Your Day, Your Way

by Timothy Caulfield

Cover image

Publisher: Running Press
Copyright: December 2020
ISBN: 0-7624-7248-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 236

Buy at Powell's Books

In case you're wondering why I would pick up a self-help book with such an uninspiring title, it's because this book was originally published in Canada with the title Relax, Damnit! Why Caulfield's US publishers would have changed that title is beyond me. Canada clearly got the better end of this deal. (I'm hoping it's not because they thought "damn" would scare someone off, but it probably is.)

The topic of this book is a scientific take on all the little decisions that you may worry about throughout the day: whether to eat breakfast, how much water to drink, whether public toilet seats are risky, whether to weigh yourself, how important flossing is, and much more. Caulfield is a law professor at the University of Alberta specializing in health law and scientific ethics, but the hat he's wearing when writing this book is that of professional skeptic. I found out about this book through Dr. Jen Gunter, a connection that you won't find surprising when I mention that one of Caulfield's earlier books is titled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?. (Spoiler: yes.)

Caulfield chose to organize this collection of random essays around the timeline of a single day, starting with waking up (how long should you sleep?) and morning routines (what do scientific studies say about brushing your teeth?), going through a work day (there's a chapter on multitasking and why you really shouldn't do it), and concluding with dinner (no, you can't taste the difference between most wines even if you think you can), evening routines, and sleep. This worked for me. It's still a bit arbitrary, but it's hard to organize random bits of skepticism, and this layout let Caulfield make a point about how frequently most people check their phones. (Stop doomscrolling. It makes you feel bad. Yes, I'm talking to myself.)

I've now read several books, and considerably more essays, on scientific skepticism of this type. They're all a bit the same, and unless you enjoy this general genre of writing, there aren't many compelling reasons to read this specific entry. (Ben Goldacre's Bad Science is still my favorite.) I think the only tidbit that I found surprising and hadn't heard elsewhere is that the science on flossing is meh at best. The rest is the standard mix of mainstream scientific advice (don't drink raw milk, you're not going to catch something from a public toilet seat, multivitamins just give you expensive urine), advice that's scientifically correct but that I'm still not going to follow (there's no scientific reason to wash your hair daily but I still prefer how it feels), and advice to not worry about things with no evidence on either side (it doesn't matter whether you eat breakfast, ten thousand steps is a marketing gimmick, drink water when you're thirsty and don't worry about how much). Caulfield does have a particularly good debunking of the myth that angry ranting helps you calm down and feel better (it does the exact opposite), but if you're reasonably well-read on scientific trivia, nothing here will be that novel.

If you don't follow scientific trivia and want a good collection of debunking essays, this book is fine. I certainly won't discourage you from reading it. Caulfield is engaging and succinct, and there's a balanced mix of odd trivia, debunking of pseudoscience, and good public health advice, all comfortably in line with what I've read elsewhere.

That said, I found it striking to read this book shortly after Can't Even. I was hoping that Caulfield would tackle the larger problem of anxiety and overload that is in part created by the proliferation of arbitrary standards and rules to which we hold ourselves. He does tackle some related topics, such as our bizarre belief in the US (and apparently Canada) that it is unsafe to let children walk to school without adult supervision, but Caulfield's solutions are nearly all individual. He wants to inform the reader, he wants to show you how to analyze scientific research and notice when news articles are scaring you unnecessarily, and he wants you to become more immune to fear-mongering.

Petersen's salient point in Can't Even is that many of us are burned out already and this is even more work. In order to avoid being gratuitously frightened and deceived by con artists and sensational news stories, we have to run a mental checklist of evidence evaluation and go do independent research. Sure, this works, makes you better at risk analysis, and may thus make you feel calmer, but this takes a lot of time and energy. Wasn't a point of having the news media that other people would do some of that work for you? Once again, everything that's wrong with the world becomes another chore or energy expenditure that we all have to independently make.

I know, it's asking too much of a harmless book on the scientific evidence behind daily life decisions to make a political point about individual versus collective effort. But it's hard to shake the feeling that asking individuals to try harder to ignore intentionally deceptive and well-funded propaganda campaigns doesn't scale. Not everyone enjoys skepticism as a hobby, and there's only so much individual energy to go around.

Relax, Damnit! is good advice as far as it goes. But I'm more in the mood for the books that look at who is making us so anxious in the first place and how we can (collectively) get them to stop. I don't know what that looks like (there are obvious free speech concerns), but we need reliable sources of information that don't make us anxious.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2020-12-27

Last modified and spun 2020-12-28