I was all kinds of excited when I was browsing Netgalley and came across Quack Quack: The Threat of Pseudoscience by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the director at McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. The book aims to convince people of the importance of separating sense from nonsense, and it’s packed with plenty of examples of the kind of quackery that people are promoting and making lots of money off of.
The book’s main focus is the nonsense of the present, but it begins with a look at some of the quackery of the past. For example, “In the late 1800s, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was unquestionably the place to be for people who needed to be cured of diseases they never had.”
You might recall that drinking one’s own urine was one of the bizarre ideas people came up with for supposedly curing COVID. There’s a chapter devoted to autourine therapy (i.e. drinking one’s own urine), and apparently, there was a World Conference on Urine Therapy.
Then there’s the woman who thought fermented cabbage juice could cure anything and everything, let you regrow missing limbs, and let you live 400 years. Regarding that, Dr. Joe says, “Never before have I heard such concentrated hogwash in such a short time.” He writes that her claims are “full of baloney. Or bunkum. Or balderdash. Take your choice. I have other words too.”
A fair bit of the book is devoted to debunking the weird and wacky claims that people make about water. For example, there’s alkaline water, and Dr. Joe points out that even if it did change the pH of the blood (which it doesn’t), “you would not have to worry about illness because you would be dead.” There’s also the notion of double helix water, as opposed to regular water, which is supposedly weakened by flowing through straight pipes. Then there’s raw water, which can actually harm you depending on what bacteria happen to be contaminating it (I can’t even begin to tell you how not fun it is to have a Giardia infection, quaintly known as “beaver fever“).
The author points out how companies that make these dodgy products will often string together a bunch of words that sound scientific but are actually meaningless. Regarding a device that’s claimed to energize water, he says, “In all my years of wading through swamps of claptrap I don’t think I have come across anything to match the stew of random, garbled, meaningless words cooked up on behalf of Alpha Spin.”
Dr. Joe explains that the most prevalent myth that he’s come across is that “natural” substances are somehow inherently superior to synthetic ones. He points out that chemicals are made out to be a bad thing, but all atoms are chemicals, so the notion of chemical-free doesn’t even make any sense. And if you thought homeopathic remedies were just another kind of herbal product, they’re not, Dr. Joe will explain to you just how wacky the idea behind homeopathy is (trust me, it’s really out there).
The book concludes with a chapter with tips on evaluating information/misinformation, like “nonsensical lingo can sound very scientific”, “nature is not benign”, and “education is not a vaccine against folly.”
This book is hilarious. The things the author is talking about are funny, but it’s the way he talks about them that is absolute gold. I love his word choices, including mountebank, “mind-numbing claptrap”, poppycock, “mindless twaddle”, “woo-isms”, mumbo jumbo, balderdash, malarkey, puffery, and gobbledygook. There were plenty of bits that had me laughing, such as this after being urged not to knock a product before trying it: “Well, I’m knocking. We do not live in a scientific vacuum. We do not concoct ways to trap the tooth fairy.” It was rather difficult to limit myself when it came to the number of quotes I included in this review, since there were just so many great lines.
I loved this book. I think anyone with a science background will find it highly amusing, and I hope that it will convince some people to keep their money to themselves rather than hand it over to hucksters trying to make them think that they need a magic carafe to make double-helix water. Our world is desperately in need of more sense, and hopefully Dr. Joe’s book will help to put a bit of a dent in the shortage thereof.
Quack Quack is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.