Joe Schwarcz, Your Friendly Neighborhood Skeptic

October 29, 2017

There was something about Joe Schwarcz that I couldn’t quite put my finger on as I watched his presentation today, in which he recounted some highlights from his career as a science communicator, spanning four decades. I have only a passing familiarity with his work, and I’ve never even seen him give a talk before, so this first experience of him in person was a real treat. But it also reminded me of something. Or is that right? I don’t know. There was the potential of a thought that seeing him evoked, but I couldn’t place it.

The man is delightful. So grounded, and yet so light. As he tells his stories, smiling almost the whole time, it felt like I was being led down familiar memories with a familiar friend, even though all of this was new to me. The word “avuncular” is the one that keeps coming to me.

(Side note, Schwarcz was able to take credit for the rise of Canada’s Superhero Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, because a school-age Trudeau once saw Schwarcz give a science presentation. Q.E.D.)

I’ll get back to all that in a bit. The content of Schwarcz’s presentation was grounded in the simple truth that “there are no good or bad chemicals, only safe or dangerous ways to use them.” He laid out the context in which chemistry, and much of science more broadly, is seen as something nefarious, and in which “chemicals” are inherently evil things that need to be reduced or removed as much as possible from all aspects of our lives.

And one of the things that Schwarcz is trying to do is to put a spotlight on how a lack of understanding of science and chemistry sets the stage for people to be duped and ripped off. (He showed an honest-to-goodness product called “dehydrated water,” which instructed the consumer to add to cold water and stir.) If people are afraid of chemicals as a concept, or ignorant of basic science, then they can be sold on useless products, or even drive themselves crazy with the futile avoidance of chemicals.

On his radio show, Schwarcz deals with this confusion about science all the time. (It’s the world’s longest-running radio show about chemistry *and* the *only* radio show about chemistry, he boasted.) Like Car Talk for chemicals, Dr. Frasier Crane for everyday science. He helps regular people lose some of their fears and gain valuable tools for navigating a world in which the messages about chemicals and science are distressingly inconsistent, to say the least.

And it’s that, the idea that he’s sort of the friendly neighborhood skeptic, I think that’s what was on my mind as I watched and listened to him for the first time. He’s the guy you’d want to bring your questions to, because you’d feel stupid bringing it to someone else, and you know he’s going to to his best to help in a friendly way. That’s different from being someone like a super-celebrity scientist like Neil deGrasse Tyson or a hard core academic. It’s like Joe is from the neighborhood. And I think that’s incredibly valuable.

“Does any of this matter?” Schwarcz asked about his many years of work. Yeah, it matters.