Crystals, detoxes and eating snake gall bladders: Tim Caulfield's quest to understand why people do this stuff
'We really want to understand these other perspectives'
From trendy detoxes to healing crystals and cryotherapy, Timothy Caulfield has tried them all.
Caulfield hosts A User's Guide to Cheating Death, a documentary series that takes a science-based approach to understanding why people are drawn to unusual therapies with little or no scientific backing.
Caulfield is also the research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
His show, which originally aired on Vision TV, will be available on Netflix in the fall. Its first season has been viewed in 60 countries, and its second season is due to return on Vision TV in October.
He joined Day 6 host Brent Bambury from Krakow, Poland to explain what makes a rational science guy travel the world on a quest to try alternative remedies that he already knows aren't backed by evidence.
Brent Bambury: How much fun are you having, looking for a way to cheat death?
Timothy Caulfield: I'm having a ridiculous amount of fun. And in fact, I'm having more fun than I anticipated. Because as you probably know, I try everything. So I really dive into all of these topics. So I've tried some pretty crazy stuff all over the world.
BB: We'll get into some of the crazy things you've done in just a second, but you're a scientist, so you know that if there was a way to actually cheat death there would be scientific proof for it. So what are you doing, doing this?
TC: Yeah, if there was a way, we'd already know about it for sure. And to be honest with you, that's one of the reasons we picked the title — because we wanted to project that this is fun, too. So it's rooted in science, but we are still trying to have fun and trying to go on a journey. I think that we're all searching for those kinds of things, now more than ever. There's so much health noise out there that we kind of felt like a show like this was needed. You know, one that was fun; one that we hope is engaging, but still rooted in evidence and in scientific fact.
BB: So when you're doing the absurd things that we see you do, are you trying to debunk them or are you trying to understand them?
TC: You know, that's a great question, because I really think it's the latter. And that's one of the ways that we try to make the show different. There are shows out there that debunk and almost make fun of people that believe some of these things. We really want to understand these other perspectives. So that's one of the reasons that I do it. And look, some of these things are so absurd that they can't help but be funny, right? They're funny on the face of it.
BB: OK, so what is the most insane thing that you've done so far?
TC: So many! I mean I tried the sort of the mundane funny stuff, like crystal therapy in New York City, to eating a gall bladder from a live snake in Hong Kong — and that one, that last ended up on the cutting room floor, so it's not even in the show because it just didn't fit the narrative. But yeah, I tried napercising in London; I tried cryotherapy in Chicago.
- Napercise! The fitness class where the workout is a 45 minute power doze
- Freezing frenzy: Cryotherapy makes big promises despite dearth of evidence
BB: You know, I have to admit Tim, I'm still back with the gallbladder of the live snake. So when you did that, did you think that you could die trying to cheat death?
TC: This is a funny story, actually. Our production person goes, 'You know, we're in Hong Kong.' And I was trying all of this Traditional Chinese Medicine stuff.
TC: But next he goes, 'Okay, next we're going to have you eat a snake gallbladder.' And I'm thinking, 'Okay, I'm going to have gallbladder soup or something like that.' So we pull up in front of the shop and it's in this old, old part of Hong Kong. There's this old guy standing in front of the shop, and I'm talking old — he looks like he's 90 years old — and he still looks great. And above him is a sign that says 'The Snake King.'
His shop is filled with live snakes. So we walk in, camera rolling; he grabs a live snake, and within 30 seconds of me walking into the shop he cuts it open, pulls out the gallbladder and hands it to me to eat. So it was extreme, and gallbladder tastes like gallbladder, and I got to follow it with a shot of vodka, so that was probably the best part of the process.
BB: So this could be an ancient medicine. So what are people getting out of unusual remedies that they're not getting from traditional medicine? Why is traditional medicine not enough?
TC: You know, I think that is something that we need to take seriously. It's one thing to debunk and say 'look, there isn't evidence there.' But why are people attracted to this? And I think it's actually complex. I think, partly, some people have lost trust with conventional medicine. One of the things I found visiting these different practitioners is that by and large, it's a pretty pleasant experience. You feel like you're being listened to. They give you a treatment that feels like it's tailored for you. And I think we need to learn from that. Is that missing from conventional medicine?
BB: Right. Well, what makes it a great TV show is that we see you doing a series of actions, so when you go into a cryotherapy cold chamber or you meditate with healing crystals, does it feel to you like you were involved in a kind of a ritual?
TC: For sure. I think ritual is a big part of it. In fact, we talked to a scholar who makes that exact point: whether you're talking about eating a gallbladder from a snake or you're talking about this high-tech cryotherapy, part of it is a ritual. You are experiencing something, and as a result, you know, it's almost placebo theater. And I don't mean that in a pejorative sense; it's this ritual and you have these people caring for you and people get something out of that.
BB: But do you ever think that this is a replacement for the rituals that we used to associate with religion?
TC: I do, and as you probably know there are some people that have speculated that that is exactly what's happening: that there is a spiritual element missing from our lives and that we're attracted to some of these things because of that.
BB: Tim, I hear that Gwyneth Paltrow is working on a new book called 'Is Timothy Caulfield wrong about everything?'
TC: If she is, I'd love to have some tea with her and talk science together. We'll find out who's wrong and who's right.
BB: How much do you think she hates you?
TC: If she's aware of me and I think that she probably is vaguely aware, I think she is frustrated by it. But I have this sense also, and I don't know if you saw the piece that was in the New York Times recently, I thought the author did a wonderful job. [Gwyneth Paltrow] seems to really believe it.
When I first wrote that book, I thought, you know, maybe she did believe it and she was on a mission. And then I changed my mind, and I thought she was just cynical and this was all about branding, and this author really argued that she believes it. And if that's the case, then maybe she is on some kind of crazy mission. I don't know; it is annoying, though.
BB: But you have a pretty serious take on the role that celebrity culture plays in driving all of this. What do you think it is?
TC: Celebrity culture really has an impact on our health behaviours. And there's a lot of empirical research to demonstrate that. You know, we can measure the impact that it's having. So it has a direct impact of making us aware of nonsense; this mere exposure effect. So things like cryotherapy, but also things like I.V. vitamin therapy, which is completely useless. We wouldn't know about these things, but for celebrities.
And then you can look at things like the 'anti-vax' rhetoric — that is having a real impact, and celebrities just keep these ideas alive. There really is this cognitive phenomenon called the mere exposure effect and just being exposed to an idea enough makes it seem more plausible. And that's one way that celebrities have an impact on all of us. They really do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Timothy Caulfield, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.