As a young man, Timothy Caulfield had dreams of being a rock star. But in recent years the health-policy professor at the University of Alberta has found a different way of capturing the public’s attention: by writing rigorous yet lively takedowns of all kinds of bogus diets, misleading beauty products and exercise fads. His latest popscience book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? (Penguin), looks at the increasingly murky intersection between science and celebrity culture.
Michael Hingston: A lot of your work is about debunking. Just so we’re clear: what are the things that will keep you healthy?
Timothy Caulfield: We’ve known the basics for so long. You don’t smoke. You get real exercise. You eat real food. You try to manage your weight. I’m adding sleep – I think sleep is increasingly important. And you take your basic preventative steps: you wear a bike helmet and seatbelt. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I think celebrity culture pulls us away from those basic facts.
MH: The facts may be well known, but people are still drawn to these risky, long-shot diets and fads. Why?
TC: People want simple, magical solutions. They want something that solves their problem, whether it’s fatigue, weight management, or depression issues. Celebrity culture sells that. The other thing celebrity culture sells is this idea that we should be doing things for looks, or for a short-term goal. Research tells us that all of that is bad news, because extreme strategies don’t work. We can’t maintain them. And when you have extrinsic goals – aesthetic reasons, instead of health reasons – you’re more likely to fail, and more likely to be unhappy with the result.
MH: Your new book is about the ways in which celebrity culture is at odds with science. Is this a new phenomenon? Where did it come from?
TC: That’s a great question. It’s not tremendously new, but celebrities are increasing their brand. They’re movie stars, plus they have a lifestyle website. In addition to that, there’s a growing distrust of science. People are not trusting traditional sources of science as they used to. There’s an increased space for pseudoscience and celebrities to step in.
MH: You did the Gwyneth-approved Clean Cleanse for the book, and you did lose weight – at least at first. What happens to our bodies when we attempt these kinds of regimens?
TC: Short-term, you are going to succeed. With these extreme diets, you’re paying attention to what you’re eating, and you’re eating fewer calories. They’re crash diets. When you lose that weight, you think, “Oh my gosh, this is working!” And, of course, as soon as you come off the crash diet, all the weight comes back on. That’s certainly what happened to me. So you get this reward from the weight loss, and you attribute the benefits to the program. But when you put the weight back on, that’s your fault. You fell off the wagon. You didn’t follow Gwyneth’s advice all the way to the end.
MH: Let me play devil’s advocate: Even if these fads don’t actually work, who cares? What’s the harm?
TC: Let’s talk about the beauty industry. First of all, there’s financial exploitation. Then there’s this constant social pressure on us to look a particular way. This has always been with us. It’s not new. But it’s been intensified through celebrity culture, and the social comparator has been kicked up to an impossible standard: Gwyneth, Gisele, Brad Pitt. That creates this perpetual dissatisfaction machine. So that’s the problem – and one of the by-products of that problem is this massive anti-aging beauty industry.
MH: In the book, you ask people about celebrity-endorsed products, and most admit to being skeptical – but are willing to try them anyway. Do you ever feel like this is a battle that can’t be won?
TC: In the long term, no. We’ve become more accepting of scientific answers. That’s the general trend of history. So we can’t give up. One of the reasons I wrote the book is to be out there, and to be engaged, and to try to get critical thinking and scepticism in the mix. Short term, I think it’s extremely challenging. It’s very difficult to change people’s perspectives. I still think, though, that there are signs of hope. That’s why it’s so important to educate kids, and to have good sources of independent health information that are accessible to the public.
MH: One of the criticisms you hear from readers is that scientists can’t be trusted anyway, because they’re all in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. How do you respond to that?
“PEOPLE WANT SIMPLE, MAGICAL SOLUTIONS. THEY WANT SOMETHING THAT SOLVES THEIR PROBLEM”
TC: I am sympathetic to that view. Our own research at the Health Law Institute has found that when scientists are involved with industry, public trust in their work diminishes quickly and dramatically. But good systematic reviews take that potential for bias into account. If the scientific method is applied rigorously, we do get closer to the truth. Science eventually wins. But these biases should remind our governments, our universities, and our researchers how important maintaining that public trust is, and the cost of comprising.
MH: There is no shortage of A-list celebrities who use their platform to endorse products that have no scientific merit. What about the flip side? Are there celebrities who you think are using their powers for good – to advocate for science and rationality?
TC: The Angelina Jolie example is fantastic. It really highlights how complex this phenomenon is. She wrote this piece for the New York Times [in 2013] about her decision to get a double mastectomy and to get genetic testing. It was thoughtful. She wasn’t in our face about it: she made the announcement and then she went away. It created a national discussion. There’s also evidence that women went to great websites, like the NIH [National Institutes of Health] website. The problem is that once she makes this announcement, she’s a celebrity – she no longer has control over the impact of the message. If you look at the research, it’s unclear whether it was all good. Something that may be in the bad column is that women already greatly overestimate their risk of breast cancer. It’s unclear about the benefits of mammograms, for example, for certain age groups. Did this increase the desire for double mastectomies among women who perhaps shouldn’t be getting them? Research to date says it did. They call it the Jolie Effect. It’s a fascinating good news/bad news story.
MH: The new book has made quite a splash since its release in Canada in January. Any comment yet from the Gwyneth camp?
TC: Nothing from Gwyneth. But the interest has been tremendous. I hope I hear from her. And I do think I’m kind of gentle. But even since the book has been published, she continues to say crazy things! She can’t stop herself. I was worried that people would think I was piling on, but that concern is starting to wane.
MH: What can people expect from your talk at the ECF event held at the Citadel later this month?
TC: I’m going to try to explain why it’s important to understand the impact celebrity culture is having. And I’m also going to make an argument that it’s relevant to everyone – even if they don’t know who Katy Perry is. This topic is still important. I promise it’ll be fun and provocative, and I also love hearing what people in the audience have to say.