What’s the strangest thing Timothy Caulfield (LLM’93) has done in the name of science? “It was probably that time I ate a snake gallbladder,” he laughs.
Caulfield is fascinated by the intersection of health and celebrity culture—specifically, the power of celebrities to influence health decisions about alternative therapies. But rather than study this trend from a distance, Caulfield takes a first-hand approach: he tries these diets and therapies himself, and talks to those who feel the approaches work for them.
It’s a tactic Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and faculty member at the University of Alberta, used in his 2015 book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. Caulfield continues his exploration in a new documentary series just released on Netflix. A User’s Guide to Cheating Death casts light on controversial health practices that promise health benefits, everything from cryotherapy to something called “nappercise” (which is exactly what it sounds like—napping).
“Gwyneth Paltrow or Tom Brady can say whatever they want without any scientific evidence to back it up—and they say it with absolute conviction. It convinces people that what they’re saying is true. They make these definitive statements about nonsense,” he says.
To combat misinformation, he says it’s important for scientists to be part of the discussion, and to use the same tools, like social media. “That’s not to say we fight anecdote with anecdote. We always have to strike a balance between wanting to be brief and direct, and at the same time not simplify the research. I really hope that more and more academics get involved in the public discourse around these issues,” he says.
Caulfield is thrilled that Netflix has picked up his documentary series, which has already been shown in 60 countries. “I’m very proud of the show. I was worried at first that the science would be taken out of it, but the whole team has been committed to making it science based.”
He says the focus on the show is not to ridicule those who trust in these wellness practices and products. “We try to show a variety of perspectives and really get an understanding of why people want to follow these treatments.”
Dalhousie’s Faculty of Health hosted Caulfield and Dr. Monika Dutt for a Fireside Chat during the Healthy Living, Healthy Life conference in September, 2018. Caulfield says he was happy to return to Dalhousie for the conference, as his time at Dal was one of the best in his life. “It’s a fantastic university and I’m thrilled that I was able to come back to help celebrate Dalhousie’s 200th.”