Tim Caulfield has made it his job to tease apart fact from fiction when it comes from health advice. Now, he’s taking that mission to Netflix in a new show that explores everything from crystal therapy to ionic foot baths.
His latest foray into medical myth-busting, the six-part documentary series “A User’s Guide to Cheating Death,” premieres Friday on the streaming service. The University of Alberta professor and lawyer takes a deep dive into the controversial procedures, diets, and wellness trends that people try — and the booming industries that have been built up around them.
STAT chatted with Caulfield about the series.
What did you set out to do with the show?
There is so much health noise in pop culture right now. Crazy diets, super foods, vaccination myths, jade vagina eggs, overhyped new technologies, etc. It is a very frustrating time. We wanted to make an entertaining show that is grounded in the science, but still considers the perspectives and concerns that drive people to these therapies and beliefs. It is a big challenge to make a show about controversial topics that doesn’t just preach to the converted. At the same time, you want to avoid false balance, which happens far too often. I think we strike that balance and we had a ridiculous amount of fun while doing it.
How did your perspective on the choices people make about their health change while filming?
As an academic, I’ve been involved in surveys and focus groups and qualitative studies involving the public and patients. But when you make a show like this, you often spend an entire day with people who really believe in these practices. It was really eye-opening. Many understood that the science didn’t support their beliefs. And they didn’t care. For them, it was fulfilling a need. Often, it was because they were frustrated with the conventional health or, rightly or not, don’t trust the modern food systems. Of course, there is research that suggests many feel their problems aren’t being taken seriously. We can learn from this. Of course, an erosion of public trust or problems with conventional health care isn’t a valid justification for the spreading of misinformation of the marketing of unproven therapies. But getting a sense of the drivers may help us respond in a more constructive way to the spread of the misinformation.
Also, there are some practices, like mindfulness, that have a bit of research to back it up. I think something is there, but it has been buried in hype, marketing, bad research, and overly enthusiastic media portrayals. This same kind of spin happens with everything from “forest bathing” — basically, walking in the woods — to stem cell therapies. Working on this show really emphasized how challenging it can be to separate the good, scientifically sound stuff from sciencey-sounding nonsense.
What do you hope viewers take away from it?
[I] hope that it invites people to think critically about health practices and products. I’m not a cynic. I think we need to keep an open mind and look for potential benefits wherever they may be found. But in this era of twisted facts, we all could use a nudge to keep applying critical thinking skills. For those who are already on the science train, I hope the show provides a sense of why people are drawn to these practices.