Timothy Caulfield is a Canadian professor of law at the University of Alberta. He is an author of several books and writes about legal and ethical issues for various publications. In 2017, he was the host of the Canadian documentary series “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.” He will be speaking at CSICon on Saturday October 20 at 9:30 am.
Susan Gerbic: Hello Timothy, nice to meet you. I know you are very busy, so thank you for a few minutes of your time. My GSoW editor Robin Cantin spent a lot of time writing your Wikipedia page in English and French. I was watching over his shoulder and proofreading so I feel like I know you. For those people who have not yet read your Wikipedia page, can you please tell readers about yourself?
Timothy Caulfield: It is always tough to describe yourself, isn’t it? Especially if you aren’t sure how to describe what you do, which is my situation! I am a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta. I work with an amazing interdisciplinary team to explore a range of science and health policy issues. We try to do both empirical work and conceptual analysis trying to tease out what the evidence says about the best policy approach. I love working with big science teams. I feel very fortunate that my career took me down this path.
Gerbic: From what I understand you almost stumbled into the world of pseudoscience; you were leading an academic life as a professor of ethics and law, writing about genetics and health law, and gradually you started writing about health claims, then pseudoscience health claims, and then a book on Celebrity Culture and GOOP. The next thing you know you spent a year following an expensive regimen of skin care products specifically recommended by a dermatologist. What an interesting turn of events.
Caulfield: It was an interesting turn of events! I’d love to get in a time machine to tell the early career me that I will be spending a significant amount of my time writing about Gwyneth, Brady, and the Kardashians. But as I did more and more research around how science is represented in popular culture, it became clear that celebrity culture matters. It has a tremendous impact on health behaviors and attitudes, much more than people realize.
I think trying stuff out is important.We shouldn’t battle anecdote with anecdote, but getting a sense of perspective helps. What is attractive about these therapies? I’ve been to a naturopath, several acupuncturists, a TCM expert, a holistic nutritionist, a crystal therapy clinic, a mindfulness advocate, etc. Almost all of these experiences were entirely pleasant. Sure, they may be also largely science-free, but you get a sense why people go.
Gerbic: Have you heard from Gwyneth? (note: here is a link to Caulfield’s book – Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?)
Caulfield: No word from Gwyneth! Of course, she ranted about how science-informed commentators are all closed-minded downers. I’d love to sit down and talk critical thinking with Gwyneth, perhaps over some herbal tea. Does she really believe this stuff?Of course, most of it is just about building her brand and, alas, it is working. Goop is now valued at $250 million.
Gerbic: I’m very interested in this documentary series “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.” Some topics are about detox, extreme dieting, and the fountain of youth. This all sounds like the kind of programming we need more of. This was released in September and October of 2017 and was only six shows. What are the chances more are in the works, and maybe to a larger audience?
Caulfield: I’m absolutely thrilled with how the show turned out. As you know, making TV involves a lot of moving parts. I was a bit worried the science would get sucked out. But the production team was keen to keep it science-informed. There are currently so many health “documentaries” that spread misinformation. And they are so darn popular! It is frustrating. We hope there is an audience for this evidence-based stuff. We do keep it fun and very international. And yes, we have another six episodes finished! We tackled some great topics, including sleep, sex, body hacking, and vitamins. I’m happy to announce that Netflix is now involved. They will air season 1 this summer and season 2 in the fall!
Gerbic: Oh, that is wonderful!! Congratulations! And we just got your Wikipedia pages done this year, so perfect timing. Now when people see you on Netflix they will Google you and find your Wikipedia page. Yeah Team!
You have coined the term “scienceploitation” and I see your talk at CSICon is called “Scienceploitation: Pop Culture’s Assault on Science (and why it matters!).” Please tell us more about your talk.
Caulfield: This is a very troubling phenomenon as I think it makes it more difficult for the public to get a sense of what is real science and what is BS. Basically, scienceploitation is the leveraging of the language as real science to push bunk. Of course, it has always been around. When an area of science starts to get attention, it is coopted as a marketing tool. The discovery of magnetism led to a host of magnetic health products. But now you see stem cell, genetic, and increasingly, microbiome research being exploited to sell a host of ridiculous products. My favorite example, however, has to be the use of “quantum physics.” Many alternative medicine practitioners seem to think that if they slap the word “quantum” on a product it sounds more science-y and more legitimate. We have done research on this phenomenon, especially in the area of stem cells. Unfortunately, studies have shown that scienceploitation works. It creates a veneer of legitimacy that makes the product seem more credible.
Gerbic: One bit of trivia about you I know is that if not for motion sickness issues, the science community would never have known of you, as we would have lost you to the punk rock scene. Have I got that story right?
Caulfield: There is absolutely some truth in that story! Being in a band requires a lot of touring in crappy vans. Long, late night drives. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes my stomach queasy! All the aspiring musicians out there can confirm that being in a band is really 80 percent loading gear and driving, 10 percent dreaming of success, 5 percent sitting around arguing with each other, and 5 percent gigging and rehearsing. I’m pretty sure there is a meta-analysis and systematic review that confirms this breakdown. By the way, I still have terrible motion sickness. Know any good alternative therapies?
Gerbic: Absolutely not! We don’t want to lose you now! Looking forward to meeting you in person. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.