A Quebec pharmacist and blogger who takes on junk science with cartoons, a sense of fun and a no-nonsense attitude has won a prestigious international prize for science communication.
Olivier Bernard, also known as “The Pharmafist,” was awarded the John Maddox Prize on Tuesday for his work in debunking myths around the use of vitamin C to treat cancer.
“It’s important to defend science, to stand up to those kind of threats,” Bernard said from London, where he was picking up the award given by the journal Nature and the group Sense About Science.
Bernard, 38, has done pharmaceutical research and has been a working pharmacist since 2004. It was that experience that pushed him into science communication.
People could feel attacked. But there is a way you can give people the information without telling them they’re stupid or making them feel stupid.Olivier Bernard, prize-winning pharmacist
“I had so much frustration working at the pharmacy and seeing all those beliefs that people held about health, about science. Things that we know in the scientific community that are not true, I saw on a daily basis.
“It’s really hard when you have to deconstruct those beliefs in order to help people. I thought, is there any way I could do this on a bigger scale?”
In 2012, he started a blog called “The Pharmafist: Bringing life to science and death to pseudo-science.”
The blog presents straight-up medical research and interviews with international experts in a cheeky format replete with cartoons. It doesn’t dodge big targets and has done episodes on osteopathy and homeopathy (“I can’t believe we sell homeopathy in pharmacies,” he said). The blog grew into a TV show called “Adventures of a Pharmacist.”
Bernard debunked Vitamin C for cancer patients
The lighthearted attitude helps, Bernard said.
“People could feel attacked. But there is a way you can give people the information without telling them they’re stupid or making them feel stupid.”
That didn’t prevent last year’s fight over an ostensible cancer treatment involving the injection of large doses of vitamin C. Although that’s an approved treatment for scurvy, the cancer aspect is not recognized in either the United States or Canada.
Earlier On HuffPost: An example of the bogus studies Bernard helped debunk. Story continues after the video.
Petitions with at least 65,000 signatures were demanding Quebec approve vitamin C for use by cancer patients. The issue was discussed on popular TV shows and was championed in the National Assembly.
Bernard looked into it.
“Pretty much everything was wrong in the petition.”
Research was scanty and poorly designed. The injections themselves were not risk-free. He published what he’d learned.
For months, his site and his Facebook feed were full of insults, but “that was OK,” Bernard said.
Then he called out the politician who supported the petition.
“All hell broke loose. They decided to just crush me.”
He got death threats. His place of work was publicized and his employer was asked to fire him. His wife, an author, faced a boycott of her books. There were demands to cancel his TV show and his professional accreditation.
Finally, Bernard wrote a Facebook post laying out what was happening. The harassment stopped. But better still was the support from Quebec’s science and medical community.
“There was a massive outcry. Specialists, oncologists, professional associations — they all came forward.”
The petition was rejected.
“It created all this wave of positive things. Now I’m back to what I do.”
Science communication has never been harder, Bernard said.
“It’s very challenging for people. Most information about science online is at best incomplete and at worst completely false.
“That’s the case in climate change. That’s the case in medicine. People want to have information, but they don’t know how to differentiate between the good and the bad. And then at the end of the day, they go with their gut feeling.
“I don’t like it when people are being manipulated.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2019.