Voice of Reason

In the battle against health hype, Timothy Caulfield and his team bring law, science and other disciplines to bear on the causes and consequences of health fads

Omar Mouallem - 20 December 2015

There are two sides to Timothy Caulfield. There's professor Caulfield - the lawyer, the holder of the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and longtime research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law Institute. And then there's the bestselling author of The Cure for Everything - the pundit, the science expert the media goes to when they need a voice of reason on health fads and false claims.

Caulfield, who earned degrees in science and law at the University of Alberta, is in high demand. With the proliferation of the web, pervasion of social media and persuasion of celebrities, many people now receive health advice from the wrong places, resulting in entire industries built on unscrupulous therapies. One such example is "stem cell tourism" - patients travelling to countries with questionable regulations in pursuit of controversial stem cell treatments for diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Under Caulfield's leadership, an interdisciplinary team is tracking the social causes and consequences of this abundance of often-questionable advice, and what recourse should be available to policy-makers and health professionals.

Why should the scientific community care about what's being said in popular culture?

People increasingly get information from social media and celebrity advice. It's becoming a big stew of information that bombards us all the time. Unless researchers and health professionals are part of that stew, their voices aren't going to be heard. They can't be ambivalent to celebrity culture, because it's not going away.

As part of your research, you've looked at the forces that twist science. What are they?

I call it a "hype pipeline" because forces happen all along the way. They happen in the laboratory, where scientists' enthusiasm might twist the information. Then a press release gives it a little more hype. Then the media, a little more hype. Commercial forces come into play, more hype. They twist it along the way until it comes to celebrities and the general public, who have their own cognitive biases at play. It's amazing that people can get any accurate [health] information at all.

What's your next big research project at the Health Law Institute?

I want to do more research on nutrition, obesity and physical activity because, increasingly, I believe that's what's important to a healthy life. For example, we'd like to know what's a practical step that Albertans can take to deal with obesity and [an overall decline in] physical activity.

Why is it important to have an interdisciplinary team?

We do legal policy work, conceptual work and empirical work, and we need skill sets for all of those things. Through experience, I've gained knowledge of methodologies [of researchers in other fields], but I'm no expert, so I need people who are - such as linguists, interview experts and genetic and stem cell scientists.

Why is the Health Law Institute such a great place to do your work?

It has been around since 1977, started by Justice Ellen Picard [recipient of three University of Alberta degrees], who's one of my idols. From the start, she saw that the institute had to be flexible to respond to growing areas of health problems. We're encouraged to follow our noses and do empirical work. Historically, most legal scholarship has been a solo venture, based largely on theory. However, at the institute we get grants to work closely with scientists and clinicians - being on their research teams, having them be a part of our team.

What would be possible with philanthropic support?

What is really needed is funding that would give us - and others - the flexibility to respond to emerging health issues and to bring together the perfect team to provide evidence-based solutions. When you are tied to a granting cycle, it can be difficult to do this kind of work rapidly and comprehensively. For example, I'd love to have the opportunity to provide regular, independent, evidence-informed policy recommendations on issues like obesity, vaccinations and exercise. How can we make a positve change?