Why do we tolerate celebrities preaching scientific nonsense?

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Over at the Guardian's Lost In Showbiz, Marina Hyde continues her campaign to steal my heart, this time by lancing those celebrities who confuse their ability to secure a table at the Ivy with the authority to talk sensibly on matters of science. We're looking at you, Madonna:

Behold, the most serious challenge to the Royal Society in that august body's 350-year history - the medical musings of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney. These women are not just singers, or actresses, or fashion designers. They are distinguished professors at the University of Celebrity, and are coating your understanding of science like a totally amazing organic body oil.

On top of this, they are best friends, so we can say their pronouncements are peer-reviewed in the best sense of that term. Can you imagine their gatherings? It must be as if Isaac Newton were taking antioxidant tea with Robert Koch and Marie Curie.

Hyde picks up on the scientific gaffes of a few A-listers, but Xenu knows she's spoilt for choice. American readers will no doubt be aware of Jenny McCarthy's hysterical and groundless campaign against vaccines, which she blames for turning her psychic higher-evolutionary-state 'Indigo' child into a regular child with autism. Here in the UK we can also boast a strong contingent of celebrities making their own science. Kelly Osbourne believes that microwave ovens cause cancer. Sarah Beeny's How Toxic Are You? was so offensively laden with pseudoscience that Channel 4 was compelled to rewrite the promotional website after the first half had aired, to distance themselves from Beeny's nonsensical promotion of "lovely make up and moisturisers which don't have any chemicals in them". Meanwhile Cilla Black, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Caine, Dame Judi Dench, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cliff Richard all backed a campaign to block EU regulation of nutritional supplements, aimed at limiting their sale to safe doses.

Want to know more? My old colleagues at Sense About Science produce an annual roundup of celebrity adventures in science, both good and bad.

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The other question is why does anyone take them seriously? Is it so difficult to recognize that a talent for playing dress up and pretend isn't a qualifying standard for addressing issues of chemistry, biology, medicine, or other sciences?

I've never understood the cult of celebrity, full stop. I've met "famous" people and been really embarrassed by people around me gushing when to me they are just people. No better than me.

I can remember a time in the past where it was not so much an obsession with celebrity as an obsession with soap operas. And the newspaper stories of actors being abused, even assaulted, by members of the public who could not distinguish between reality and soap operas. Oh and listeners of The Archers writing to the home secretary. To me, that smacked of mental illness. And I think of the obsession with celebrity in the same way. It's a fundamental inability to engage with an objective reality.

I have seen the same thing when people meet celebrities. How embarrassing. No reason for it, logically.

The chances are good that those people vote, and they use the same criteria for deciding who should be president.

You're not wrong Frank, when I try to think of celebrities who are strong on science the only (living) one who readily springs to mind is Michael J Fox. Admittedly he has done done enough to compensate for the activities of at least half a dozen of his colleagues in showbiz, but his foundation is still something of a candel against the darkness of celebrity nonsense.

Previous comment jammed in the Spam filters, so:

The obvious response is scorn and derision, but of course that can look rather mean, so I would advocate parody.

For instance, as Frank notes in the post, the supplement industry wheeled out Sir Cliff and various other botox-ed celebs to tell us how the Cochrane folk must be wrong about antioxidant vitamins being bugger all use. I decided the best way to respond was to pen an equivalent paean to supplements from notably ageless celeb Count Dracula.

I won't add the link, as that would condemn this response to the spam filters, but if you are interested you can find it on my blog by typing "Dracula" in the search box - the post is "New Celebrity Endorsement for Antioxidants".

By the way, if you want to get a table at the Ivy, the secret is to call them before you leave the house. I did that, and when I arrived, they first looked at me as if I were common riff-raff (which I am), but when I then said, "Hector told me to ask for him when I arrived," they suddenly hopped to it and sat me right on the patio! I was drinking Ivy Gimlets in record time! Seriously, all I did was call 10 minutes before leaving. Who knew that's what it takes to get treated like a celebrity (or at least a human being) in Beverly Hills?

