Debunking pseudo-science

For those trained in the sciences and the practice of law, where skepticism, logical reasoning and critical thinking are the most closely held tools to guide them through life, it’s vexing to witness seemingly intelligent people duped by pseudo-scientific nutrition advice and treatments for illnesses with no evidence of effectiveness.

Debunking pseudo-science

For those trained in the sciences and the practice of law, where skepticism, logical reasoning and critical thinking are the most closely held tools to guide them through life, it’s vexing to witness seemingly intelligent people duped by pseudo-scientific nutrition advice and treatments for illnesses with no evidence of effectiveness.

Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta law professor, Canada research chairman in health law and policy, research director of the Health Law Institute and Netflix star, has made a career confronting fads and false hype and strengthening public representations of science and health-policy issues. He’s written the best-selling books The Cure for Everything! Untangling the Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash and The Vaccination Picture. He is also the host and co-producer of the Netflix documentary show A User’s Guide to Cheating Death.

Caulfield’s cross-disciplinary journey to fame began when, as a young law student at the U of A, he took a summer job at the school’s Health Law Institute. The job was a medley of science and other empirical research, social science, policy-making and traditional legal scholarship, “and it changed my life,” he says.

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Caulfield’s work then earned him a grant to study the legal, ethical and policy implications of genetic research and introduced him to his mentor Bartha Knoppers, who is now director of the Centre of Genomics and Policy at McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.

“It was so eye-opening for me and it really took me down an unconventional path where I was working with scientists, I was working with clinicians, I was working with philosophers,” he says. Knoppers “taught me that the career of a law professor can look like a lot of different things.”

Caulfield’s research progressed to how science, health and policy issues are represented in the public sphere and he found himself in the world of celebrity culture, with its seeming omnipotence in influencing consumption. Since his first book on health and exercise myths, Caulfield’s purpose has been arming citizens and consumers with scientific literacy so they can resist the daily tsunamis of unsubstantiated, scientific-jargon-laden claims deployed to detach them from their money.

“I increasingly noticed the predominance of pseudo-science and misinformation and health myths that pervade our society. It drove me nuts,” he says.

Caulfield is also prolific in Canadian media, both as an expert and a columnist. But in the age of Twitter-bots, fake news and social media’s algorithmically built ideological echo-chambers, it is increasingly hard to shift public consciousness no matter how solid one’s argument.

In a 2018 issue of the journal Science, a study conducted by Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral showed the ease with which false information rapidly circulates social media. The researchers looked at 126,000 true and false stories transmitted through Twitter from 2006 to 2017, which were tweeted more than 4.5 million times. They found that lies spread significantly further and more quickly than the truth.

“It raises the question: How do you push back?” Caulfield says.

In his Netflix series, Caulfield examines the science and social context of consumer crazes such as vitamins, supplements, detoxes, anti-aging cosmetics, extreme dieting and natural foods. He also explores the science behind love, relationships, human technological augmentation and spirituality.

With advertisers succeeding in misrepresenting science to push their products, Caulfield would like to see a stronger regulatory response from Canadian authorities. This can happen through statements and warnings released by Health Canada to counter advertising-driven myths, actions in negligence law and, in extreme cases, criminal law. He also wants to see more truth-in-advertising actions, which requires consumers to lodge complaints with the competition bureau.

False advertising often comes from what Caulfield has termed “science-ploitation,” where newsworthy scientific advances are exploited by marketers with unproven claims. For example, take expensive anti-aging cream infused with stem cells. Advertisers claim this innovation produces a cellular interaction that will spray your face with the fountain of youth, regenerating aged, wrinkled skin.

Caulfield authored a study in 2015 in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal called The Fountain of Stem Cell-Based Youth? Online Portrayals of Anti-Aging Stem Cell Technologies. He and his co-authors found “very few” stem-cell-based products offered scientific evidence or mentioned any risks or limitations.

“No. Stem-cell creams have no proven rejuvenating properties. These companies are simply trying to leverage the excitement around legitimate stem-cell science to sell products,” Caulfield says.

Caulfield would also like to see provincial health ministries tighten regulation on naturopaths.

“A large percentage of the services naturopaths provide have no scientific basis. You need to remember that the entire idea of naturopathy is founded on the supernatural, vitalistic idea that ‘nature cures,’” Caulfield says.

Naturopaths also offer detoxification, IV vitamin therapy, homeopathy, colonics, energy therapies and ionic foot baths — all of which are “completely science-free,” he says.

Homeopathy is based on the idea that “like cures like” — that disease symptoms can be treated by small doses of substances that produce those symptoms in larger doses.

Caulfield says that, paradoxically, given the American reputation for free speech protection and skepticism of government regulation, federal agencies in the U.S. are doing more than Canada to crack down on pseudo-science. This is illustrated in a 2016 U.S. Federal Trade Commission enforcement policy statement on marketing claims for over-the-counter homeopathic drugs.

For marketing claims about OTC homeopathic drugs to adhere to FTC guidelines of non-deceptiveness, the product needs to effectively communicate to consumers that “there is no scientific evidence that the product works and that the product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.”

As Caulfield suggested in an article for Policy Options, homeopathic practitioners should disclose to patients that “homeopathy is scientifically impossible and doesn’t work” and “has the same scientific plausibility of using Harry Potter’s wand to treat illness.”

After years of pushing for more recognition, naturopaths are steadily increasing their prevalence in the Canadian health-care system. They are currently regulated by the province as health professionals in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

“I think that the provincial regulators need to do more to ensure that they’re held up to a scientific standard,” he says. “If these practices aren’t scientific, then they should explicitly say that . . .  and if they say that then we as a country need to have an interesting conversation about their role [in the] health-care system.”

In his book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, Caulfield highlighted the consumer trends emanating from celebrity actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and wellness empire Goop. Last year, the state of California went after the company after a complaint by the non-profit organization Truth in Advertising identified 50 false claims in Goop marketing, including a jade-egg vaginal insertion to prevent uterine prolapse, a hair treatment that alleviates depression and anxiety and a scented candle that “removes stress and anxiety, improves memory, treats colds, delays aging, helps release past wounds and trauma, works as an antibiotic, clears anger and anxiety and fights inflammation.”

Caulfield recently returned from Japan, where he participated in a conference concerning the work he is doing around home genetic testing kits such as 23andMe Ancestry Service, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA and MyHeritage DNA.

For $249, send 23andMe a scrape of your saliva and they will send you more than 125 “reports on your ancestry traits and health,” allowing the purchaser to make better diet and lifestyle choices befitting their DNA. Caulfield likens them to “high-tech alternative therapies” and his show devotes an episode to the industry that has grown up around advances in genetic research. He has been working in genetics since 1983.

“They’re selling you this idea that if you know more about yourself you’re going to be healthier. And there really isn’t any evidence to support that for the vast majority of individuals,” Caulfield says.

The utility of the information offered by home genetic-testing kits when it comes to preventing chronic diseases and determining which taste in food, romantic partners, hobbies and music fit your genetic signature all exaggerate how advanced an understanding of genetics there currently is.

In addition, Caulfield notes that there is a “pretty robust body of evidence” that shows this genetic information does not change people’s behaviour.

“Eat your fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins. There’s no magic, right? Everyone thinks there’s magic.”

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