Food for Thought

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 in: Critical Thinking, Nutrition

Leave a Comment (35) ↓

35 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. Matthew D Littlefield says:

    Is it just me or do so many “woo” sites begin with “I am excited to tell you about a wonderful…”

    If this is science based medicine… I would rather they feel more like Thesis than editorial.

    1. windriven says:

      On the first Wednesday of each month Dr. Hall leaves her powdered wig and scientific vestments in the closet and does a bit of a rhetorical break dance in her opening paragraph. But she and the other bloggers do understand how important it is to have the blog read like the Congressional Record or the downtown Ottumwa, IA yellow pages.

      It is cogent and incisive comments like yours that keep the bloggers going and that engage the readers and other commenters.

      1. Steph says:

        I like you. A lot.

    2. Nashira says:

      There’s no reason we can’t get excited about neat science things. I mean, every scientist that I have known gets very very excited! when they discover something new, even when it doesn’t relate to their field of study. Not all of them squeal “oooooh shiiiiiiny” but they get excited.

      Personally, I’m so taking this course. Thanks, Dr. Hall! It sounds awesome.

    3. goodnightirene says:


      I had the same initial reaction to the first paragraph, but had a different conclusion. It made me LOL and I found it clever and engaging.

      One of the reasons Dr. Hall is a good writer is that she is able to convey her feelings–enthusiasm in this case!

      I’d like to mention the Berkeley Wellness Newsletter as well–I’ve read it for years (it comes weekly now in my email) and it was a great counterbalance for me when I lived in woo-infested communities. It covers all the nutrition and health related issues you will come across from various sources, especially the “latest studies”. I use their book (The Berkeley Wellness Encyclopedia–they used the term “wellness” long before it became a woo buzzword) as a kitchen reference for nutrient, caloric info, and preparation (short recipes) tips.

      I will certainly try to do some of the course although I’m presently bogged down in German language lessons from DW tv.

    4. Donna Gabler says:

      This should be an unbiased article. It seems more like paid advertising.

      1. Harriet Hall says:

        I didn’t get paid a penny for writing it, but I do admit to bias. I am biased in favor of science, reason, reality, and critical thinking; and I am as filled with joy and enthusiasm when I find such a fine example as I am filled with despair when I see an example of pseudoscience or false information that might harm people. I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing to criticize about this course. Can you?

  2. Kate McAfee says:

    I am taking this course and enjoying it. My husband is also enjoying watching the lectures over my shoulder. It has a lot of simple common sense recommendations that I wish more people would listen to.

    One thing that I think that EdX could do better is to explain in the course description that it’s not a hardcore chemistry class. In one of the lectures, they explain that IRL about half of their students are science students and half are other majors. When I recommended the course to my Facebook friends many said it sounded interesting but they were scared off by the fact that it’s a “chemistry” course.

  3. Kate McAfee says:

    I am also very much looking forward to the start of this course on March 3.

  4. farmer says:

    I’m also taking this course & I love it too. Very interesting.

  5. stanmrak says:

    Consumer alert… this course is propaganda brilliantly disguised as education, but really created for corporate profit, not disseminating truth. Scientific “truth” makes for a great cover story. Make no mistake about it. You will probably learn a lot, but don’t believe everything you hear.

    Yes, I gleaned all of this without even doing the course. It’s that transparent.

    1. Lawrence says:

      @Stan – fortunately, the “Truth” isn’t what you want to believe it is…..

    2. Jessica S says:

      Corporations even make profits from free courses? Damn – I really need to start a corporation. They’ve got it figured out.

    3. MTDoc says:

      Your powers of deduction never cease to amaze me, Stan. Most of us mere mortals have to at least observe before we judge. I see that the series is sponsored by several university programs. I suspect that much of this money comes from the donations that us alumni are solicited for on an annual basis. I plan to at least observe before I judge. Frankly, I’ve forgotten most of my biochemistry, let alone the few things that may have been discovered in the past 50 years.

      1. Harriet Hall says:

        The real irony is that if Stan took the course, he would find much that he agrees with: skepticism about flawed scientific studies and advice to eat your fruits and veggies

        1. MadisonMD says:

          Except it is likely to suggest his supplement pills are not needed. That will hurt sales.

