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Review: Relax, Dammit! a welcome read in the age of misinformation and anxiety

Edmonton author Tim Caulfield wants readers to consider science in everyday life decisions, from anxiety-inducing choices around toothpaste and washing hands to screen time, sleep and sex. Photo: Supplied

In his previous national bestsellers, University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield writes about the supposed cures for everything, how/why people take health advice from the likes of celebrity Gwyneth Paltrow, and why we must separate fact from pseudoscience around efficacy of vaccines. It's no surprise then, that in his latest book Relax, Dammit! A User's Guide to the Age of Anxiety, the Edmonton author tackles more of those twisted messages that influence our everyday lives.

Is there definitive science around whether the toilet seat should be left up or down? (Not really--jury is out on that one). What about the 'five-second rule'--is it really a thing? (It can be, if the food is dry and hard, and you're at home. Soft or wet food sops up bacteria more quickly). Bottled water, raw milk and standing desks, yea or nay? And why have we all become more anxious about every little thing in our lives, from letting our kids walk to school alone, to whether it's okay to binge-watch shows on Netflix?

In humorous and down-to-earth fashion, Caulfield uses examples from his own life and the many little decisions people face in a typical day to emphasize the book's theme: don't sweat every decision--and consider where you get your information from. And he argues, are 'the best time to wake up' or 'when to answer emails' recommendations based in science, or just popular beliefs that have morphed into so-called fact?

"It's the era of misinformation. You can ignore almost everything--all that noise in pop culture," said Caulfield in a chat from his Edmonton home. "But it's easier said than done. We all know we should trust science/data, but messages get muddled through mainstream and social media. These are risk amplifiers and anxiety generators that stress us out. With this book, I want to present what science says about all the decisions we make in a way that's relatable, structured around a typical day--from wake up to exercise to office and dinner/ family time. The book focuses on the opportunity we have to reexamine our biases and what influences our beliefs and decisions, so we can--hopefully--move forward in a more relaxed way."

Caulfield highlights social trends that show we're living in an era of misinformation, pointing to the high level of generalized public anxiety, historically-low levels of trust in institutions like government and the media, a high level of polarized public discourse, disruptive communication technology (smart phones, notifications, etc) and the rise of new information gate-keepers like Google, Facebook.

He offers the science where it exists to dispute our misconceptions and faulty beliefs too. For example, Caulfield hauls out the data that shows our kids are very, very unlikely to be snatched by a stranger as they walk to school. So do we have to drive them there? Why? Let's rethink that, Caulfield says. The foods we eat (there are no magic superfoods) and how much we exercise? Relax, dammit. "Eat real food, and not too much of it. Stay active, in whatever way you enjoy. Drink coffee--pretty much all the coffee--you want. And take the first open parking spot you see when you go into a lot. Ill-informed habits and cognitive biases can add up to frequent bad decisions and have significant, stressful social costs."

Caulfield's message couldn't be more timely. The proliferation of information (and misinformation) on social media that fuelled the riots on the capitol in Washington D.C. in early January is a blazing example of how 'alternate facts' and group-think can impact our lives in positive or negative ways, Caulfield said. 

"Sometimes we don't want to know the science, if it doesn't fit our personal brand. Vaccines and mask-wearing are examples of things that have become politicized. People can find a sense of belonging in a community of like-minded others, whether that's political or at the gym. Even things like drinking bottled water, eating gluten-free or taking vitamins can grab hold and become an accepted wisdom because it feels right and is reinforced in the media or your community, and so the notion is perpetuated when there's no evidence behind it."

Caulfield cites the example of the standing desk--a response to the latest wellness news that 'sitting is the new smoking' now circulating in pop culture. While sitting has nowhere near the unhealthful risks of smoking, consumers (including Caulfield, he admits) have jumped on the trend to standing desks in the workplace, (estimated to be a $3 billion industry by 2025), despite any science to show it's a healthier option than a traditional desk.

"The body of evidence gets twisted on this. Does using a standing desk make you actually exercise less, outside of work hours? It's a good example of how intriguing but convoluted the messaging can be. I like using the standing desk as an alternative at work, but after you take away the marketing and hype, the real issue is about being sedentary," Caulfield said. "Be more active, however you do it. Go for a walk, stretch, reduce sitting time. It's those who aren't physically active and sedentary at work that have the greatest risk."

In the end, Caulfield asks readers to arm themselves with tools to recognize misinformation, and not to ignore science.

"Don't let fear rule your life. We're all really bad at assessing risk, but by focusing on the fundamentals, ignoring 'wellness noise' and looking to evidence to help make decisions, there can less anxiety--and more relaxation--on the path forward."

There's all kinds of wisdom in Caulfield's latest. Have a coffee, take a walk, turn off your cell phone and flip through this book. It's a fun and thought-provoking read, and a guaranteed conversation starter. Bonus: It may lower your blood pressure too.