Timothy Caulfield is not a good sleeper. Some nights he wakes thinking about his research or how his beloved Patriots played, or maybe to write down a thought, usually scrawling it onto the flesh of his left hand, an inky blur reminding him of something he has to do, a meeting he has to keep, an idea to revisit in the morning.
At other times – and this is the one that really matters, the reason he doesn’t keep electronics upstairs anymore, and tries not to even look at Twitter in the hours before bedtime – it’s the jade eggs. Or maybe not the eggs specifically, but something like the eggs. A diet or treatment or trend, a wonder cure or miraculous healing tonic, a supplement or procedure that promises to restore youth and health and beauty – at least for anyone willing to pay for it.
“I can honestly say I don’t know why I care so much,” says the Edmonton author and academic, pensive behind his standing desk at the University of Alberta on a sunny afternoon. “But for some reason, I’m wired that this really bothers me.”
Prof. Caulfield is the author of the bestselling Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash and The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness.
He’s now finding new audiences as the star of A User’s Guide to Cheating Death, a slick TV show newly available on Netflix, in which Prof. Caulfield takes on various health, wellness and beauty trends, sometimes using himself as the subject.
Through the books and show, his own considerable social-media profile, and his academic work, Prof. Caulfield has become one of North America’s most high-profile skeptics, taking on the rising tide of pseudoscience and misinformation, particularly in regard to health and wellness as promoted by celebrity culture. He’s studied the evidence on everything from colonics (don’t do it) to vaginal steaming (also no), and strategically carved out a spot as a kind of specialized celebrity debunker. You can think of him as Gwyneth Paltrow’s polite Canadian nemesis.
Prof. Caulfield is a youthful 54, dressed in what an Edmonton magazine once described as “impeccable street style,” and exuding what a Twitter fan recently pegged as “cool-uncle vibes.”
He has the charisma of someone used to performing in front of crowds, which he once did as the front man of a band successful enough to open for The Ramones, and does now speaking to classes and conferences around the world. His square jaw, heavy framed glasses and glossy curl of hair recall Clark Kent, and his arms are inked with the evidence of his ideology: a tattoo of one of Darwin’s finches, a fruit fly studied by biologist Dr. Thomas Morgan, the Wright brothers. His wife is a doctor, his four children each accomplished in their own areas of art and sport and science.
Prof. Caulfield’s only weakness, if it can even be called that, seems to be a fondness for “expensive coffee,” of which he drinks four or five cups a day. Over all, the effect is such that if Prof. Caulfield had his own wellness brand or line of wonder vitamins, it would sell very well.
“He is a renaissance man!” proclaimed Justice Ellen Picard, stopping unexpectedly into Prof. Caulfield’s office at the Health Law Institute with a signed new edition of her book, Legal Liability of Doctors and Hospitals in Canada. Justice Picard founded the Health Law Institute and was Prof. Caulfield’s mentor, working in the same office Prof. Caulfield now occupies as both the institute’s research director and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. She surveys the array of books and art around him with satisfaction.
“If only I had known, when I sat here trying to figure out how I could pay the summer student, that it would all work out all right,” she said, beaming.
Prof. Caulfield had once hoped to be a musician, but a combination of motion sickness and practicality made him poorly suited for life on the road. Instead, he studied science and then law, a path that took him to the Health Law Institute and Justice Picard. Through their work together in the 1990s, Prof. Caulfield became increasingly interested in the disconnect he saw between what the evidence showed about an issue, what the public debates would be and what kind of policy would ultimately result.
Prof. Caulfield’s own rising career ran parallel to a mounting public distrust of science and medicine and the swelling of wellness trends, often amplified by celebrities who, with social media and sophisticated marketing, wield an unprecedented level of public influence and power.
