Montreal Gazette


It may be hard to de­cide what to write about, but choco­late al­ways sparks some in­ter­est

- JOE SCHWARCZ The Right Chem­istry Joe Schwarcz is direc­tor of McGill Univer­sity’s Of­fice for Sci­ence & So­ci­ety ( He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Ra­dio 800 AM ev­ery Sun­day from 3 to 4 p.m. Health · Medicine · New York City · NBC · Finland · Beijing · California · British Columbia · Donald Trump · Loma Linda University · Loma Linda, CA · Linda · Health Canada · Mehmet Öz

I was asked a rather in­ter­est­ing ques­tion this week: “What is the most chal­leng­ing thing about be­ing in the busi­ness of com­mu­ni­cat­ing sci­ence to the public?”

There is no sim­ple an­swer here. Ob­vi­ously, there is the ques­tion of what to com­mu­ni­cate. Thou­sands of sci­en­tific pa­pers beg­ging for in­ter­pre­ta­tion are pub­lished ev­ery day, public pol­icy is­sues arise, there are ques­tions about food, per­sonal care prod­ucts and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns to deal with. Then there are the var­i­ous pseudo-sci­en­tific prac­ti­tion­ers and fraud artists with whom to con­tend.

Once a topic is se­lected from the del­uge of po­ten­tial sub­jects, there is the ques­tion of how best to get the in­for­ma­tion out. This is the age of sound bites. Many peo­ple are not in­ter­ested in read­ing long tomes or lis­ten­ing to lengthy dis­courses. But in sci­ence, the devil is in the de­tails.

I re­call a cou­ple of years ago be­ing flown to New York for an ap­pear­ance on NBC’s Date­line about en­docrine dis­rup­tors and be­ing in­ter­viewed for about three hours that turned into 58 sec­onds on air. My mes­sage was in­com­plete, to say the least.

As I was pon­der­ing all this, I thought it would be in­ter­est­ing to look at a few top­ics that came to my at­ten­tion in the last lit­tle while as can­di­dates for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

There was a study from Fin­land that showed peo­ple who took the most saunas were 60 per cent less likely to have a stroke than peo­ple who took only one sauna per week, even af­ter com­pen­sat­ing for other fac­tors such as high choles­terol, smok­ing, di­a­betes, age, sex and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. In­ter­est­ing, but not of much prac­ti­cal value to most peo­ple.

A fas­ci­nat­ing case emerged from China about a doc­tor jailed for call­ing a tra­di­tional health tonic a quack medicine. “Hong­mao Med­i­cal Tonic” is widely ad­ver­tised in the Chi­nese me­dia; the ads claim it re­lieves ail­ments like pain­ful joints, frail kid­neys, weak­ness and ane­mia in women by com­bin­ing 67 in­gre­di­ents from plants and an­i­mals. Dr. Tan Qin­dong pub­lished an es­say with the provoca­tive ti­tle “China’s mir­a­cle liquor, ‘Hong­mao Med­i­cal Tonic,’ a poi­son from heaven” in which he ar­gued that the sup­posed cu­ra­tive ef­fects of the elixir were un­clear at best, and could be danger­ous for peo­ple with high blood pres­sure or di­a­betes. A com­plaint filed by the man­u­fac­turer re­sulted in Tan’s ar­rest un­der an ob­scure ar­ti­cle of the Chi­nese crim­i­nal code that makes it an of­fence to fab­ri­cate and spread claims that se­ri­ously dam­age a busi­ness’s rep­u­ta­tion. For nearly 100 days, he lan­guished in jail un­til public clam­our led to his re­lease. A cap­ti­vat­ing story to be sure, but is it of wide­spread in­ter­est? Prob­a­bly not.

Choco­late, how­ever, in­ter­ests most of us. Me­dia re­ports picked up on two small stud­ies at Loma Linda Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia, fea­tur­ing head­lines such as “Dark Choco­late May Boost Brain Func­tion, Im­mu­nity, And Mood,” “It’s Of­fi­cial, Choco­late is the Key to Your Hap­pi­ness” and “Eat­ing Dark Choco­late Will Make You Smarter, Says Best Study Ever.” The stud­ies ac­tu­ally showed none of this. What re­searchers did was mea­sure brain waves and the ac­tiv­ity of cer­tain genes af­ter sub­jects had con­sumed a bar of dark choco­late. There were changes in “gamma waves,” such as seen when some­one en­ters a med­i­ta­tive state, and an in­crease of waves as­so­ci­ated with im­proved mem­ory. Some gene ac­tiv­ity in­volved in the im­mune re­sponse was boosted and genes linked to in­flam­ma­tion had a re­duced ex­pres­sion. How­ever, these stud­ies in­volved only 10 sub­jects, hardly mean­ing­ful sta­tis­ti­cally, and, more im­por­tant, no mea­sure­ments of mood, mem­ory or health sta­tus were car­ried out. Some aca­demic in­ter­est here, but no prac­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

“Ra­bid dog saliva home­o­pathic rem­edy no longer to be sold in Canada.” Now, there was a news item worth get­ting my teeth into. The back­ground in­volves a natur­opath in Bri­tish Columbia who used such a “rem­edy” to treat be­havioural prob­lems in a young boy, spark­ing out­rage from the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and gar­ner­ing head­lines around the world. How could the child be ex­posed to the saliva of a ra­bid dog ? Since a ra­bid dog has be­havioural prob­lems and sali­vates ex­ces­sively, by the tenets of home­opa­thy, that “like cures like,” its saliva should be ther­a­peu­tic in the case of bizarre be­hav­iour. Of course, home­o­pathic reme­dies are di­luted to the ex­tent that they con­tain none of the orig­i­nal sub­stance, so there was no risk in­volved. But Health Canada’s ban­ning of that spe­cific rem­edy im­plies that it was done to elim­i­nate risk. In­stead, Health Canada should have fo­cused on em­pha­siz­ing the folly of us­ing any home­o­pathic prod­uct.

To cap off the week, Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced that Mehmet Oz would serve on his sport fit­ness and nu­tri­tion coun­cil. Oz on his TV show has pro­moted “Dr. Oz’s Home­o­pathic Starter Kit.” That should have elim­i­nated him from con­sid­er­a­tion.

Per­haps the most chal­leng­ing thing about be­ing in the busi­ness of com­mu­ni­cat­ing sci­ence to the public is an­swer­ing the ques­tion about what the most chal­leng­ing thing is.

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 ?? ALEXIS DOYLE ?? Re­search on choco­late tends to cap­ture the public’s in­ter­est, Joe Schwarcz writes.
ALEXIS DOYLE Re­search on choco­late tends to cap­ture the public’s in­ter­est, Joe Schwarcz writes.
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