The Science Behind Mom’s Cold and Flu Remedies…

Hey everyone,

It has been quite the week for good germs.

First, a story coming out of Australia revealed how the use of one particular probiotic strain, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, can help to alleviate peanut allergies.  Although the paper is not open access, you can read the summary of the study by clicking on the photo/link below.

untitled (2)

The other story making headlines was the impact of probiotics on mental health. For the last decade, trials have shown the benefit of good germs for the mind. The can help keep the mind calm as well as reduce stress and anxiety levels.  Now it seems Canadian researchers are performing clinical trials to determine the benefit of taking probiotics instead of prozac.

I spoke on this earlier in January with the CBC and the producer it was very well received. Some have asked for a link to the broadcast and I’m happy to say you can hear the segment below.


It’s such a pleasure to see the benefit of good germs in the news but as we all know, there are microbes that cause us misery including cold and flu viruses.  Hygiene and social distancing (stay home when sick) are great ways to prevent illness.  Yet, at one time or another, most of us find ourselves victim to the sniffles, coughs, aches and pains.

When we get sick, a trip to the drug store is the usual course of action. But there are more natural ways to fight the bugs and regain our health. Many are traditional in nature and they differ depending on one’s background.  These remedies are homegrown and range from the reasonable to the extreme – mustard plaster anyone?  But one thing is for sure: most of them work.

On Friday, I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss these remedies with the radio program, Ontario Today. The goal was to reveal scientifically how these remedies worked and why they are sometimes as good as modern medicine.

For the next two hours – on air and online – I was treated to dozens of examples originating from all over the world.  Although I’d heard of many in the past, some were quite simply out of this world. Yet, they all worked and the science could prove why.

Essentially, a home remedy should accomplish at least one of three goals.

1. Reduce the level of inflammation, which is a consequence of infection

2. Improve blood flow to shift the body from lethargy to action 

3. Utilize antimicrobial properties contained in the remedies to kill viruses  

As each one was brought up, the science became clear either through mention of the ingredients or through the overall results.  All I had to do was classify them and when possible within time constraints, provide a mechanism.

If you want to check out the discussion, you can head to the Ontario Today website. Both the radio and online portions are there.


It was such a fantastic time for me because of the two-way conversation between scientists. Each caller was a scientist (or a representative of one, usually their mothers or grandmothers).  We had a collaborative conversation.  Then there was the passion expressed by each contributor. The experience was akin to a scientific conference where researchers are eager to share their findings with the rest of the community.

I’ll end by asking if you have any old style remedies you want to share. If so, put it in the comment section below. I’m sure people would love to hear how you go about fighting the cold and the flu.

I know I would…

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A New Year’s Resolution Worth Globalizing…

Hey everyone,

It’s been a rather hectic week as I’ve had the honour of discussing several topics very close to me. From antibiotic alternatives in agriculture to the concept of how microbes may control our moods, it’s been a combination of hard work and, as always, joy.

I’ve also been faced with a slight conundrum. Many people have Emailed me recently asking for advice on choosing products. I’ve been reluctant to mention any brands in the public forum and have my reasons. I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post and the difficulty of being a spokesperson for microbes.

Until then, I want to introduce you to another incredible person.

caityCaity Jackson

I met Caity earlier this month while she was taking some time away from her work in Sweden.  She is a global health expert and quickly becoming a leader in this field. She is part of a weekly program known as This Week in Global Health (TWIGH) and strives each week to bring the latest information on the health of humanity to the rest of the world.

When we spoke, she brought up a rather curious concept. What is in a name when it comes to a topic. We went over a number of different philosophical, psychological and yes, sciPOP ideas and came up with a few ideas. I asked her if she would put her thoughts down for this blog and she agreed.

If you want to follow Caity, you can find her on Twitter and also at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.  I’m sure after reading her post, you may have questions and also some ideas of your own to share.

And now…Caity Jackson…

A new year means a new you!

Well, that is what we are meant to believe.  A new haircut, a new outfit, a new diet, a new workout, heck, bring on a new name!

nameWait…a new name?

Okay, this isn’t about changing the words on your identification card. This is about changing something much more robust…the way we look at the health of humanity.

