Science v. Pop Culture: Netflix’s A User’s Guide to Cheating Death
Photo Source: Eyes on Canada
If you are into science and technology and are looking for an addictive rabbit hole to fall into, A User’s Guide to Cheating Death is the show for you. A few weeks ago, I found myself in bed with a minor injury and discovered the Canadian Series, and within 48 hours I had nearly completed both seasons (and really, I watched the first season and a few into the second season in one sitting). A User’s Guide to Cheating Death is a documentary series that pits science against popular pseudo-science and investigates some of our biggest cultural obsessions like detoxing, genetic testing, vitamins and supplements, and the new trend of people turning their backs on science in favor of seemingly more natural medical, food, and lifestyle choices.
What makes this series especially compelling is its host Timothy Caulfield. He is a professor of law at the University of Alberta who studies, writes, and speaks about legal, policy, and ethical issues in medical research and its commercialization. However, Prof. Caulfield is more than a big hitter intellectually; one can clearly see that the issue of medical treatments based on little to no science that are being routinely sold to very vulnerable and sometimes very sick people is a very big deal to him, and it is clear he is a man on a very sincere mission. One quickly gets the picture that while there is some humor and head scratching in some of the treatments, the amount people spend and the risk it has on their health are no laughing matters, and I really think the documentary series does a great job in balancing the entertaining and sometimes humorous moments with the deadly important, serious ones.
Besides Timothy Caulfield, a whole host of physicians, scientists, scholars, and alternative medicine practitioners weigh in on the benefits or frauds on everything ranging from mindfulness to a special room you can rent made entirely of Himalayan salt. I will say he does tackle come holy cows in our culture today—things many of us believe as being valuable. He even admits that when he received a Reiki (energy healing) treatment (coming in wholly as a super skeptic), he admitted that he genuinely felt better. He admitted this to one of the physician regulars who pointed out how science has completely debunked Reiki with some very compelling studies. It was interesting and, I think, humanizing of him to reaffirm—even after she explained how Reiki had been debunked—that he did feel better after his treatment.
Besides this show being massively addictive and entertaining, I really came away with a deeper sense of my culture. There was one regular, Alan Levinovitz, PhD Associate Professor at James Madison University, that chimed in on every episode opining on reasons for why people are spending so much on things and treatments that are making scientific claims without actually having any science backing them up, or worse, things that were outright debunked and potentially harmful. One thing that was pointed out by Dr. Levinovitz was particularly insightful. He explained that hundreds of years ago people had to use religious language to assert something was true. Now, science is the language that we use to validate something as being true. “The dominant truth-making language is in science, so people are having to take previously spiritual or religious healing practices and justify them with scientific language that can be misleading—like the definition of energy that is used and understood by physicists and the way we use the term as in ‘I feel low energy today’ are two very different things.’”
Are we buying a lot of worthless and potentially harmful things and treatments because we are a society that was built on science but that still deeply yearns for religion? God used to be the path to immortality—now personalized medicine, transhumanism, and expensive supplements are.
A User's Guide to Cheating Death is available on Netflix.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
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