Timothy Caulfield has a bone to pick with Gwyneth Paltrow. Now, if Gwyneth were in charge of selecting the bone in question, she would likely choose an organic bone from an exotic bird — well-traveled, intellectually curious — that was gluten-free, scrubbed clean of all toxins, marinaded in lemon with some cayenne pepper, kept far from any chemicals or unnatural ingredients. Because Gwyneth (we are all on a first name basis with Gwyneth) believes in cleanses, annual detoxes, and vague ideas of what is good and bad for our bodies and ourselves.
But Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. He is professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, where, for over 20 years, he has been the research director of the Health Law Institute. And he wants the world to know something about Gwyneth and all her Goop-y guidance: It is, to use a technical term, bullshit.
Caulfield is the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash, a thorough takedown of celebrity pseudoscience. He also spends a decent chunk of time debunking the myths she and her ilk — from Jessica Alba and her Honest company to Jenny McCarthy and her desire to revive vintage diseases by ridding the world of vaccines — on his Twitter feed.
He spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about why so many of us trust self-proclaimed lifestyle experts with no actual medical credentials, why cleanses are really just celeb-speak for “temporary, socially-sanctioned eating disorders,” and how growing skepticism of the scientific community has created a space for people like Gwyneth to control the national conversation about health.
Was there an inciting incident for you that sparked this passion for debunking pseudoscience as peddled by celebrities?
You know what it was? I’ve been involved in health and science policy for decades. And it became increasingly apparent to me that celebrity culture was having an impact. I started doing more and more public lectures, doing more media. And then you can turn to the empirical evidence that is really compelling, and shows this impact of celebrity culture. So it was really just the slow accumulation, the slow realization that this stuff really matters. It has a real, measurable impact on health decision and probably on health.
Why do you think people like Gwyneth Paltrow, who even her fans probably know does not have any scientific expertise, are such compelling spokespeople for issues like health? I understand why people turn to celebrities for advice on beauty or fashion or whatever talent made them famous — acting, singing, dancing — but why would anyone believe what they say about science?
I think there’s a bunch of things going on. There’s the third person effect that you see with advertising, too: “For sure this has an effect, but it doesn’t impact me!” Everyone thinks it impacts other people but not themselves. But if you look at the data, it seems like it’s impacting everyone. And I think it operates, to some degree, on an unconscious level. Not completely, but to some degree, because of everything you highlight. If you ask someone, is Gwyneth Paltrow a credible source of information about breast cancer risk? Most people are going to say no. The science of nutrition? Most people will be skeptical. But because she has such a huge cultural footprint, and because she has made this brand for herself, people will identify with it.
It’s a little bit of the Prius effect, this idea that we make decisions, and we all do it, that fit with our identity package of who we think we are. We buy organic food because we think we are the kind of person who does that, and it’s the same with driving a Prius, and we want the world to know that. And I think celebrities, even if they don’t have credibility for a scientific perspective, set the cultural significance of particular health choices. And Gwyneth does that for sure. She has a pretty fabulous lifestyle, she’s very stylish, and she sort of transmits this idea of nature and being healthy, and I think that has an impact. Her brand has an impact on her health choices, even if we don’t think she as an individual is credible.
And for some people, also, she is someone who is very successful, she won a genetic lottery, and just because of that, what she says is influential. There’s the availability bias, too: Celebrities are just everywhere. And the mere fact that they’re everywhere, that influences in the impact they have. It’s easy to call up a picture of her on People magazine talking about gluten-free as opposed to what the data actually says. And that allows celebrities to have a huge impact on our lives.
One of the things that stuck out to me in your book is the language that’s become associated with healthy living, and just how little basis there is for that language in science. The word “detox” in particular was fascinating to me: There is zero science on the idea of detoxing, and scientists don’t even have a working definition for detox, because it’s not really a thing. It sounds very appealing! Toxins sound bad, getting rid of them sounds good.