Health is one of the top priorities on most new year resolution lists, and rightly so!  And aside from personal health, there are many other different types of health: public health, community health, natural health, and so on.

But have you heard of global health?  How about international health?  What about universal health (gotta think about the aliens, you know)?

Think about it.  It has a logo thanks to the World Health Organization…

who_logoThe logo of the WHO

…yet, what do we call this overarching concept?

As we venture into 2015, we have a wider view of health thanks in part to a few diseases, a few disasters and the occasional blight of reason.  But when it comes to giving this concept of worldly health a name, what should we call it?  After all, an accurate name or term must elicit the right emotion, the right action, and as sciPOP dictates, be catchy too!

So let’s take a look at the options.

The term global health is postulated to be just one of many in a line of evolving words used to conceptualize the health of all.  Where did it come from?  Well, academic course naming trends and article keywords point to the transition to this from what was previously ‘international health.’  Of course, we still hear people calling this field of study International Public Health, Tropical Medicine, or Public Health just applied to a larger population.

It may seem like a game of semantics but when one considers that ‘most of the (Gates) foundation’s resources go to global health issues’ and the annual budget of is in the range of 3.2 billion to 3.6 billion dollars, you can see the right name is paramount.

So, what is in a name?  Is there a vast difference between international and global health?

Now whether you are a ‘global’ fan or an ‘international’ fan, both arguably mean the same thing: health of the population of the world.  Yet, as with any attempt to define a large subject with one word, it can get, well, testy.  Some have argued that the move is needed from a word that in it has a direct depiction of borders (inter-nation) to a word that has a holistic and all-encompassing (global).  After all, this is in essence how we view health. I would argue however that this shows a trend in how we view the manifestation of health.

Then there is the issue of optics. International health has been suggested to have an image of a rich country helping a poor country.  Although for those of us in the richer countries, this sounds familiar.  But health isn’t about helping; it’s about doing.  If all countries do not play a significant role, it’s doomed to fail. So, we need to be sure the word doesn’t cause the wrong image.  In contrast, global health proposes an image where everyone suffers the same risks of poor health and the same benefits of healthcare regardless of where you live.

Now here’s an experiment – a sciPOP experiment.

Picture the world 50+ years ago, the whole world.  Try and think about what your city might have looked like, what your country looked like, what the other side of the world looked like. There was definitely a lot more contrast between neighbouring cities and countries, especially far-flung nations.  Therefore the fruits and goods of Panama were hardly going to pop up unexpectedly in Bangladesh, let alone the Panamanian infectious diseases or lifestyle habits.

Now fast-forward 50 years. If you go to the far reaches of the world, you may still find some creature comforts of home, like a certain brand of pop soda. Commercial entities have managed to get their product on shelves in nearly every nook and cranny of the world (bar the Brazilian rainforest…they are really slacking in distribution there).  The globalization of the world brought an unseen feeling of closeness to our vast planet, increasing our connectivity in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have imagined.

sodasSoda Pop From Around The World

Now what if instead of a soda can, we had access to health options, from care to promotion to products like hand sanitizers and pharmaceuticals?  In your view, which one would be better to have?  One makes you feel good for a few minutes while the other may keep you happy throughout your life.

This concept of a planetary access to health is without a doubt holistic and I think accurately describes the current situation.  But perhaps the best way to see this is through the eyes of public health officials.  For them, the rise of infections such as Ebola, MERS, HIV as well as chronic ailments including diabetes, heart disease, and chronic illnesses offer some perfect examples of how similar our health problems are, despite the great distance and fixed borders between us.  There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ anymore and every nation’s action has ripple effects outside of their borders.

Now take one last point into consideration. Although humans have drawn lines on maps to distinguish nationalities, health has never seen borders.  No disease comes to the border of France and Germany and says, ‘ok guys, we stop here, we’re just going to stay in one country!’.  But with the frequent flying and global distribution chains, the ability for anything to get anywhere in the world is no longer a question of how, but how quickly, and this concept means an incredible challenge for all members of the planet.

nobordersDisease Sees A World Without Borders

From these points, I for one am in the ‘global health’ camp.  Here’s why:

I believe that a small thing like a word may change the way we view health on a global scale.  The current Ebola epidemic (yes, it is still ongoing despite the lack of media attention in Western nations) has shown us most recently, but there have been a plethora of examples in the past that have shown how a health risk anywhere in the world is most definitely a health risk for all (think SARS and MERS and avian flu for example).