Since Prof. Caulfield (really) likes evidence, he points out that the effect of that imbalance is not merely anecdotal. There is data to suggest celebrities are having a measurable impact on public health, whether through the anti-vaccination views promoted by Jenny McCarthy or the interventions done in pursuit of the Kardashians’ beauty standards. Ms. Paltrow’s brand Goop sells and promotes, among other things, vaginal steaming, jade eggs for women to put into their vaginas ($86) and a therapy that involves getting repeatedly stung by bees. As Prof. Caulfield points out, Katy Perry can tweet her vitamin regimen to her 107 million followers on Twitter. The World Health Organization has 4.6 million Twitter followers.
In his TV show, in speeches, and in his books and academic work, Prof. Caulfield looks at the evidence behind these health and beauty trends, examining everything from the keto diet to “vampire facials,” genetic testing services, fasting and cleanses, gluten-free eating and butt implants. He’s also examined potentially emotional topics such as stem-cell treatments and whether peanut bans in schools are effective.
Prof. Caulfield says he works to keep his own assumptions in check, researching his subjects from the opposite perspective and guarding against his own bias, remaining open to anything that can be supported by science. In some cases, such as mindfulness and “forest bathing” (spending time in a forest), the evidence surprised him – although with careful caveats. In other instances, he finds a clear difference between leaving a treatment feeling good and relaxed, and it living up to its promised benefits.
And while some therapies may be pleasant and harmless, others can be dangerous. Procedures such as colonics carry a number of risks, and doctors have raised concerns about injuries or infection that could arise from vaginal steaming and jade eggs. Actor Gerard Butler was treated twice for anaphylaxis after receiving bee-sting therapy, and another woman died after the treatment.
Many alternate therapies also come at huge financial cost, and sometimes at the expense of other medical treatment. More broadly, Prof. Caulfield believes it all contributes to the noise of misinformation, what he sees as a crisis in critical thinking around the world.
“If you are willing to believe this one magical thing, I think it’s easier to believe other magical things,” he says. “And I think this is a significant problem in this day and age: This deep erosion and loss of trust and critical thinking in how our world works.”
The amplification of celebrities such as Ms. Paltrow has amplified Prof. Caulfield as well. He does multiple media interviews a week with outlets around the world, and jade eggs and vaginal steaming come up regularly.
In some cases, elbowing his way into the celebrity wellness conversation can border on stunting. He once tried out for American Idol, knowing he was too old to be eligible. On another occasion, Prof. Caulfield got into a Twitter spat with Deepak Chopra, whom he’d called “the embodiment of pseudoscience,” a “de-educator” and “a fountain of meaningless jargon.” After Prof. Caulfield tweeted about being denied entry into a planned meeting between the two in Edmonton, Mr. Chopra called Prof. Caulfield “an insecure attention seeker” and accused him of wanting media attention. (Mr. Chopra later apologized and blamed a misunderstanding with hotel security.)
Prof. Caulfield, however, makes no apologies for using the platform of people such as Mr. Chopra or Ms. Paltrow for his own purpose, which he describes as pitting “creative communication strategy against creative communication strategy.”
“It’s almost a little bit of a Trojan horse,” he says. “To be honest, the Gwyneth book is a Trojan horse to talk about these issues. There’s that element too, to kind of use celebrity culture against itself.”
Growing interest in these issues has made Prof. Caulfield a busy man. At one point this fall, his schedule included speaking at a skeptics’ convention in Las Vegas, appearing on a panel between Apple chief executive Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg in Brussels, a media tour in Toronto, and then an event in Morden, Man.
At the same time, he’s writing a new book and working at the university, where his team has research papers rolling out every few weeks. He says he hopes to do a third season of his TV show, and continue with other TV projects.
In an atmosphere where even long-disproven theories – such as the Earth being flat – have seen a resurgence, and the marketing of pseudoscience and unproven therapies grows ever more complex, Prof. Caulfield’s battle can feel vast and unwinnable. But with the exception of some sleepless nights, he seems to take the scope in stride. He says he considers it to be almost like fighting smoking: a broad campaign that will make gains over time.
“It’s not going to be one policy or one tactic that’s going to help moderate this problem,” he says. “You have to use all of these tools, and we’re probably not ever going to totally eradicate it, but we can make things a little bit better.”