That’s right, and that’s another thing celebrity culture does, very effectively, whether it’s intentional or not: They play on our intuition. That terminology, detox, is such a great example. It seems intuitively correct. There’s this idea that we have all these toxins in our life that we have to get rid of them. When I met with Gwyneth’s doctor, Dr. Alejandro Junger, in Hollywood, he talked about the idea that our cities are like a dirty fishbowl. And that has an appeal; it really rings true for people. So I think that also increases their power. But there’s no evidence.
I love the detox topic because you don’t have to equivocate about how you talk about it. There’s no ongoing debate. It’s completely ridiculous from a scientific perspective on every level. The idea that we need to detoxify our bodies — we have organs that do it. There’s no evidence that the regimens proposed, including the one I tried, actually works. It doesn’t help your organs. And at the very basic level, there’s no evidence that we have these evil toxins in our cells that are making us put on weight, that give us fatigue. So it’s sort of absurd on every level. But it plays to our intuition in a very powerful way. It really helps sell the idea.
I have this theory that the reason cleansing and detoxing have taken off is because it’s this socially acceptable way to have an eating disorder, basically, for a finite period of time. No one would ever say, “Oh, you should definitely just not eat for the entire month before your wedding.” But you can say, “You should do this lemon and cayenne pepper cleanse, you’ll feel amazing,” and somehow that’s okay. But it’s just fancy anorexia.
You’re right. It has this sort of veil of healthiness to it, this idea that, as you know from the book, people really encouraged me. They said, “Good for you! Keep it up! Don’t give in!” It was seen as a very noble thing, and how it’s portrayed in celebrity culture helps that. I did a Google Trends search recently, comparing the word “dieting” to “detox” and “cleanse,” and it’s incredible, confirming just what you said, the idea of detoxing and cleansing has overwhelmed the idea of dieting. Dieting is vain and superficial, but detoxes and cleanses are all about health. When in fact, even an executive of Clean Cleanse, the one that I did, he admitted that most people go on it for dieting reasons. And you do lose weight, because you’re basically extreme dieting for a short period of time.
I’m curious how you think being a man affected the way people reacted to your cleanse. Because I get the sense, anecdotally, that it’s mostly women doing these things and women applauding other women for doing it.
I think you’re right about that! And it was always women who said “good job” to me. I didn’t hear any guys say that to me.
I do think one of the reasons they’re so popular — and I think they’ll become more popular in spite of the evidence, because of the interest in gut bacteria — is this idea of cleansing as purification. Gwyneth will say that: “We’ve all been bad over the holidays, let’s cleanse.” In order to refresh for the New Year, that sort of thing. There is no evidence that it works. And it invariably fails; the weight comes back on. The weird thing with me, I knew the weight would come off because it was a crash diet, and I was still thrilled. And here I am, completely informed! And I’m still thrilled because, in our society, that is just portrayed so much as a good thing. And when I finished the cleanse — and I’m a bit of a fit fanatic and I eat well — even though I knew the weight would come back on, and it did, it was depressing! It really highlights how people can get caught in this pattern of buying into some kind of celebrity trend, it looks like it’s working, thanks to the celebrity, but when the weight comes back on, it’s your fault.
It reminds me of the Inside Amy Schumer sketch, “You’re So Bad,” where the women talk about all the junk food they’ve eaten while doing atrocious things — like cyberbullying her niece on Instagram, melting a gerbil to hear what sound it will make — but it’s the caloric indulgence that makes them say, “I’m so bad.” We conflate morality with food, as if one has anything to do with the other.
There’s fascinating research on it. I love this research, it fits very well with what you’re talking about, and with the Prius effect. There are studies that show that if you go shopping with your environmentally friendly bag, you’re more likely to buy junk food, because you’re doing a good thing, so you can compensate with a little bit of morally bad behavior. It fits exactly with what you said.
Here’s another example: People buy organic food for a whole bunch of reasons, but one is to demonstrate to the world the kind of person they are. And because they believe it’s a morally superior decision, that organic food will taste better to them. Blind studies have shown that organic food doesn’t taste any better, but celebrities help establish what is the morally right choice. Because they have so much space. They help set the frame for, what is a moral food choice and what’s not a moral food choice?
Think of all the health trends — there’s only some evidence to support this, but I think it’s true — that would not exist but for celebrity endorsements. Gluten-free eating being one. Juicing would not exist but for celebrity endorsements. The whole concern about organic food is supported by celebrities. Celebrity culture has a huge impact on our food culture.