Apart from diseases classified as infectious or contagious, 60% of all deaths globally in 2008 were due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and 80% of these deaths occurred in low, and middle-income countries, showing how poor eating habits and low level of exercise in our Western lifestyle are also contagious.  I would be thrilled to see this change in terms encourage policy modification and reshape the way we view the world and our health in it.

Maybe it is just a name though, as Shakespeare famously wrote ‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ Does either term illicit a reaction from your thoughts? Do they differ in terms of the emotional response or images they suggest? Hmm…

So, you know where I stand. Where do you see the future of health for all? Is it global health? International health? Perhaps there’s a name that might make everything even more homogeneous. Let me know your thoughts.

References: and

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Coffee Is For Talking, Not Germs…

It’s only a week into the year and germs are already a hot topic! The rapid rise of the flu has been the most prominent headline.  But I’ve been talking about several other issues from the impact microbes have on the mind to advancing the need for alternatives to antibiotics in agriculture.

Let’s just say it’s been a wild start to 2015 and it is only going to get crazier…and busier.

With that being said, I don’t want to let this blog go by the wayside as it did in 2014 (and again, I apologize).  As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve invited a few colleagues to share with me some of their experiences with the germy world. I’m hoping their personal perspectives will bring a different light to the subject.

It’s all part of the sciPOP experiments. I think these different viewpoints will widen the scope of our relationship with germs beyond the microbiological and immunological.

First up…Nathalie Earl.  She is one of my closest friends and confidantes and has been since my days in high school. She is a herpetologist and an expert in the lab with her own publication record. She’s also an amazing mother of two wonderful kids and will be my mentor when I take the reproductive plunge.


For the record, one of her nicknames is Kermit
(how appropriate)

A few weeks ago, she told me a story about something she saw while having a cup of coffee. It was such a fascinating story I asked her to write it here.  I’m sure you will find it as intriguing as I did.

I’m hoping Nathalie will become a regular to this blog as I find I always learn when I talk with her.  Hope you can help me welcome her with your comments.

So, without further ado…Nathalie Earl.


So germs are a hot topic…we live with them everyday and many of us read the Germ Guy’s Blog about them. Yet we don’t go to the coffee shop to talk about them; well unless you are a group of microbiologists (and yes, Jason has…many times!) For the rest of us, I know what you are probably thinking…germs in the coffee shop?

Well YES! However; not most likely what you are thinking.

It was a first for me – I love people watching and how we interact with one another.  So when I saw the little baby,  I was like most people …Oh! What a cute baby, then I saw IT – a luggage tag hanging from the handle of the car seat, just above the baby, it read:

I am a PREMI and your
GERMS are too BIG for me!

My first reaction; Jason would love this! Then I contemplated the message.  This baby’s parents were trying to prevent unwanted physical contact with their baby and had found a way for him/her to let people know that is was NOT OK to touch.

baby-501630_640Interesting, right?

That being said, why should we Joe Q Public care?  What would lead this parent to put up this message?

Well, premature babies have an underdeveloped immune system, that’s why.

The quick and dirty explanation is that premature babies have not come to full term. That means they have not produced enough white blood cells or antibodies to be around other people. If they do, their immune system cannot fight off germs that could cause infections. So, whether it is an adult or another full term infant, distance is needed, even if no one appears to be sick.

So, we know premies are off limits.  But a coffee shop can be chock full of germs. So, how do we ensure we don’t spread infections to others especially during cold and flu season? People like The Germ Guy, are on the radio/TV/or internet telling us to wash our hands as often a possible.  With these reminders we have adapted our greetings to not involve contact or if contact is required the “fist bump” as an acceptable alternative.  When a handshake is required it is more often (then not) followed by the clicking sound of the cap on our personal bottles of hand sanitizer.  Besides, the smell of coffee and alcohol sanitizer can be somewhat relaxing – having been around Jason, I know this for certain!

