Since Timothy Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? went on sale this month, the media have been abuzz with cuts against bogus movie star beauty and health regimens. In the first half of his book, Caulfield, professor of health law and science policy at the University of Alberta, debunks the pseudoscience of deep cleanses, snail facials, and super juicing, just to name a few. No matter how deep the cleanse, or how super the juice, your body and well-being will not glow from the purported benefits endorsed by the rich and famous. Caulfield's certainly did not. That his research has practically divested Gwyneth Paltrow of her dubious title of queen of health and beauty is what most media hubs have latched onto.
But there is more to Caulfield’s book than Ms. Paltrow’s misinformative lifestyle tips. The heart of his argument, featured in the second half, focuses on the sociological implications of celebrity culture obsession. The countries with the highest level of social disparity are the most obsessed with fame—fame to be earned effortlessly by being one’s self in front of a camera for a reality TV show or by dint of becoming a rock, movie, or sports star. Striving toward fame, or even aspiring to it, is not what it is cracked up to be. In the following passage, Caulfield lays bare some of the adverse side effects. Interestingly enough, the celebrity industry is not entirely responsible.
The countries that seem the most obsessed with celebrity culture (i.e., the United States, United Kingdom, South Korea) do not score particularly high in rankings of population happiness. According to the 2013 World Happiness Report, a study prepared for the United Nations, the happiest countries in the world are Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland. Canada ranks sixth. The United States and the United Kingdom, two countries that both produce and consume a great deal of celebrity culture, rank seventeenth and twenty-second, respectively. These same celebrity-loving countries also have a terrible record when it comes to social mobility. The United Kingdom ranks last among the thirty-four nations in the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the United States is third from last. In other words, in these countries, moving up the socioeconomic ladder is nearly impossible. If you are born into poverty, you are likely to stay in poverty. If you are a middle-class kid, chances are you will be a middle-class adult. Ditto your kids. (Incidentally, the country that has the highest degree of social mobility? Happy Denmark.)
Some commentators have gone so far as to call the American dream a myth, a topic I discussed with Howard Steven Friedman, a well-known statistician with the United Nations and author of The Measure of a Nation. “The idea of social mobility, of becoming rich, is core to the American mythology,” Friedman says. “But, ironically, American performance in this area is consistently one of the worst of the developed nations.” Friedman has observed that the statistics are depressing for those “who subscribe to the notion that America is a meritocracy and a ‘land of opportunity.’” And the data tell us social mobility is getting worse.
In this era of health-science research, rarely a day goes by without a public pronouncement of some exciting health-enhancing discovery: a new diet, a new fitness routine, a new drug or alternative therapy, the miracles achieved by genetic mapping. And we are told—by the media, health-care experts, even government—that we should use this information to live a healthier life. But what information can we trust? Are yoga and stretching the surefire path toward healthy aging? Can consuming enormous quantities of certain "natural" remedies ward off disease? Should we all eat nothing but carbs, or fats, or pineapples, and regularly cleanse our colons or have our meridians aligned? Should we all have our genome mapped to solve our health problems?
In The Cure for Everything, health policy expert and fitness enthusiast Timothy Caulfield wades through the tides of health crazes, misleading data, and well-meaning gurus in a quest to sort out real, reliable health advice. He takes us along as he navigates the maze of facts, findings, and fears associated with emerging health technologies, drugs, and disease-prevention strategies and presents an impressively researched, accessible take on the production and spread of information in the health sciences.
Seamlessly switching between his sweatsuit and his lab coat, Caulfield doesn't just pore over the research and interview the professionals; he gets his t-shirt sweaty and his meridians aligned, testing out the scientific validity of some of the health and fitness crazes of our day. Bravely using himself as a guinea pig, he goes on a strict diet, a rigorous exercise routine, swallows bottles of "natural" remedies, and has needles inserted all over his body. He illuminates some solid paths to better health, along with the dead-end detours.
Science is everywhere, but what passes through most people's field of vision is often wrong, hyped, or twisted by an ideological or commercial agenda. And without good scientific data, bad decisions are made--by doctors and governments, by you and me. Caulfield demonstrates, alas, that there are no quick fixes or simple steps to flat abs; that you will never be able to eat all you want; that no "natural" supplements will lead to better health; that knowing your genetic map will not save you from almost anything. The Cure for Everything ends with five simple, scientifically sound—and, yet, difficult—steps to take in order to lead a longer, healthier life.
As a researcher in health law and policy, Timothy Caulfield has spent almost two decades analyzing science issues and has been involved in science and health-policy decisions related to almost all the topics addressed in this book. He teaches biotechnology in the Faculty of Law and is the editor for the Health Law Journal and Health Law Review at the University of Alberta. He has published close to two hundred peer-reviewed articles in the world's top science journals, including Science, Cell, the Lancet, Nature, andBiotechnology, and in the popular press.