Like everyone who grew up in the Scarborough suburb of Toronto, Joe Martino and I were middle-class children of immigrants raised on Jamaican beef patties and public transit. As far as I could tell, Joe was another Pope John Paul II Catholic Secondary School student bound for college and then a job and house nearby. If I had been asked which of us would become an alternative lifestyle guru, I would not have pointed to the skinny Italian kid playing street hockey.
During college, Joe was the subject of gossip. Catholic school kids love to talk about other people’s belief systems, and no one quite understood Joe’s. I was told he was convinced government officials were reptiles, believed in extra-dimensional worlds, and kept bringing up the Illuminati. I have a very distinct memory of being confronted with evidence of this distinctly un-Canadian craziness: A friend showed me Joe’s website, Collective Evolution, which offered essentially the same reading experience as a papier-mâché unicorn made from Nostradamus fan fiction. Because I had my own working theory — people get weird after high school — I dismissed it. Other people did not.
Over the past five years, Collective Evolution has transformed into a slick alternative media outlet with 18 to 20 million readers each month. Some of the ideas are still pretty out there, but it’s significantly less cryptic. The site’s articles — together with its documentaries, videos, and podcasts — are, to the extent that they can be, straightforward. They’re all part of the Collective Evolution mission to shake up the way we think by exposing flaws in what we believe. No topic — whether it’s vaccines, GMOs, or UFOs — is exempt from Joe’s scrutiny. As I watched his TEDx talk, audaciously titled “How To Change Your Life”, I couldn’t believe this was the same kid from Pope. This Joe was confident and passionate. He seemed completely at ease discussing his struggle with depression and anxiety and preaching his life’s mission.
Sprawled out around a circular driveway, the Kingbridge Centre is a cross between a luxury rehab facility and a supervillain’s fortress. In the silent, sun-filled lobby, I tell the old concierge I’m meeting Joe Martino at the Bridges Bar. As he takes me to a dark, high-ceilinged room adorned with teak and stone, I ply him for information about Collective Evolution, which he gruffly denies having before leaving me at the door. I pass 15 minutes looking at dozens of framed posters of bridges, each ostensibly meant to illustrate both the centre’s name and culture of institutionalized collaboration.
Almost 10 years since the last time I saw Joe in the flesh, I’m two hours out of Scarborough, stuck in traffic on my way to the Kingbridge Conference Centre and Institute, a sprawling wood-and-glass complex surrounded by rolling lawns and shielded by over 100 acres of forest. In its literature, the compound claims to offer a “playground for inspiring meaningful change,” which sounds both vaguely friendly and vaguely ominous. This is where Collective Evolution’s 12 staffers spend their days writing benign articles on well-being, discussing superfoods for digestion or tips for better sleep. It’s also where they conceive more troubling stories, the ones with headlines like “MIT Professor Explains the Vaccine Autism Connection” and “New Study Finds A ‘Very Strong’ Correlation Between GMOs and Two Dozen Diseases.”
When Joe arrives, he’s wearing blue shorts and a t-shirt and he looks almost exactly like the skinny Italian kid I knew in high school. He just smiles more. He smiles a lot. In fact, it seems like his whole body is smiling, from his Collective Evolution baseball cap down to his American Eagle flip flops. Once quiet and unassuming, he’s now outspoken and, well, assuming. He concludes that I want a tour of his offices and hes correct. He leads me down a maze of sunny hallways like a child.
Like any office, Collective Evolution’s office is a metaphor for the ambitions of the people who work inside it. And it’s really big. Joe’s domain spans an entire floor of one Kingbridge wing and has huge windows that overlook the greenery. Choosing to rent here was an easy decision, he tells me, gesturing at the forest. He then asks me if I remember the Yellow Pages building, a glass-panelled polygonal monstrosity on Highway 401 that always felt like a monument to Scarborough’s stasis.
“When I looked at the way corporate was there, I saw this glaring hole,” he says. ”It feels gray; it feels dark; nobody likes it. That’s just supposed to be normal?”
The question is supposed to be rhetorical and the contrast obvious. He leads me into Collective Evolution’s sun-filled “hangout room. A copy of Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, which Oprah Winfrey described as “essential spiritual teaching,” sits on the table. Joe is getting so excited it seems like he can barely sit at all. He only stops to take sips from the huge mason jar he keeps by his side.