Okay, many would say that we require exposure to germs to help strengthen our immune system.  I do agree on the condition people have a strong enough immune system.  Thus this only applies to adults and children older than 6 months.  In this way, we can have a properly functional immune system and enjoy or endure exposure to many germs over our life time.  But if you are a premi, forget about it.

So what do you think?  Were the parents over protective with the sign? Should the baby have stayed at home until he/she had a stronger immune system?  What about when we go to the coffee shop alone? Do you ever worry about what germs are carried to the coffee shop? Or are you too busy getting caffeinated to be curious about the consequences?

As Jason always says, I’d love to know your answers and thoughts…


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Experiments in sciPOP: Of Flu Vaccines and Sports Teams…

My how time flies…

When I last wrote here, it was October and now here we are in 2015! So, first off…

happy-new-year-2015-1920-1080-3088HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I would also like to say to all the new people who are following this blog…

Thank-You-messageTHANK YOU!!!

I am extremely grateful to see so many people choosing to sign up and I promise I will do my best to keep adding to this site.

It’s been a rather incredible time over the last few months and as you might expect, very busy. I’ve been to conferences, invited seminars, given a few book presentations and been asked to do dozens of media interviews ranging in topics from kissing microbes to a mumps outbreak.

I’ve also had the chance to meet some other health enthusiasts and evangelists along the way.  Some of them will appear here on the blog over the coming weeks and months and I am sure you will love what they have to say and share.

As to the development of sciPOP – the art of story re-telling – it’s been going well in the real world. I’ve been so thankful for the kind words and even more so for the purchases of The Germ Code.  I am still amazed that the tome – my very first experiment in sciPOP – continues to do well. I just wish I could sign all of them as thanks.

As to what will come in 2015, I have started to find ways to experiment with sciPOP so I can gauge how to further develop it. Some of these experiments will appear here while others will be incorporated into other works and appearances.  Also, some researchers will share their experiments here.  To learn more about how this will progress, you can click on the link in the header to find out more.

If you have an idea for sciPOP, be sure to let me know. If it’s a question, I may use it for a future article or perhaps in some other fashion in the media.  If you wish to share an experiment, then please feel free to let me know and we can find a way to let everyone know about it.

Now on to the experiment…
(and yes, this is my sciPOP mad scientist look)

As to what construes a sciPOP experiment, it really means taking a look at science in a different light that appeals to the general public. One such example happened last week when I was asked to join CBC to discuss a recent new article focusing on the flu vaccine.


As you may have heard, the flu vaccine for this season is not as effective as public health officials might like. Instead of the usual 70% average, data revealed the ability to protect against one of the four major circulating strains could be lower than 50%.  While the usual protection will still be there for the other strains, this lack of a ‘winning record’ against this one particular strain led officials to sound the alarm and forewarn of a bad flu season.

When I was asked to discuss this topic, one of the questions focused on whether people would turn away from the vaccine.  After all, when a medical treatment or vaccine is considered to be less effective, some people tend to ask, “Why bother?”  It made sense in one way and yet, considering the tolerance of failure in regards to some other offerings, also led to some head-scratching and eventually an answer:

090821_slide_leafsSPORTS FANS!

Think about it (and for those who heard me on CBC I hope you have):

Sports fans are rabid for their teams.  Living in Toronto, I know how loyal this city is to the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs. The motto, “Go Leafs Go,” is as much a part of this city as the CN Tower.

Yet, when you take a look at the record, the team has not done particularly well.  In the last ten years, the team has struggled and even had losing records for some season. They have only made the playoffs once and even then suffered one of the most dramatic losses seen in the history of the game.

If you were to ask a fan if he or she would say, “Why bother?” to supporting their team, even in the worst of seasons, you would be met with ridicule and spite. It’s just that simple – no matter what happens, a fan is a fan always.

So why is it then that we cannot make the same fanaticism for the flu vaccine?

don-cherryThe Biggest Hockey Fan Gets His Flu Shot

Let’s take it a little further.  When you look at the mechanics of vaccination, we realize the jab is really a sports trainer for our bodies. In the same way as pumping weights helps muscles, practice time helps mental acuity, and proper nutrition helps metabolism, a vaccine prepares the immune system.  Even though the shot may not be 100% effective, it will still provide an opportunity for the body to get some practice and develop memory.

