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The 2015 Lorne Trottier public science symposium series

A Question of Evidence: Vaccines, GMOs, and Cell Phones

September 28-29, 2015

Click here for the Trottier Symposium webcasts.

Symposium summary

We live in the Information Age. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and of course the Internet, flood us with a relentless stream of information and unfortunately, misinformation. With just a few strokes on a computer’s keyboard, a wealth of information unfolds on virtually any topic. What was the fastest pace ever recorded in a marathon? An incredible 4 minutes 42 seconds per mile by Kenyan Dennis Kimetto, faster than the speed that can be reached by an average treadmill. The number of teaspoons of sugar in a can of cola? It’s about ten. How many does the World Health Organization recommend as a daily intake of added sugar? About six. What genetically engineered crops are grown in Canada? Only corn, canola, soy and sugar beets. These are all interesting morsels of information that can be safely digested because they are backed by facts.

But then there is the dark side of the information tsunami that can lead to mental indigestion: cherry-picked data, opinion masquerading as fact, confusion of association with cause and effect, bogus advice from self-appointed experts, misuse of statistics and most disturbingly, fraud. Teasing out legitimate science from the quagmire of junk science is a huge challenge even for experts given that scientific issues are rarely white or black; rather, they are various shades of grey. This is the case for current hot buttons such as vaccination, GMOs, and the effects of electromagnetic radiation. The media’s hunger for controversy often leads to slanted accounts and vested interests often reconstruct and deconstruct data until it yields a desired result.

Arriving at a reasonable conclusion about controversial matters therefore comes down to one thing – “A Question of Evidence.”

Roundtable (September 28)

Monday, September 28, 2015, 1:30 PM
Faculty Club, Ballroom, 3450 rue McTavish

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A roundtable discussion, with "experts in the field", scientists, and journalists, will be held, featuring the following participants:

  • Bill Brownstein, City and Cultural Life Columnist, The Montreal Gazette
  • Dr. Ariel Fenster, Office for Science and Society, McGill University
  • Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor, Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida
  • Dr. Ken Foster, Professor, Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Geoffrey Kabat, Professor of Epidemiology, Albert Einstein College of medicine, Yeshiva University
  • Dr. Christopher Labos, MD, McGill University
  • Dr. Bruce Lennox, Dean of Science, McGill University
  • Dr. Paul Offit, Professor of Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
  • Julie Payette, Engineer and Astronaut, COO, Montreal Science Centre
  • André Picard, Public Health reporter, The Globe and Mail
  • Terry Polevoy, MD, Founder of Canadian Quackery Watch
  • Dr. Aaron Rosen, MD, McGill University
  • Joe Schwarcz, Director, Office for Science and Society, McGill University
  • Lorne Trottier, co-founder of Matrox and founder of McGill University’s Trottier Public Science Symposium
  • Dr. Brian Ward, Professor, Medicine and Microbiology, McGill University

Brian Ward and Paul Offit on vaccines (September 28)

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Monday, September 28, 2015, 5:30 PM
Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke Street West (corner Mansfield)

“Anti-vaccine sentiment in Canada... who are these people?” (Brian Ward). This brief introduction will focus on the anti-vaccine ‘movement’ in Canada, reviewing its origins and its possible impact on vaccination efforts.

“The Philadelphia Measles Epidemic of 1991: Lessons from the Past or Prologue to the Future” (Paul Offit). In 1991, Philadelphia suffered a measles epidemic larger than any other in the vaccine era. About 1,400 people were infected and 9 died, all children. The epidemic centered on two fundamentalist churches that refused vaccinations as well as medical care, choosing prayer instead. How the public health, legal, and religious communities responded to this outbreak will be the subject of this talk.

The Body of Evidence podcast (September 29)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015, 12:00 noon
Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke Street West (corner Mansfield)

A podcast dedicated to tackling pseudoscience and exploring the evidence on medical topics, The Body of Evidence uses humour and sound science to get the audience thinking and chuckling. In a late-night talk show format — house band and all — you won't want to miss this live recording of The Body of Evidence, hosted by Dr. Christopher Labos and Jonathan Jarry.

Kevin Folta on GMOs, and Geoffrey Kabat on cell phones (September 29)

View on YouTube

Tuesday, September 29, 2015, 5:30 PM
Centre Mont Royal, 1000 Sherbrooke Street West (corner Mansfield)

“Marketing a Mistrust of the Safest Food Supply in History” (Kevin Folta). Breakthroughs in breeding and genetics have radically improved plants and animals used for food. Introduction of modern technology to production practices makes farming more efficient. Improved chemistries allow us to produce more with less, with greater sensitivity to the environment. However, in the midst of the safest, most abundant and most diverse food supply in human history, there is a rising perception of its danger. The suspicion has not been driven by science. Instead it is a well-funded marketing ploy to push food dollars to boutique choices, and sell lifestyle-oriented selections that promise, but don’t necessarily deliver, improved health and performance. A multi-billion dollar industry has emerged to provide these higher- cost, health-halo alternatives. These efforts are promoted by television doctors, celebrities, best-selling authors, activist documentarians, and other self-appointed experts. This problem results in higher prices for consumers, and slows development of new, useful genetic and chemical technologies. Scientists engaging an evidence-based discussion are maligned as corporate patsies, typically through conduits benefitting from generous corporate support. The most substantial issue is a well-bankrolled mistrust of food, farmers and scientists, which is a tremendous problem on a planet with a growing population and dwindling resources. Today scientists, dietitians and farmers are learning to communicate these issues more effectively, and borrowing from the activist toolbox to enhance the understanding and perception of food.

“Cell Phones and Brain Cancer: A Tale of Two Sciences” (Geoffrey Kabat). In the early 1990s a Florida resident brought a lawsuit against a telecommunications company, alleging that his wife’s brain tumor was caused by her heavy use of a cell phone. Although radiofrequency energy utilized in cell phone communications is far too weak to induce cancer by any known mechanism, publicity surrounding this case led to the conduct of many scientific studies in the two decades that followed. For the most part, neither human nor experimental studies have found any convincing evidence of a hazard. Furthermore, strikingly, there is no evidence that brain tumors have become more common in developed countries over the past twenty years, a period which has seen cell phone use grow at a geometric rate. However, a minority of studies (mainly from a single group of researchers) appears to show evidence of an association. These “positive” studies have received disproportionate media attention and, disconcertingly, appear to have influenced a 2011 assessment by the World Health Organization. One of the lessons from the cell phone experience is that when we study a difficult issue like this some studies are going to turn up positive results, and, given the “right” combination of factors — a novel technology, a mysterious form of “radiation,” the mention of a frightening disease, about which little is known — there is enormous potential for a full-blown, but unfounded, health scare to develop. Another lesson is that some scientists can focus on results that appear to be “outliers,” i.e., that do not fit with the evidence from the better studies. And these activists can have a disproportionate impact on the public because news of a threat is much more psychologically convincing than reassurances from respectable scientific bodies.

Booksale (September 28 & 29)

The following books, written by the speakers of this year's symposium, are for sale at the McGill Bookstore. They books will also be available for sale both nights of the Symposium at the Centre Mont Royal.

  • Geoffrey Kabat: Hyping Health Risks
  • Paul Offit: Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine


Moderator: Joe Schwarcz, PhD. Director, Office for Science & Society

Free admission, no reservations required

For additional information: 514-398-2852 or trottiersymposium [dot] science [at] mcgill [dot] ca (email).

Cette conférence sera prononcée en anglais.