I’m interested in the gender element here, because all of these celebrity spokespeople are women. And even the ones who are men, the “doctors” in the room — Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil — were introduced to the world through Oprah Winfrey, who gave them her blessing. And I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that women are and have always been underrepresented in the science and research world, and women’s needs and legitimate health issues have historically been misunderstood, dismissed or ignored by the medical establishment. So this sort of peer-to-peer, woman-to-woman exchange of information is how women have learned so much about their bodies and personal science for generations.
I think that this is a fascinating topic. I’ve spoken with some female scholars on this, and I touch on it briefly in the book. It’s difficult to come up with a male lifestyle brand. For females, you have Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow, of course, and it very much seems to be the female celebrity domain. I don’t know 100 percent what’s going on there. Some speculate, as you referred to, that’s been more the role of females — that it’s a space women have occupied, partly because of stereotypes.
The other thing, and this is starting to shift and I’ve seen data on this, but the pressure on female celebrities is to look younger, to be thin, is so intense. So I think that’s part of why we hear so much from them: They’re under incredible pressure. I talk to male actors who feel the same kind of pressure. But you look at the data on female actresses, it’s brutal.
My sense is a huge part of that is these are actresses would rather act, but they have a harder time getting cast than their male counterparts do. The roles just aren’t there, and the roles that are there go to women in their twenties. I think if Gwyneth, for instance, could be leading that Leonardo DiCaprio life and be winning Oscars, she would do it. But the options for actresses are far more limited, and this is their way of staying in the public eye, staying relevant, and earning money.
I think you’re right. There’s also this idea that being more attractive is almost portrayed as an obligation, that it’s part of getting ahead, not having wrinkles and staying young.
A lot of the responsibility for this, obviously, falls on the celebrities themselves. But how much of this is a problem the scientific community created by itself? Does science get in its own way with things like direct to consumer advertising, or studies sponsored by drug companies that — surprise! — produce results that encourage taking certain types of drugs? With studies that seem wildly inconsistent and contradict each other every day?
My answer to that is yes, yes, and yes. I do think there is an erosion of trust in traditional sources of science. I was involved in a National Academy of Sciences event that focused on this topic. That’s why you have Gwyneth Paltrow talking about GMOs in Washington, D.C. So for sure, you have that, and I get a lot of hate mail, and the other thing I hear is the big pharma thing. There’s a general distrust of science, and an idea that all the science is bought out. You certainly see that in the data on GMOs and the data on organic food, “Why should we trust science?”
In addition to that, which I think is really problematic, there’s a general acceptance of pseudoscience. We have a more general tolerance for pseudoscience than we have had in the past. You see it in universities with integrated health practitioners. A reiki therapist can come in alongside a medical doctor. You don’t see that with other sciences. We don’t have alternative physics courses. When you have that space for pseudoscience, when Gwyneth starts talking about energy fields, you think, well, maybe she has a point, too!
And the last one you touched on, I agree with: This is good for you, now it’s bad for you, now it’s good for you again. And the public says, why should we listen to science? All those forces and many others make room for a lot of bunk, they make room for the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world.
Of all the myths spread by celebrities, what is the most infuriating to you? What are you most surprised to see have staying power?
People say it all the time but it needs to be said again: the vaccination stuff. It’s incredible how this won’t go away. And celebrities are a big part of it; they keep the rhetoric alive. That’s one of the worst ones. And all of the noise about diet just makes it very complicated for people, when living a healthy lifestyle is in fact very straightforward. We know what we have to do to get 95 percent of the way there for most people.
I also think one of the things pop and celebrity culture does is place this profound focus on aesthetics and appearance. We did a study, I read all People magazines for a year, cover to cover, and I had to read every page, all the ads, and then I hired a student to do a more empirical analysis. And other studies have shown this, too, but we found that even when they talk about health, the code is really weight loss. It’s always about aesthetics, looking good in a bikini, good for a wedding, getting Jennifer Aniston’s arms. So that’s another subtle, damaging impact that celebrity culture has that’s often overlooked. And there’s ridiculous things, like colonics, that could actually hurt you. Having bees sting your face.