For this year, it may be too late to convince people to change their perspective. Most have already made their decision to either get the shot or to give it a pass.  But as we move into the flu season for the Southern Hemisphere – which by the way, the vaccine is properly developed – and then into the fall and winter up here in the North, perhaps we can learn to become fans rather than critics.

If all goes well, we might see a rise in the number of people getting the vaccine and with any luck, a less than robust flu season to come.

flu-shot-turn-wheelShow the vaccine some love…

Let me know what you think by commenting below. Even if it’s just to wish everyone a happy new year, I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. I do have one more note for those who heard me on CBC. When I spoke about the nature of the vaccine, I mentioned it contained an H3N2 strain, 2 H1N1 strains including the pandemic and a B strain. I goofed. It’s actually H3N2, H1N1 (pandemic), and 2 B strains.  I apologize for the error.



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Love in the Time of Ebola

I won’t lie to you: being a germevangelist is not an enviable position when it comes to deadly pathogens.

It’s not just Ebola; others such as MERS, avian influenza, and tuberculosis also fit the bill. Trying to foster a good relationship with all microbes is hard when one of some 2.5 million different types is causing a health crisis.  The dynamic balance between harmony and war is significantly shifted to the latter.  In the meantime, you’re left having to figure out how to keep the calm.

I have tried my best to keep positive and even cheerful when discussing the crisis.  Yet as I’ve learned, this may have been antagonistic to my goals as two specific criticisms have arisen.  Both have touched me and I feel it would be best to discuss them here.

One critique I’ve faced is my unending buoyant and jubilant nature. In the face of such a serious disease with thousands of people dying, I may seem out of line with the generally serious tone.  In one case, I’ve been asked outright whether I have a shady side in which I am rooting more for the virus than I am for humanity. This usually ends up with the question, do I love Ebola?

The answer isn’t a simple yes or no.

As a virus, Ebola fascinates me and does bring out my adoration. The ability of this small, thread-like entity to survive and thrive at the molecular and cellular level is astonishing. Even more incredible is how it has become a perfect pathogen. Although it does evolve (as does every other microorganism), it hasn’t changed the way it functions. Unlike so many other microbial species, Ebola’s stability is unique.

On the other hand, the effect Ebola has on a human population evokes not a traditional form of love but one comprising of overwhelming appreciation and respect. Despite all we know about this virus, how it infects, how it takes over the body, how it spreads and ultimately, how it kills; we are still unable to stop it from causing outbreaks and as we’ve seen in West Africa, an epidemic.

I also feel this virus commands a new level of commitment. A global outpouring is needed devoted to ending the pathogen’s spread and returning these countries to normalcy.  But to ensure such a commitment exists, the tone has to be positive and upbeat. After all, no one wants to join a depressed movement.

Granted, I may have taken this a little too far but I hope my actions have helped to increase the belief Ebola can be stopped.  The virus won’t cause a pandemic, it won’t kill the majority of the Earth’s population and most certainly, this epidemic, while taking a rather large toll, will come to an end.  I also hope my cheerful nature reveals my optimism for more good news in the future rather than a rallying cry for the virus.

If not, I’d very much like to know.

The other criticism I’ve received involves my lack of acknowledgement of the fear evoked here at home. I have apparently balked at the rising tide of social apprehension choosing instead to point out Ebola is not a personal concern.  Yet, this is continually countered by sporadic cases popping up – and their subsequent mishandling by officials – leaving a great number of people fearful for their lives.

I may seem indifferent to the panic but I do sense it. Yet instead of allowing people to give into it, I stress awareness is needed to move forward.  Knowledge can instill the global population with purpose and motivate them to act.  Then, instead of fear, the world can unleash something dramatically different in response.

I call it “Tough Love.”

Looking at all the psychological research done in the context of tough love, one common theme inevitably emerges:  protect yourself.  In a human to human relationship, this may mean taking a number of steps to ensure harm cannot be done.  In a human to pathogen connection, the goal is to find a way to protect ourselves from any risk.  As many options exist, the question turns to which one will offer the best protection.