          Marketing. Marketeering. The core essence of Stan.

      2. weing says:

        I think stan is just blinded by science.

        1. Frederick says:

          He do not eat enough carrots maybe? I guess he failed that part of the class.

    4. nyudds says:

      stamrack ,I have yet to take a course, but intend to soon (a disease got in my way.) Wellesley College, the school closest to me, is offering three courses this spring through edX, on Alexander the Great, Shakespeare and global sociology. These MOOC’s (massive open online classes) are “among the most popular classes offered at Wellesley College,” officials say. All course information can be obtained @ It’s a wonderful smorgasbord!
      “EdX offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.”
      Unfortunately, I missed my choice this fall: “Human Evolution,” but these courses are so successful that Dr. Hall’s enthusiasm is validated by the thousands signing up for them.

  6. nutrition prof says:

    This is great. I will have to look into getting CEU’s for this!
    Thank you

  7. Liz says:

    I am taking this course and have shared a link with many friends. I even have a friend who is getting a computer for the first time just to take this course.

  8. squirrelelite says:

    I signed up for the course, also!

  9. Frederick says:

    there was also a small 10 hours class i saw on JERF site, i wanted to do it. No time, I want to do this one too. I gonna wait this summer, I already have enough with actual classes.
    I think it is a good initiative.

  10. nutrition prof says:

    Only because I have poor time management skills, and am covering this in class sooner rather than later-I was wondering if anyone can tell me what video/transcript I might find their definition of “orthomolecular medicine”? It’s the third goal for week 2. If anyone has gotten that far, and is willing to share (I’ll give you extra credit!), I will be grateful.
    Of course, if tomorrow is a snow day and classes are cancelled…

    1. nutrition prof says:

      Found it (yes, a snow day)-first lecture of the second part on Vitamins. The transcript is a bit off, but the slides clarify. The information is pretty basic nutrition, so I don’t think anyone should be worried about its complexity. He’s quite thorough. A bit of a shruggie when it comes to supplements for “stress” or “poor diet”–as insurance. But other than that, two thumbs up.

  11. Sawyer says:

    While I’m not planning on taking the course, Harriet’s repeated praise for McGill has caused me to add their OSS blog to my short list of skeptical bookmarks.

    It’s refreshing to see a university heading in the right direction with alternative medicine. We hear way too many stories about university departments caving to popular demand and starting “integrative” medicine programs. Any other schools taking a stance against the coming storm?

  12. Birdy says:

    Coincidentally, just yesterday a friend of mine approached the biology department about offering a ‘critical thinking about science’ course at our university and was well received. I’m putting together some information and suggestions to further support the idea, and I’ll include a link to this as an example of it applied to a specific topic.

    I must say, of the nine schools I will be applying to for medicine, McGill is tied for my top choice. Not that I’m likely to get a choice given how competitive it is, but if I get in there, it would be amazing.

  13. JasonL says:

    I am in the midst of this course. So far it is pretty good. I have found the discussion pages daunting. With 24,000 participants there is not really much discussion. Instead, there are a lot of people posting opinions, links, articles, etc.

  14. Many thanks for some other wonderful publish. Where by else may just any one wardrobe variety of info in such a best method regarding writing? For sale business presentation future full week, that i’m for the seek out such information.

  15. healanyone says:


    Nice article indeed, I was searching for good exercise for routine I guess.


  16. Lisa Basset says:

    The food for thought and your explanation is quite interesting and I’m thankful to you for sharing this.


    1. Sawyer says:

      Spam. I think. If anyone wants to check make sure your workplace doesn’t mind you looking at pictures of genitals. Everyone sitting behind me in anatomy class just got an extra lesson today.

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        Heh, did you hover the name for a second, and look at the url? I did. My thought process was “That looks like a website for vagi-naw, couldn’t be.” *click*


    2. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

      Jebus forking Cricket, this spam comment takes you to a website about vaginal tightening gel! The imagines were decidedly not safe for work!

      I think I broke my mouse hitting the close button, but does anyone need any blogging fodder? I’ve got a bunch of jokes lined up about how the research might be a little less dry than usual, which is funny on several levels, but also crass enough to strip paint.

      Yeah, feel free to delete this reply, the original comment and the one above while you’re at it.

Comments are closed.