Thinking Critically - University of Alberta prof fights celeb pseudoscience

I have a new hero.

Timothy Caulfield is a professor and Canada research chair in health law and policy. He is also the author of a new book, with possibly the best title ever: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

The title stems from Caulfield’s attempt to follow Paltrow’s favourite cleanse, which involves three weeks of near starvation coupled with thoroughly unpalatable shakes and probiotics. Caulfield’s conclusion: nonsense. And he is backed up by science. “Detoxing” may be all the rage in Hollywood, but it is a ridiculous fad at best.

Caulfield’s own prescription is much more helpful.

“Cleanse your system of all the pseudo-science babble that flows from many celebrities, celebrity physicians and the diet industry,” he writes.

The problem is, we are inundated with celebrity culture and it is getting worse with social media. Personally, I don’t follow a lot of celebrities, but when I get tweets from someone like New Yorker humour columnist Andy Borowitz, it almost feels like we have a personal relationship, which, of course, we don’t. I admire the man, but who knows what one might find when you start peeling off the layers.

The bottom line is we feel like we know these people and therefore trust them. But we don’t know them and we should not trust them. Paltrow could be a genius with a blind spot for the quackery of detox or she could be a con artist manipulating her fame for financial gain.

One thing she is not is a doctor. Then again that doesn’t mean much in the world of celebrity. Dr. Oz is an actual M.D. yet he promotes all kinds of products and regimens that make spurious claims on his show.

I idolized Bobby Orr when I was a child, so I was very disappointed to note he is now shilling for a “natural” health product called LivRelief.

Now, some things, such as Gwyneth’s nasty “cleanse,” may not be harmful, but other things can be.

Colon cleanses are a huge celebrity trend, the benefits of which are unsupported by science. What is supported by science is that they can be dangerous, potentially leading to nausea, vomiting and infection.  

At the extreme end, celebrity influence can be a threat to society as a whole. Jenny McCarthy took the train to Crazy Town and spawned a anti-vaccination movement that now has measles, a disease that was all but extinct, making a big comeback.

Just because somebody is a celebrity does not make them automatically wrong about things, but it does not automatically make them right either.

And that is not to say they don’t often do good as well. People just need to put on their critical thinking caps and investigate celebrity claims the way they would anything else.

Another problem, Caulfield points out, is that even when the famous are right about something, useful information frequently gets lost as the story becomes about the celebrity rather than the issue. As an example, the author examines the media coverage surrounding Angelina Jolie’s revelation that she had a double mastectomy because, due to the presence of a mutated form the BRCA gene in her DNA, she was at a highly elevated risk of developing breast cancer.

He cites research published in Genetics in medicine: official journal of the American College of Medical Genetics that indicated coverage of the story did little to educate the public. The article, entitled “The Angelina effect: immediate reach, grasp, and impact of going public,” concluded that few than one in ten of the 2,572 people researchers survey garnered improved understanding of the issue.

Caulfield takes it all on and his book is a great addition to the fight against irrational nonsense. Unfortunately, it will likely never be read by even a fraction of the people who need to read it.

What Caulfield needs is a giant celebrity to endorse it.

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