The answer to the Ebola virus and to the resultant social Fearbola infection is without a doubt, a vaccine.

As with any other threat, if Ebola is difficult to control in society, then we need to take care of ourselves as individuals to avert panic and fear.  As we have seen in the past, nothing works quite as well as vaccination. We’ve seen the same effect with other socially significant diseases, such as smallpox, polio, measles and even influenza. When we become vaccinated, we take charge of our health and give these pathogens the proverbial cold shoulder (or in this case, immune system).

Thankfully, there are two in the works and from the information to date, they are safe. Although I may be overly optimistic, I believe this will provide humanity with the best option into the future.  We can protect not only the people most at risk such at those living in Ebola-prone zones, but also other individuals globally.

With this form of individual protection in place, worry can be diminished at the personal level.  In turn, the potential for fear at the social level is reduced significantly. More importantly, those microbiologist who have love for the virus – not the effects – can continue to do their work while the rest of the population can rest assured their tough love will keep them safe.

In retrospect over the last few months, through tallying the accolades and criticisms, I realize a very simple but important rule I learned years ago truly applies: find love in everything you do. I’ve worked hard to adhere to it although I haven’t been perfect. The many mistakes I have made – and still make – have revealed love, particularly for microbes, is not an easy thing. That being said, I have gained insight into how to make it possible for germs.

As the title of my book illustrates, we need to “love the microbes.”  To do this, also in accordance with my book, the first order of business is to stop worrying. Then, you must have a combination of appreciation, respect and commitment to the relationship, even if the only option is to protect yourself. Finally, and most importantly, once you have gained such love, you can share it with others so they too may be able to do the same.  In this way, we might be able to develop a new kind of pandemic; one that is based in an infection of love, not fear.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts…







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What Are YOUR “Big Idea” Germ Questions?

As you might expect, the last few weeks have been rather busy for me. The rapid expansion of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has led to dozens of interviews and several column entries.

I have to say, I am so pleased with and thankful for everything the media has done to help keep the calm.  I take each and every appearance seriously and make sure I do my best to move the mellow momentum forward.

One of the most fascinating parts of being given the opportunity to talk with the media is the continuing merger of microbiology and everyday life.  While these topics are not making headline news, there are several ‘big idea’ questions I find come up in behind the scenes.  The queries are fascinating and I believe are well worth addressing.

In light of this, I would like to know:

Needing a LIKE for the sake of Global Health

 What are Your Big Idea questions on the topic of germs?  

Are there any issues you feel need to be better understood to improve your lives?  How about the planet?  What about technology?

I’ve written and spoken on many of them and I’ve heard from many of you already.  A list of some of the questions follows:

  1. What are probiotics and how do they improve my health?
  2. Why do my kids always get sick and why is this a good thing?
  3. Why are we obsessed with a germ-free world?
  4. Are germs the way to make better medicines?
  5. Is it true we can use germs to improve mental health?
  6. Can we use germs in place of fossil fuels?
  7. Will germs help to save the environment?
  8. Is climate change fixable using germs?
  9. Could germs help us live on other planets?
  10. Will we ever have the killer pandemic?

These are just ten examples but I know there are others.

So, while I continue striving to spread the good germy word – and deal with all the questions relating to the Ebola crisis – I invite you to put YOUR BIG IDEA GERM QUESTIONS below in the comments or send them to me in an Email – As always, it’s

Looking forward to hearing from you…


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When It Comes To sciPOP, Controversy Quells

Since I last wrote, I have been working hard behind the scenes on a number of projects and hope to have more updates soon. Some piece have come out including a rather fun video made with the amazing team at Huffington Post Canada.

We decided to look at staying safe in the washroom but wanted to make sure the tips were offered in a lighthearted way. The final result was released this week and you can find it here:


For those wondering, the amazing actress in the video is HuffPost contributor and my editor, the amazing Devon Murphy.  She is just one of the incredible group of people working hard to keep you informed and at times, entertained.

The comedic “war zone” theme was in my opinion a great way to convey the message using sciPOP.  It had all the elements of education, enrichment, engagement and entertainment – although the WC Fields reference only seemed to jive with those over 40 years of age.  Still, I’m thankful for the opportunity and hope more will come.

