Vitamin E could be beneficial for the heart, but had just said Vitamin E didn’t support heart health.
“And they say, ‘This is how you scientists are. One day you say this, the next day you say that,’” Schwarcz said. “I would be more concerned if I was saying the same things today as I was saying 30 years ago, because it would mean that we've not evolved, and we have evolved.”
Schwarcz, who is an amateur magician and may bring some extra magic to the presentation, will be on campus on October 12 to give the first lecture of the 13th season of the Discover Science Lecture Series. Registration for the lecture is available on Eventbrite. More details about parking for and attending the event are available at the registration link.
Other speakers in the 2023-2024 Discover Science Lecture Series include Colby Pellegrino, an expert on the allocation of water from the Colorado River, Jevin West, a data scientist and author, and Al Sacco, a chemical engineer who was aboard the 1995 Columbia Space Shuttle mission. Dates and registration can be found on the Discover Science Lecture Series website.