By Darrin Cardani (not verified) on 13 Apr 2009 #permalink

"Meanwhile Cilla Black, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Caine, Dame Judi Dench, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cliff Richard all backed a campaign to block EU regulation of nutritional supplements, aimed at limiting their sale to safe doses."
I can obtain a lethal dose of salt from the grocery store. The LD50 for Sodium Chloride is 3000 mg/kg. So, presuming that vitamins were sold in "safe dosages", what would prevent me from taking 100X that dose? Water has an LD50. If you had bothered to dig a little more you would have found that their objection has almost nothing to do with access to so called dangerous chemicals and more to do with how the industry is trying to screw you to make a buck. I find it both interesting and ironic that you appear to be guilty of the same scientific incompetence that your article is raling against. (Although I thought the 1st part of your article was excellent)

"Meanwhile Cilla Black, Helena Bonham-Carter, Michael Caine, Dame Judi Dench, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Cliff Richard all backed a campaign to block EU regulation of nutritional supplements, aimed at limiting their sale to safe doses."
I can obtain a lethal dose of salt from the grocery store. The LD50 for Sodium Chloride is 3000 mg/kg. So, presuming that vitamins were sold in "safe dosages", what would prevent me from taking 100X that dose? Water has an LD50. If you had bothered to dig a little more you would have found that their objection has almost nothing to do with access to so called dangerous chemicals and more to do with how the industry is trying to screw you to make a buck. I find it both interesting and ironic that you appear to be guilty of the same scientific incompetence that your article is raling against. (Although I thought the 1st part of your article was excellent)

Really? You think the companies that tmake the things the celebrities are active in fighting against give a fuck about the consumer? You'll stand up for big business over people who are trying to warn about the imminent danger big business puts us in everyday? Research the ingredients in your soap, shampoo, toothpaste, cologne, makeup, food, etc, and then research tv ecological range that goes in to making these things, and I'm am sure your view will be skewed on who to stand up for. What goes on goes in, and it's killing you.

Yes! We must all believe in the goodness and purity of the drug company overlords! Drug companies are only here for the good of the consumer. They would never try to sell us products that might harm us.

By Godwhacker (not verified) on 14 Apr 2009 #permalink

If you want to be intolerant of celebrities speaking scientific nonsense, you have to be intolerant of them speaking all scientific nonsense.

This includes the non-sensical idea that intelligence and abilities are not determined by genetics, and the non-sensical idea that there are no significant genetic and biological differences between races, ethnicities and social classes.

But those aren't so politically popular. So now what do you do? Do you become a hypocrite, and yell at some celebrities for some views that are incorrect, but not all celebrities for all incorrect views?

Cut off the last part of the question: Why do we tolerate celebrities? that'll be enough...

By Ferdinand (not verified) on 16 Apr 2009 #permalink

Well, to be fair, the "microwaves cause cancer" thing isn't completely ridiculous. I'm not saying I agree with the conclusion, but I wouldn't put it in the same bracket as mystical kaballah water. There's at least some sort of mechanism and a paucity of evidence which could determine the veracity of the claim.

Microwaves do in fact leak measurable amounts of RF power, and there have been multiple UK government reports which make the claim that RF devices with emmissions in the same range (WiFi, cellphones) have detrimental health effects. I think they're all wrong for various reasons, but I don't think it's fair to call them all ridiculous. Certainly not in the same league as some of the other discussed celebrity pronouncements.

By Brain Hertz (not verified) on 25 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm not entirely sure what Lloyd (number 9) is on about...

I'm also not sure what he eats, how he washes, and whether on not he wears makeup...

Yes there are chemicals in these things. But then...there is in everything. My soap is killing me? Well it's not doing a very good job, given that without it I'd probably die a lot sooner due to infection.

The 'natural' lifespan of your average human is about 40/50. Keeping going for longer than that is a big, big bonus, whether or not your toothpaste is trying to kill you.