“Why would you want to limit yourself to being born, school, work, death?” he asks, holding out a narrow strip of paper, folded like a fan. “What we’re saying is, if you take a lot of the belief systems or if you take away a lot of what people have been telling you over time about stuff” — he slowly unfolds the strip — “you actually have this whole fucking world you can experience.” He flattens the sheet on the table.
I’d recently read a Collective Evolution article describing a study where “human intention” — compassionate thoughts sent from one person to another — could help heal cancer patients, like nuns miraculously praying the sick into recovery. I was immediately reminded of the stories in the Catholic pamphlets littering my childhood home, which I thought were sweet — they made my mother happy — but just seemed to be too good to be true. I felt the same way about this article, which cited a 2008 paper in Explore, a journal I’d never heard of in the six years I spent studying science. In the paper, the scientists admit they don’t actually test for “distant healing” but instead measure the effect of directed thoughts to change, essentially, the ability of perspiration to conduct electricity. Regardless of the fact that the results weren’t actually statistically significant, the connection between electric sweat and cancer healing was bewilderingly vague to begin with, yet these key points were conspicuously absent from the article.
I can understand why Joe would want to knock down whatever is preventing us from healing each other telepathically. I’m just not sure that whatever isn’t reality.
Joe never intended for his passion project to become his life’s work. For the first few years, he financed the community site he operated out of a friend’s basement with the help of a few like-minded message board dwellers. Traffic moved up and to the right, so, in a public library not far from where we grew up, Joe and two collaborators decided to rebuild the original forum as Collective Evolution, a more formal space for people like them to share and connect. Then they decided that, despite their reservations, they would have to take on advertising.
“Business,” Joe says, grudgingly referencing ads, “is always the second side of it.”
As the site’s reach grew, Joe redefined his relationship with his readers. The current iteration of the site is less of a journalistic endeavor than it is a call to action, a community organizing effort for the meek growing impatient about their inheritance. As such, traditional media models feel wrong, which is why Joe intends to open up a new profit stream, an online supplement store he’ll operate with the help of a Toronto naturopath known for using cannabis oil to treat cancer. “Any product we’re going to push out, we’re going to do it and source it as best as we possibly can,” he explains. Sensing my doubt, he doubles down on the idea that he has to be responsible for what he offers up to his followers.
Dr. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a career debunker of bad science, doesn’t think Joe is living up to those responsibilities.
Shermer has known his fair share of what he calls peddlers of “woo,” a term used among devotees of the scientific method to describe pseudoscientific explanations. (The word is thought to stem from the sound of audiences going “woooo!” in reaction to magic tricks.) Woo is appealing because it offers explanations for things people either don’t understand or don’t accept. Collective Evolution, he says, is “woo-woo central.”
“Come on. Come on,” says Shermer as he scrolls through a Collective Evolution story titled “500 Kilometers On 1 Litre: Brazilian Man Shows Us Why We Don’t Need Gas Stations.” “Stories like these guys are legion, and they’re all fraud. Or they’re deluded. They never, ever, ever, ever turn out to be true.” He scoffs at the idea that big business suppresses revolutionary inventions, like the water-based engine mentioned in the article. “They always make that argument,” he says. “How do you explain Elon Musk and Tesla and all the other electric cars? The conspiracy is apparently not working very well.”
But Shermer isn’t just bemused by Joe. He’s a little bit scared of him.
Shermer points to an article about a U.S. Congressman, Bill Posey, who dropped a “bombshell” about data fraud in vaccine science — much to the delight of anti-vaxxers. “This is a hundred percent out of phase with reality,” he says. “Who the hell is a congressman? We should be talking to the CDC. Somebody from JAMA, somebody from the American Medical Association. Oh gosh, this is terrible.” Vaccines, medicine, cancer cures, AIDS, even creationism: These are public health issues that require both thoughtful and reasonable policy prescriptions. Mistrust of institutions makes advocating for those policies difficult or possible.
“This is where it becomes dangerous,” says Shermer. “Not all ideas are equal. And therein lies the rub.”
Shermer’s problem with Collective Evolution isn’t that it’s actively immoral but that it’s completely passive, unwilling to do the hard work of sorting the good ideas and information from the bad. Shermer believes in the institutions and credentialled people traditionally responsible for the sorting process. He doesn’t doubt that Joe wants “moral progress,” but he believes that he’s opting out of the testing phase of the scientific process.
