Harassing a Skeptic Into Silence

First, a few words in French.

J’ai pensé écrire le tout en français mais, honnêtement, après avoir vu la qualité des textes provenant de Bernard Lavallée, Jean-François Cliche, l’Agence Science-Presse et plusieurs autres, j’ai réalisé que je n’avais rien d’intelligent à ajouter. Par contre, le milieu anglophone n’est probablement pas au courant de la situation. Alors je choisis de contribuer à répandre le message à l’extérieur de notre communauté francophone.

Too few people take on the mantle of fighting back against medical misinformation. The neverending altercation is rarely rewarding and it can be draining. People like Olivier Bernard act as candles in the dark, cutting through the noise, the hype, the fear-inducing whispers and the loud proclamations of the snake oil salesmen. But a candle can be blown out.

Olivier Bernard, né Pharmachien (it’s “Pharmafist” in English, though it doesn’t quite capture the blue-collar French Quebecer essence of the original version), he stands on an impressive mound of accomplishments. Three successful books on health, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies (and a fourth one for kids!); a vibrant website whose cartoons always attract teeming commentary; and a wonderful television show, ending its third season, which somehow manages to wrangle skits, interviews, cartoon interludes, and literature reviews in a short running time to explore controversial topics in healthcare and to give the public evidence-based answers.

And now Olivier has decided to stop giving his opinion on the topic of mega-doses of vitamin C for cancer patients. Why? Because of an avalanche of insults, complaints, threats, and acts of doxxing. He needs a break and I don’t blame him one bit.

I used to commonly hear that the only two topics you should never mention at the dinner table were politics and religion. Many more subjects can now be added to the list as they have taken on aspects of the religious. Food is dividing people into sectarian camps, as some develop an unhealthy obsession over “eating right”. Becoming healthy starts to look like a divine aspiration, requiring sacrifice and blind faith. And no matter how respectful you are when you tiptoe into this field, armed with scientific information, you risk being harassed out of your desire to help.

There are people in Quebec right now who are petitioning to grant healthcare professionals the legal authorization to prescribe injections of mega-doses of vitamin C to help cancer patients, an intervention which, according to Olivier Bernard and to the body of scientific evidence we have, does not work. And so, some of these believers have chosen to harangue Olivier, and to mock him, and to publish the address of one of the places where he works, and to write to the broadcaster and to the financer of his TV show to complain, to incite many to lodge formal complaints against him to his professional order, and to tell him they wish him cancer.

Social media can be a powerful connector, but it can also feed and amplify our worst impulses.

I wish him all the best in his mental-health break.

In the meantime, what we can do to support him is to consume his content. Go visit and bookmark his English-language website. (If you understand French, go visit his French website, which has even more content… he could also do with some help translating this wonderful content into English, perhaps.) Like his page on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, check out his massive dog on Instagram. Subscribe to Tou.TV so you can watch his show, Les aventures du Pharmachien, the best show of its kind I’ve seen in any language. Buy his wonderful books at your local bookstore if you speak French. And gift them to your relatives so they can be better educated about health and avoid joining a mindless social media mob.

For science to prosper, we need candles in the dark. Don’t let this candle burn out.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for this. I am always looking for good info on fighting quackery and ways to support this fight. I am now following the Pharmafist on Facebook and twitter and have bookmarked his website. BTW- I love your blog.

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