Dr. Tarjany and the Moss Cancer Cure: A Conversation with Jonathan Jarry

Susan Gerbic

Susan Gerbic: We are going to be talking about this viral video that proposes to have the cure for cancer. You must watch this two-minute video (Dr. Tarjany and the Miracle Cancer Cure) first for the rest of this conversation to make any sense. And you must watch the entire video before commenting.

Jonathan Jarry: Let me make some popcorn first.

Gerbic: I would like to introduce you to Jonathan Jarry from the McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS). Jarry interviewed me about GSoW at CSICon 2017. You are brand new to the OSS but not new to scientific skepticism. He also is the cohost of the podcast The Body of Evidence. Jarry is on Twitter @CrackedScience. Jonathan, please tell people more about yourself.

Jarry: I’m a science communicator, and I don’t think it would be too far-fetched to say I am essentially a professional skeptic at this point. I studied molecular biology and human genetics, and my experiences in grad school really opened my eyes to important problems in scientific research, such as reproducibility and statistical illiteracy. So much of the published research is subpar and uninformative, but it’s not always easy to tell rigorous science apart from sloppy research, and this is something that pseudoscientists can easily exploit by publishing their half-baked experiments and benefiting from the veneer of legitimacy a publication confers.

I’ve been involved with the skeptical community for nearly a decade, organizing a slew of events (like a variety show focused on critical thinking), hosting podcasts, blogging, and making videos. The fact that I can now apply all these skills in the context of a proper job at McGill is an incredible opportunity and one that too few people get.

Gerbic: GSoW has become associated with the OSS lately since we rewrote Joe Schwarcz’s Wikipedia page in preparation for CSICon 2017. We were so impressed with Schwarcz’s lecture at CSICon that one of my editors, Robin Cantin, who lives in Montreal, took notice. Cantin wrote Wikipedia pages for several of the OSS founders and for the OSS itself, all in English and French. We are honored to learn of all the great work happening there.

Jarry: I always wondered if most American skeptics don’t know we exist because we’re located north of the Great Geographical Divide, beyond the veil of perception. But seriously, our office has officially existed for nearly twenty years. Dr. Joe Schwarcz, our director, has been fighting against chemophobia and pseudoscience on the public stage for forty years now. Our office’s mandate is to separate sense from nonsense for the public, which means providing basic science education but also investigating and denouncing pseudoscience and outright quackery. We do it through articles, videos, and a healthy presence in the mainstream media. One of my proudest contributions to the office is a biweekly YouTube series in the vein of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver called Cracked Science, which tackles topics like the genetics of intelligence and DNA compatibility testing for couples, topics that are often smothered in hype, misinformation, and sometimes controversy.

Our office also hosts the Trottier Public Science Symposium every year, which has featured speakers like James Randi, Dr. Harriet Hall, Dr. Edzard Ernst, Dr. Paul Offit, and many more. We are finalizing the line-up for 2018’s symposium on October 29 and 30, and I am really excited about our speakers!

Gerbic: Now on to the topic at hand: the Tarjany video. Hopefully everyone has watched it by now. If not, stop reading and watch the two-minute video. You wrote to me a week ago and said that the OSS was producing a video that you wanted downloaded and shared on social media on June 30, 2018. You were giving various people the video who have big social media presences. By the way, thank you for including me in that world.On June 30, you sent me a message with a link to a Dropbox account with the video. You said to download it, upload it to social media, and write on the post some kind of comment that this is nonsense. That is what I did, and only hours after its release I knew I had to talk to you about it. Tell me more about the video and the reasoning behind handling it this way. You could have simply uploaded it yourself to the OSS channel and asked for it to be shared, but you didn’t.

Jarry: I didn’t want to first share it through our official channels because a) we don’t have hundreds of thousands of followers and b) the words “McGill” and “science” might have tipped our hand. The video came about mainly through frustration (a great and underrated source of inspiration). A former coworker of mine sent me a video very much like this, asking me if there was anything to it. The video had received millions of views. This is a feeling we skeptics are all too familiar with: we lack the appeal of the fear-mongers and conspiracists and thus don’t reach as many people. So my goal was to create a Trojan horse, a video that would look exactly like those viral, anti-pharmaceutical, conspiracy-exposing clips but that would shatter your expectations halfway through, point out how you were taken in by blatant misinformation, and convey an all-too-timely message: be skeptical. We approached over seventy-five different people and Facebook pages, asking them to post the video natively. Five of those actually did it, including the host of HQ Trivia, Scott Rogowski, and the reach has been absolutely incredible.

Gerbic: It’s been almost five hours since I uploaded it to my Facebook page and already it is over 12K views and has been shared 878 times. And that is only from my post. What numbers are you seeing already? How are you tracking this when there are so many other people sharing the video?

Jarry: We’re now twenty-four hours into our subversive campaign, and the video has reached a grand total of a quarter of a million views! I had to go back to our list of seventy-five people, check their accounts one by one, and compile the numbers. Our little video has been shared 6,000 times. I definitely did not expect for it to take off like it did.