Joe doesn’t really disagree with that assessment.
“We don’t choose sides,” he says. “Our thing with the vaccine movement is always, ‘It’s not about anti-vaxx.’ It’s just being pro-information.” He enforces a strict “emotionally neutral” policy at the site. Keeping potentially partisan feelings out of the reporting, he says, lets readers form their own opinions.
“I’m not saying nobody should go out there and get vaccinated,” he says. “I’m saying, let’s give people the proper information, let’s look at this as a humanity.”
To Joe, the prevailing wisdom is always up for debate. Everything is up for debate. His sheet of paper is unfolded and pure white. He knows that, like him, Bill Gates dropped out of college and that the Ph.D.s have been wrong before. This is certainly true, but I have two degrees in biology, and one thing that got drilled home during lab work was the difference between correlation and causation.
“They laughed at the Wright brothers,” says Shermer. “Well, they laughed at the Marx Brothers. Being laughed at doesn’t make you right.”
I don’t think Joe runs Collective Evolution to enrich himself, but I do think his concerns are notably earthly for a good Catholic boy. What becomes clear talking to him is that he wants. He’s not greedy or at all unhappy — the smile is apparently permanent — but he believes that he, and the rest of us, deserve more and better. It’s this almost religious conviction, like belief in the New World Order, that seems to bond him to his audience. And he’s introspective enough to understand this, which is why he’s eager to recall a session he had with a psychiatrist back when he was trying to make it in the conventional world to a woman he knew almost a decade ago.
“There was a terrifying moment,” he says. “She had the look on her face saying, ‘I don’t know how to help you.’ But she didn’t say it. I was like, oh fuck, she’s lost, what am I gonna do?”
In essence, Joe didn’t solve this problem: He relocated it. Rather than struggling to live in the world our parents, church, government, and government-financed scientists built for us, Joe chose an alternative route. “It’s sad that we need to call it that, but the whole purpose of the ‘alternative’ movement is to say, ‘Look, this was established, but this may not have been established for the right reasons,’” he says.
In his TEDx talk, Joe discusses why he thinks the site blew up the way it did. People are unhappy, he says, and they’re frustrated they can’t do anything about it. “There are revolutions, there are protests, there are people all over the place who are asking for change,” he says, gazing out into the crowd, the sky-blue Collective Evolution logo splashed out on a huge screen behind him.
For casual readers, Collective Evolution is a neatly packaged collection of parables attempting to explain the world’s ills. But for its devoted followers, it’s much more than that: With its catchphrase, “Be Change,” it offers people a chance to bring about their own salvation. Evolve with us, the site seems to say, and gain control over your future — everyone’s future. As Joe, smiling away on the couch in the sunny hangout room, recounts every step of his difficult journey from depression to introspection to liberation, he is the picture of a man in control.
He pauses every few sentences to look me straight in the eye, as if to ask, “You follow what I’m saying, right?” Despite my doubts, I find myself overwhelmed by the strength of his conviction, nodding along in agreement.
“It’s not science or pseudoscience, like a switch that’s on-off,” says Dr. Michael Gordin, author of The Pseudoscience Wars and professor of contemporary history at Princeton’s brick-and-ivy Dickinson Hall. “You are closer or further from the consensus. And being closer to the consensus isn’t always a good thing because sometimes the consensus is wrong.”
And he’s not at all surprised that Joe has an audience. Guys like Joe have always had an audience. People keep coming back to the fringe, Gordin says, because “there’s something compelling in some aspect of it.” He prefers this term — fringe — because it carries less judgment than “pseudoscience,” which he says scientists have started using as a “term of abuse.”
“Exploring an unorthodox theory is like having an unorthodox lifestyle, an unorthodox politics,” says Gordin. “It’s just another unorthodox thing that is part of people’s self-inquiry.”
The ideas that Collective Evolution champions sit far from the scientific center by design, not by accident. There’s a Collective Evolution article describing a set of one-off studies that prove telepathy is real, illustrated with an image of two blue men locked in an electric stare-off like a pair of Dr. Manhattans. This seems insane, but it is scientific to the extent that someone did an experiment and made a conclusion based on the results. String theory and Einstein’s special theory of relativity, Gordin points out, were once derided. They were at the fringe but moved, over time, towards the middle. And theories can move through the rings of scientific truth in two directions. Eugenics, anyone?