Do you ever think that celebrities just do stuff like that because they’re insanely bored? As you say, the basics on health are basic, and everyone knows what they are. But if you’re Kim Kardashian, and you need to endorse things to make money and you’ve already done all the normal things, then what do you do? You have bees sting your face because you have to try the latest thing. The alternative is just doing the identical contour forever and ever.
I think there’s something to that! It ties back a little bit, if you look at it in a less cynical way, to the idea that all of us are compelled to do what we can. It’s a noble thing to try to look better. So you have these interesting studies. There’s one that asks women if they thought these crazy anti-aging things actually work, and they know that they probably don’t, but they still feel compelled to use them because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. Think of the pressure on Kim Kardashian to look a certain way.
One of the things that infuriates me is this idea that we shouldn’t want to eat food that has ingredients we can’t pronounce or spell. Have you seen that old Breyers commercial, with the little kids trying to read what’s in their ice cream? And the idea is Breyers is better because of how simple the words are. Like the only thing you should ever consume is a thing a child can read.
It goes to the chemical fallacy that we shouldn’t eat any chemicals at all. Little do they know that they live in a universe made up of chemicals. That is one of those ploys that plays to our intuition. If you look up the chemicals that make up an apple, it can sound pretty scary. There’s so many myths that people can leverage. They’ll find a substance that is cancer-causing in huge doses and then say you shouldn’t be consuming any of it, ever.
I find the Honest Jessica Alba thing very frustrating: It’s built of guilt, fear, and pseudoscience. I’ve seen quotes associated with her in which she claims autism and ADHD and childhood cancers are caused by all toxins that exist in this world, toxins that her products don’t have. But now she’s being sued, so.
Is part of the problem that science just needs better PR? Because if the information hasn’t changed, it’s boring, and no one wants to hear that the solution is: Eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, it’s also mostly genetics, sorry.
Yeah, you can’t build a show around, “Don’t smoke, exercise, eat fruits and vegetables.” Does science need a better PR person? Science would benefit from a better publicist! And celebrity culture isn’t going away, social media isn’t going away. So I do think scientists and researchers need to engage in all of these realms. We have to figure out how to leverage celebrity culture and social media. Some studies suggest that you can have an impact if you’re a trustworthy, independent source of science, and you try to engage with the public. If you don’t, then Gwyneth Paltrow wins.
Though the fruits, veggies and exercise team does have Michelle Obama on its side.
We have Michelle Obama. There’s a slight hesitancy there because some of her science isn’t totally evidence-based.
I’m a big Obama fan and I love her messaging. But one of the myths from celebrity culture is that we all need to work out as a mechanism to lose weight. All the obesity policies often have exercises at their core. There’s almost nothing better you can do for your body, your health, than exercise. If there’s a miracle activity, that’s probably it. But it really isn’t the best weight loss strategy. And that push is often by celebrity culture, that you can shape and tone your body through exercise, which is near physiologically impossible, right? So you have that kind of myth that’s pushed. Michelle Obama, her campaign, which is terrific, did buy into that myth a little bit.
Do you think that the kind of myth-busting your book does and that you do on Twitter can actually influence how people think about food, diet, and health? Or is there really no competition for a package as appealing as what someone like Gwyneth offers? I think about someone like Dr. Oz and the Congressional hearing at which he admitted that the weight loss products he had shilled on his show don’t “pass scientific muster.” But that doesn’t seem to have had an effect on the bigger picture and where people choose to get information about health.
The optimistic me says it has an impact eventually. If not in the short term, perhaps in the long term. But there are some depressing models to show that just throwing more facts at people isn’t going to change their mind. There is a little bit of evidence that suggests talking about scientific consensus and being on Twitter and promoting an alternate view can change the direction. So that’s good news. But I think we need to be a little bit humble about the reality of just throwing facts at people. Using a narrative more, a good story is always going to overwhelm a pile of statistics. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from celebrity culture to make the facts more persuasive. Having said that, I think we still need to stay to the science. Being an accurate source, long-term, is the most important thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.