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

Edmonton author Tim Caulfield urges readers to consider science in everyday life decisions, from what toothpaste to use to screen time, sleep and sex. Photo: Supplied

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield had written 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 down-to-earth fashion, Caulfield uses examples from his own life to emphasize the book's theme: don't sweat every decision--and consider where you get your information from. 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. "But it's easier said than done. We all know we should trust science/data, but messages get muddled through mainstream and social media. 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 points to historically-low levels of trust in institutions like government and the media, disruptive communication technology (smart phones, etc) and the rise of new information gate-keepers like Google and Facebook as factors in our increasing anxiety.

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. 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 is 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."

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."