I am excited to tell you about a wonderful new endeavor that is helping to promote critical thinking about science and medicine. It’s a free online course on “Food for Thought” that offers a scientific framework for understanding food and its impact on health and society from past to present.

The “Food for Thought” course is a product of EdX, which offers online college courses from Harvard, MIT, and other prestigious universities. They provide videos with interactive features and access to online student communities. Students can audit a course and get full access to all the materials including tests, assignments, and discussion forums with no commitment, and can choose what and how much they want to do.

The course is presented by 3 chemistry professors from McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, “a unique venture dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and the presentation of scientific information to the public, educators and students in an accurate and responsible fashion.” Joe Schwarcz (also known as “Dr. Joe” from his long-running radio show), Ariel Fenster, and David Harpp are world-class science communicators who tirelessly promote science in various ways, including books, media appearances, and a “Chemistry for the Public” lecture series with 60 offerings in two languages and intriguing titles like “Hey! There are Cockroaches in my Chocolate Ice Cream!” They are definitely on the same wavelength as the writers on SBM; in fact, the “suggested sites” listed at the bottom of the OSS page include SBM, Quackwatch, and Respectful Insolence (that blog written by Dr. Gorski’s not-so-mysterious friend). They have been co-teaching the “Food for Thought” course as a “World of Chemistry” course to McGill students for 30 years, and they have developed it into a polished act.

Week 1 is an introduction that includes material on scientific principles, methods, research, and publishing. There is an excellent discussion of the different types of study (cohort, case control, RCT, etc.). They cover many other topics that we have addressed on SBM. In subsequent weeks they will cover vitamins, minerals, nutrient groups, agricultural science, food additives, sweeteners, adverse food reactions, weight control, diet and cancer, diet and the heart, health food, wine and cheese, and even a cooking demonstration! Throughout, they present the most up-to-date research and examine it with a critical eye.

Each lesson consists of several short videos interspersed with polls (followed by a breakdown of how many students chose each answer), self-assessment questions to see how well the student has understood the material just presented (with immediate feedback), other activities, and at the end, a list of references. Then there are discussion groups organized by topic, where you can ask questions and interact with other students all over the world. If you do the tests and assignments, there is a tab where you can see your overall progress at a glance. There is even a wiki, and a map showing where students are located. You can go back and review any lesson at any time. A feature I really like is the simultaneous transcript that runs to the right of the videos to reinforce what you hear with what you see, and also to facilitate scrolling to a specific part of the video. There is even a speed control so you can save time by running the videos at 1.5x or 2x normal speed. 2x is too fast for me, but I found 1.5x to be handy.

They illustrate common errors in thinking with memorable funny examples and stories. For example, Dr. Schwarcz illustrates the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy by pointing out that breast cancer is correlated with wearing skirts, but that doesn’t mean skirts cause breast cancer. In a discussion of meat in the diet, he tells us he grew up in meat-loving Hungary, “where salami is a vegetable and tofu is illegal.”

If I had my druthers, I would like to see a way to educate the public that:

  • Attracts students by relating science to subjects that are important to them every day, like deciding what to eat
  • Explains why science is important
  • Explains how science works
  • Explains how the scientific publishing system works
  • Explains why we shouldn’t automatically believe the results of every RCT
  • Explains how people can be misled and reach false conclusions
  • Debunks common health myths
  • Provides accurate evidence-based answers to health questions
  • Says “we don’t know” when the evidence is insufficient
  • Is widely available to everyone
  • Is free
  • Has short segments that don’t exceed the typical short modern attention span
  • Can be accessed at the reader’s own pace
  • Can be viewed on iPads and other devices
  • Has lots of effective visuals
  • Has dynamic, engaging teachers
  • Is funny and entertaining
  • Is interactive
  • Has a way to ask questions and communicate with other students
  • Can be audited with no commitment

“Food for Thought” fulfills every item on my wish list. It’s just what the doctor ordered. And the quality is superb.

The course started on January 22, 2014 and will be released in weekly segments for 14 weeks. You can register at any time during the course with no penalty except that you will not be able to submit any assignment that is past due.

By January 24th, only two days after the course officially started, 22,000 people had already registered in more than 150 countries. This is huge, more than the total number of students who took the course at McGill over a period of 3 decades.

I am really enthusiastic about “Food for Thought.” I registered, and I can hardly wait for the next weekly segment to be released. I urge you to register too, and to tell your friends (and enemies).

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.