The most important criterion is the use of positive images and words to ensure the message is delivered in a way that avoids controversy. When it comes to washroom safety, there’s really little up for debate.  But that isn’t always the case and in some realms, controversy is inevitable and may discourage the use of sciPOP.

Taking on tough subjects is an important part of communication; balance is very difficult to achieve. In the last few weeks alone, we have seen several controversial acts leaving many no other option but to take sides.  Although this may immediately bring up some of the conflicts being displayed in real time by news outlets worldwide, there are other debates happening in the scientific world.

You’ve probably heard about the mishaps reported by the CDC involving rather nasty pathogens including anthrax, H5N1 and smallpox.  In all three instances, the microbes had somehow been mishandled potentially leaving lab workers and according to some, the public, at risk of infection.  The topic was so serious the government even held a hearing on the issue.

The concern is valid and something needs to be done. Unfortunately, this has led to a significant conflict between sides.  Some look upon this as definitive proof a lab-based pandemic might occur and that all research in this area should be stopped.  Others suggest this is not really a significant issue and a change not in research directions but in the culture of the lab workers to pay more attention to the rules will keep everyone safe.

It’s not an easy choice to make and no one will be happy at the end.  From a sciPOP perspective, sticking to the evidence – for which there is little publicly available – and trying to find a balance showing the pros and cons of each argument is difficult.  If you happen to agree with one side more than another – which admittedly in this case I do – then it becomes even harder.

Then comes the use of the 4Es.  In this case, there is little to use from the incident.  It’s a polarizing subject and no amount of analogy will bring about change.  Worse, if you happen to make an attempt, there will be fire from one or even both sides.  Inasmuch as it is a truly newsworthy event, there is essentially no room for sciPOP.  Any attempt would only end up in failure.

This is of course just one example. Others have also come about and will continue to arise leaving parties working against one another.  Eventually, as history dictates, the arguments will grow more heated and reach the apex of ideology.  When that happens, there is little to do other than have both parties appear on a split screen and have it at each other.  It’s a standard in politics and in economics; science is no different.

When it comes to using sciPOP, there is no better strategy than to avoid controversial topics that have the potential to head towards ideology.  Instead, if you wish to tackle issues, is to find something to which the 4Es apply and provide that as context. That way you can add to the information and avoid the problems.

As an example, I’ll share my experience regarding a specific topic: climate change  We all know there is a significant debate and the two sides of the issue have become polarized such that the arguments are more heated than ever.  When I was asked to write about the subject, I wanted to take a sciPOP angle using a story pulled from the PubMed Headlines to impact people as well as add to the discussion.

The result was the The Huffington Post article, Can’t Swim at the Beach? Blame it on the Rain.  The piece focused on a study in Sweden investigating the shrinking number of swimming days at beaches.  The reason for the reduction was the rain.  There was more of it leading to increased levels of bacteria in the water and closed beaches.

Now, why is there more rain?  There is some form of change in the climactic conditions happening or, if you wish, climate change.  It cannot be denied as it is actually happening and it isn’t a ‘scientific fact’ based on calculated statistics.  It’s an actual problem seen by people and causing them to lose out on an important activity.

From a sciPOP perspective, the article:

  • Educates on what has happened: the increase in rain;
  • Enriches by showing the trend in climactic change is real and affecting their lives;
  • Engages by giving the chance to ask questions about why this is happening, how the changing climate may be involved, and whether this problem is man-made or natural;
  • Entertains because the analogy is based on a Milli Vanilli song, “Blame It On The Rain.”

The article was well received without a hint of controversy.  Instead, everyone recognized there was a problem and action should be taken to remedy the problem.  In the sciPOP context, that is all you can hope to achieve.  While this end may seem weak to some, the goal is not to change minds but to give information to help initiate change. After all, this is about sharing, not advocacy.

As a final note, do I avoid getting personally into hot topics? Not at all. But I know never to mix in sciPOP.  For those of you who have seen me get involved in such debates, you know, there’s no room for the 4Es.  But, professionally, my vocation is to spread the good (and germy) word and I will continue to do so. Although it may mean staying away from certain topics, I hope you will continue to support me even in such times of silence.

Would love to know your thoughts…

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