Lady Gaga "Born This Way," Jade Goody, Medicine and Science

Let's face it. Communicating about science and medicine is hard. First, you have to grab attention - an incredible challenge in a 24 hour news cycle with provocative often meaningless sound bites and advertisements, all fine-tuned towards the psychology of the human animal. Messages directed to our appetites for food or sex, gossip, fear, loathing or mockery have proven to work well - really anything that can awaken the zombie within each of us that dampens our senses, stripping away a joie de vivre.

It's like trying to have a serious, heart-felt conversation with someone in a subway station while a train blows past you at full speed. The chances of you even being heard over the roar, much less understood, is slim at best.

How you grab attention is tricky - use the latest trend on Google or Twitter, and you risk appearing shallow. Use the proper scientific or medical term, and you can be seen as an egg head. While possibly respected for a level of gravitas, you can be sure that eyes are glazing over and that the reader will move on to the next website in a heart beat.

A colleague with whom I share research interests, Dr. Mark Boguski at the Harvard School of Public Health, gave a lecture recently that articulates this challenge beautifully. He calls it the "Goody-Gaga Effect." {You can view his PowerPoint slides here.} This:

...refers to the phenomenon of sharply increased volume of search traffic for specific diseases or medical conditions that correlates with a celebrity association with that disease or condition.

The Goody-Gaga Effect is named after the late British Reality TV personality, Jade Goody, and Lady Gaga based on their widely-publicized associations with cervical cancer and the autoimmune disorder lupus, respectively.

Check out their website, Celebritydiagnosis. They do a superb job in educating the public about a broad array of medical and public health issues. They got my attention. After all, you can't teach anything unless someone is listening.

Photo source.

For you Gaga fans, here's the lyrics to her latest song, "Born This Way." Seems appropriate.


It doesn't matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M

Just put your paws up

'cause you were Born This Way, Baby


My Mama told me when I was young

We are all born stars

She rolled my hair and put my lipstick on

In the glass of her boudoir

"There's nothing wrong with lovin' who you are"

She said, "Cause he made you perfect, babe."

"So hold your head up girl and you'll go far,

Listen to me when I say"


I'm beautiful in my way

Cause God makes no mistakes

I'm on the right track baby

I was born this way

Don't hide yourself in regret

Just love yourself and you're set

I'm on the right track baby

I was born this way

More like this

I just had a conversation with a colleague today about this. He reported that another colleague was criticized (in private) at a recent meeting for 'hyperbole' during an interview about research. I pointed out that this is a common consequence of the need to be heard above the roar while justifying one's existence (and cost). The same thing plagues legitimate general news agencies, of course, who must decide whether to distinguish themselves from the FOXes and MSNBCs with increased volume or something else. My colleague couldn't answer the question, "well, what else can we do?" so I guess this finding "something else" remains a valid focus of inquiry (and fear for journalists).

By Jack Schultz (not verified) on 11 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree. Prof. Boguski has articulated an important area for research and inquiry. Who would have predicted academics at the highest level incorporating online social media and reinventing news media into scientific and medical research? Fascinating. I can't wait to see where it goes!

While getting someone's attention can be tricky, as your surrounding environment is an enormous factor to one's success, it's easier for celebrities to help elevate public awareness for they already convey a power to get one's attention due to their celebrity status. I abhor paparazzis, no pun to Lady Gaga's song, but if paparazzis let celebrities speak on their own terms about possible physical ailments they may be suffering from without interfering their private lives, celebrities can do the public a tremendous service by educating them on the science, disease, ailment, etc...
On the same notion that one cannot teach unless someone is listening, one is LESS likely to listen and learn unless information is strategically and tactfully delivered worthy of being learned, something celebrities also can do.

By Mike Leong (not verified) on 12 Feb 2011 #permalink

Celebrities can bring a multitude of information to the general public because they are much more likely to arouse the public's curiosity. It is extremely important that the celebrities give valid information. Many people will believe almost anything that is said by a celebrity. For example Jenny McCarthy is dedicated to educating the public about autism. She has affected the lives of many who have decided not to vaccinate their children. Scientists alone most likely would not trigger this large of a following. The scientific community must find a way to communicate with the general public without an overwhelming amount of scientific terms. Once this necessity is met, the public may be much more willing to listen to scientists and use the information from celebrities as supplemental information.

Hitting the mark is spot on but is complicated by aim. An older, scholarly audience may not know much about Lady Gaga, for example, and, indeed, a speaker/teacher's possible cursory grasp of her phenomenon may make the reference appear risible to younger audiences, achieving the opposite effect. Perhaps real knowledge about Lady Gaga, in this example, is not important - I once referred to myself as "The Situation" and received a winning response, even though I watched a total of 10 minutes of the Jersey Shore. The response was, like totally unexpected.