[NOTE from Gerbic: As I write this about thirty-six hours after uploading the video to my Facebook page, it has hit 290,868 views, 6,275 shares, and over 1.1 Facebook “reactions”—and this is just my page. Looking back at being excited with 12K views seems silly now. One very odd thing that has happened is that I’m getting a lot of Facebook friend requests. I normally see about three requests a day, but in the past thirty-six hours I think I’ve received about fifty requests. I’m not going to accept them, but it is really interesting. I think Facebook’s algorithms have added me to a list of “You Should Really Friend this Person.”] 

I would like to introduce you to Jonathan Jarry from the McGill Office for Science and Society (OSS) and hyperlink to their website… https://mcgill.ca/oss/
Jonathan says that across all the places it was shared it has 7.2 million views
I personally have 841,967 views and 12,787 shares

Gerbic: I’m fascinated by the response from the skeptic community. I shared it to my personal Facebook page and then shared it from there to about thirty skeptic groups I belong to internationally. I was flooded with notifications instantly. Some were laughing emojis; others were angry emojis. The comments were mixed; about three-fourths were positive comments. They got that it is a skeptical video aiming to teach a lesson. But one-fourth from what I could tell were from people who were upset by the video. Two people asked for the research to prove what they were seeing on the video. Many people said they stopped watching seconds into the video calling it nonsense. Lots of those negative comments were pointing out the various flaws in the statements made on the video, like how DNA was not discovered until much later than the video claimed. One woman sent me a private message saying that she searched for Dr. Tarjay and he does not exist, but she found the moss.

Jarry: The setup in the video was purposefully made to contain a number of mistakes that a savvy viewer might spot. Tarjany is represented not by one but two older white men, and you can tell by the quality of the pictures that they are from different eras. Also, in 1816, there basically were no photographs. The earliest surviving photograph dates back to ten years later, and it wasn’t exactly a crisp portrait. We also didn’t know about DNA at the time, and we certainly didn’t know its structure was helical.

Gerbic: On each negative post, other posters responded, “watch till the end” and then the angry person would say “Oh, I get it now.” One man was obviously posting comments as he watched it, as he was calling the claims out as nonsense as he watched the video. Then about his fourth comment he said “Oh, I should have watched it to the end before commenting. Now I feel silly.”What really interests me is what the reaction tells us about our community. Are we so quick to call BS on everything before really listening to the other side? It’s hard to tell as the video was making some pretty crazy claims right at the beginning. What do you think?

Jarry: I really enjoyed reading the comments on the video. The number of times the phrase “watch until the end” came up as a reprimand of sorts to a commenter was gold. To be fair, the video was not aimed at self-identified skeptics. We wanted to reach the kinds of people who are tempted by these videos, whose health has made them desperate, who haven’t been exposed to critical thinking and who don’t have a biomedical background. So I certainly can’t chastise the skeptics who stopped watching after five seconds and called the whole thing bunk: I’m sure I would have done the same. These shortcuts or heuristics are helpful because we are overwhelmed with information and must find a way to classify it fast.

Gerbic: I did get a message from a woman who said “I absolutely got someone with that cancer cure video. Exactly the sort of gullible person I wanted to influence :-).”

I’m also really impressed with the quality of the video. You hit all the buttons—even a happy woman dancing in silhouette. I want to be happy like her! My favorite part was the “peew peew!” line; not sure where that came from, but it made me laugh. As you say in the video, no one seemed to notice that the photos of the men were two different people.I’m sure this took a lot of time to produce, but probably very little money if anything at all. The message is really strong, and we need to get this and other videos like it beyond our little choir. And from what I understand it is already on its way to doing just that. What can we learn?

Jarry: The “peew peew” line (a reference to the music and a tip of the hat to Laura Dern’s recent role) is your first indication that there’s something incongruous with the video. Your expectations start to break down. The narrator is gaining sentience. And then you realize you’ve been taken in.

The video didn’t take long to make: a day and a half. And three of us spent about a day putting together a list of people and pages to approach for it. If we want our message of self-defense for the mind (as one local skeptic likes to call it) to reach people, we need to get off our butts and do something. Too often I have seen skeptics who are content to be passive and apathetic and wonder out loud why more isn’t done by other people. Activism doesn’t thrive by passing the buck. We can all do something. We can share skeptical content online; we can volunteer for preexisting organizations and create new ones if they prove themselves to be cemented in lethargy; we can organize local events; we can make videos, podcasts, blogs. I would love to see the feverish passion that animates many religious believers, or some form of it, to make its way to our community. I don’t think we need to be preachy about it or fall prey to a blind scientism. But we can be more productive.

Gerbic: Well you know I totally agree. We aren’t going to make any headway combatting nonsense if we just sit around complaining that “they” should do something. Sometimes “they” is “us.” I’m super happy you thought to include me in on this. It was a lot of fun and I’ve been really enjoying the comments and watching the numbers rise. And I’ve learned a lot about making viral videos. I’ve been doing everything wrong all these years. One of my big pet peeves with our community is that we don’t reach out to each other enough. We should know more about what others are doing so we can learn and maybe even help out. The other issue I have is that we need to report back to the community when we work on a project and not only when it is a success but show our failures. We can learn from that also.

I’m looking forward to what OSS does in the future. This video was a resounding success, and I think you all are on the right track. Please keep me in the loop on future endeavors, and I hope to do a lecture tour in Eastern Canada in the next year. Keep in touch!

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.