It’s an intellectual challenge to believe that the anti-vaxxers might be right. To do so is to imply that the scientific establishment has a massive blind spot, that highly credentialled people have made systematic errors or are caught up in a grand conspiracy. It requires believing that the whole system the scientific community has been built on, the one that awarded me my two college diplomas, is a totalitarian state rather than a benevolent democracy. On this level, Joe is a sort of lab rat guerilla fighting towards a capital defended by, among many others, the American Medical Association, the CDC, NASA, Caltech, and the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
“People who are fringe feel like an injustice has been done,” Gordin says. “They have a claim, and evidence.”
The evidence is the rub. Collective Evolution’s writers lean heavily on places in airy Northern California like the HeartMath Institute and the Institute of Noetic Science, founded by former NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell, which most scientists have never heard of or dismiss out of hand.
And that’s the problem, according to Gordin, who says that if there’s even some evidence there — of a vaccine-autism link, or a water-powered engine — credentialled scientists should be eager to check it out. It’s impossible, of course, to chase down every lead, so scientists default to a sort of triage process Gordin thinks is ill-considered. If scientists remain convinced that “the weirder the idea is, the less likely it is to be right,” Gordin thinks they’ll miss opportunities. If we didn’t have people willing to investigate the weirder ideas, he says, we wouldn’t have quantum theory or antibacterial treatments for ulcers.
Gordin’s careful to mention that there is, of course, a “bright line,” beyond which ideas are totally delusional. We just don’t always know where that line is.
“It’s not a fight,” sighs Joe, who sees himself as more pacifist than revolutionary. He’s simply trying to showcase the science that mainstream media won’t — or can’t — present. And who can judge the quality of that science, wonders Joe, when “these quote-unquote legit scientists” are being exposed for fraud?
He does not cite specific examples.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a person whose view of the scientific community is informed by a distrust of the institutions that run it overestimates the resources of those institutions. Joe’s plan for putting an end to the scientific debates — whether on vaccination, GMOs, free energy, or any of the other hot topics that keep readers coming back to his site — is pretty simple: “Let’s truly put this to the test, clinically.” Like Gordin, he thinks we need to be experimental; unlike Gordin, he doesn’t acknowledge that resources are limited. And he refuses to understand why people have their doubts about the feasibility — and morality — of his approach.
“It’s kind of shocking to hear a guy like Shermer, who’s in the field and knows — He knows how it works,” he says. “He’s not a dumb man. He’s intelligent. He knows that there’s corruption. He knows that things can be hand-picked.”
In the world Joe wants to live in — the world we’re all supposed to be evolving toward — there is no need for skeptics because it’s possible to test every shaky claim. It’s possible to treat illness with natural products because pharmaceutical companies don’t obsess over profits. Cars would run on water, criminals would be cared for, and road rage would be nothing more than a Wikipedia entry. We’d all be a little bit kinder. We’d all be more open.
There’s a distinct high-schooliness to walking with Joe through the grass toward the parking lot and trying to make sense of the world in a big holistic way. Back then, we’d watch trippy movies like The Matrix to expand our minds; even now, Joe thinks it’s a pretty spot-on metaphor for what we’re all going through. Those talks were always fun for me, a nice way to pass the time. The thing I realize as we get closer to the parking lot is that Joe believes he actually gets it. That had never occurred to me as a possibility or the point.
“Every year it gets greater and greater,” he says proudly, pleased with the growth of his community. Collective evolution, he says, is already happening.
Before I leave, I ask him what is in the mason jar.
“It’s special water,” he says. “It doesn’t contain fluoride or chlorine or anything like that.” If he puts something in his body, he wants it to be pure. We say goodbye and he smiles as I walk away. I don’t doubt that he’s smiling as he walks back into the airy environs of the Kingbridge compound.
Crammed in my dad’s Mitsubishi, the one he still leases from his boss, I head home, straight into the blare of rush hour traffic. I take the Neilson Road exit off Highway 401, the same exit that leads to our old high school, Pope. Last year, it was renamed Saint John Paul II Catholic Secondary School, to the fanfare of our still-religious community.
In the distance, the Yellow Pages tower looms over the squat concrete buildings of Scarborough’s business district. It’s not pretty, but it’s comforting in a way. It reminds me of being a kid. Even back then, I didn’t live in a world of infinite possibility. Unlike Joe, I still don’t.