Afternoon InquisitionAnti-ScienceScience

Afternoon Inquisition 4.13.09

In today’s Quickies, Jen posted a link to an article about Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney and their contributions to woo-business.

I tend to feel conflicted about clebrities pimping a cause. On one hand, they don’t tend to be better informed or knowledgeable about science or politics, for example, than anyone else. On the other hand, they can do a great service to a cause by bringing attention to it.  This may be for better or worse – Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s work killing children compared to Michael J. Fox’s work to save lives and create better quality of life for people with currently untreatable or incurable chronic diseases.

What are your thoughts on celebrity spokespeople for science-based (or “science”-based) causes? Should they use their reach to promote these causes? Or should they sit back, relax, and keep looking great for the red carpet (worry puts people at risk for wrinkles and having a BMI of 17+)?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I think that celebrities should be as free as anyone else to voice their beliefs–no matter how kooky. What I think needs to change is society’s view of celebrities, and taking their word over the word of people who actually know what they’re talking about.

    It’s really a sad state of affairs when someone’s opinion is given political clout just because they’re pretty, or were in a movie. Hell, I’d take idolizing Best Seller authors over actors/actresses–most of *them* are at least *familiar* with doing research and knowing what the hell they’re talking about (but not all are!).

  2. Sure, let ’em talk.

    “It is better to be silent and let everyone think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

    /I’m looking at you, Jenny McCarthy, Tom Cruise, et al.

  3. Well, Carl Sagan achieved a certain level of celebrity, and I’d suggest that Dr. Tyson is getting up there as well, but I know what you’re asking.

    I agree with LtStorm about society changing its views of celebrities, but I would also hope that were an actor, athlete, musician, etc., decide to speak out for a science-based cause or issue, that they would inform themselves as best they can, and listen to what the experts in that particular field say before opening their blow holes.

    As it stands now, I don’t put much stock in celebrities when they speak about anything other than their field.

  4. I really, really hate the attitude of “They are just an actor/actress, they should keep their mouth shut!” And then that person goes on and gives THEIR opinion.

    Basically, you’re able to post your opinions and thoughts (informed or not) on skepchick or anywhere else — a celebrity has that same right.

    And, like Michael J Fox, sometimes they make a lot of sense and do a lot of good. Some, like Jenny McCarthy, are stupid and awful.

    The key is to take what ANYONE says with a grain of salt until you are able to research and come to your own conclusions.

    For the record, Michael J Fox is awesome.

  5. I don’t really think celebrities should be “as free” to talk as anyone else: not everyone is a celebrity; celebrities have followers (evidence: according to Twitter :-) and followers are usually brainless drones which do what they are told/suggested (evidence: according to any Gallup poll). The same way as being a geophysicist does not give you the freedom to talk about celebrities’ mental instability and failed personal relationships, the opposite is not true either (being a celebrity does not give you the right to talk about geophysics). The right to talk about something is earned by proving that you know about it, not because of your authority earned doing something ELSE (appearing in movies or being the boyfriend of somebody).

    So, if celebrities want to exercise their alleged “freedom to spread BS”, either they come up with some way to completely detach it from their public reputation as movie stars, or they should do it only personally (no more Larry King invitations for that). If they do talk and they do take advantage of their socially privileged position in order to spread woo, then, in case there is proof against their statements, they should be criminally liable for charlatanism and endangering public safety, the same as any other faker. That is, being a celebrity may give you air time, but shouldn’t give you legal immunity. Let them go to TV and make their claims, and make sure that, by the time they leave the studio, there is an attorney waiting for them at the front door with all the (public health or other) approved laws they have been telling people not to comply with, and have them judged for it. As in planes, you know?, “failure to comply with crewmember instructions is a federal crime”. The same, as regards public health.

  6. The problem I see isn’t of celebrities endorsing causes since many endorse good causes, Michael J Fox is a perfect example of this. The problem really is with the clout and false expertise celebrities are given in the media.

    That’s the line Jenny McCarthy has crossed, touting herself as an expert over doctors and scientists who’ve doen the research. To again use Michael J Fox as an example, he’s never made himself out to be an expert on Parkinson’s Disease but instead is an advocate research and those doing it.

  7. Perhaps we could have a web site or blog that gives celebrities a woo rating scale.

    Oprah, Madonna and Paltrow get one to four apricot pits, with four being a complete idiotic moron. And Michael J. Fox and other supporters of good science and worthwhile causes get apples, with four apples being for the most clear thinking, rational and lacking of woo.

  8. What @marilove said. If you don’t think celebrities should be permitted to expound on topics outside of their profession, then you’re a hypocrite if you go on to opine about anything outside your expertise.

    Besides, if I was famous, I’d be blabbing about my pet causes too, so it’s only fair that I give everybody from Ted Nugent to Hayden Panettiere the same latitude.

  9. @jtradke & @marilove:

    I agree. I hate the “shut up you’re just hot. stay that way”.

    And I probably would also be spouting off about anti-vaxxers and whatnot, too, if I were a celeb.

    But I can’t say it doesn’t bother me that people like Jenny are using that clout to harm children (even if they do honestly believe they are helping them).

    Yes, they have a right to talk about things outside the realm of make-up and motivation. But do they have a greater responsibility to be better informed of whatever it is they’re into than the average person?

  10. At the risk of overusing TLAs, I’d tell them STFU and GBTW.

    The “W” being “work,” to look good naked and make stupid faces, for Jenny and Jim respectively.

  11. @MyNameIsTim:
    and by TLAs, of course I mean FLAs.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shut up and get back to work.

  12. I’m of the opinion that they’re free to say and advocate what they like. They draw a lot of attention to whatever they do or say, but you’d hope some of that attention would be critical. When a celebrity says something plainly contrary to fact, or claims her mommy instinct trumps real evidence, that they said it shouldn’t be the story, that they said something STUPID should be the story.

    My peers will tell me when I say something dumb, not let me go on and on advocating something foolish and deadly. And that’s a good standard to be held to. Celebrities should be held to that minimum standard as well, through their peers in the media.

  13. @Elyse: Well, they’re guaranteed at least, what, 14 viewers? So, I’m guessing basic cable, then. Also, they’d tend to alienate most of their sponsors.

    Still, it’d be fun to try and pitch the concept, if for no other reason than to see the looks on their faces. “OK, so, they’re lobsters. And they live in trees. And they talk about stuff. There’s two of them. Or maybe three. One’s naive and one’s sarcastic. Oh, and one’s a scam artist. OK, so, at least three. Oh, and sometimes there’s a crab who’s a bit of a dick. And, um, that’s about it. What do you think? When hell freezes over? So, I guess that’s a mid-season replacement time-frame?”

  14. At the risk of abridging a first amendment right, no, they don’t have the right to say whatever pops into their heads. Free speech is responsible speech. You don’t like vaccines, fine. You can say “I don’t like vaccines”. You have real fact, fine, show your hand. But if you’re going to use lies to back up your claim, I suggest not only you go sit in a corner and think about what you’ve done, but I’m all for bringing them up on libel/slander charges.

    If I can’t have that, can I have a cage match between Jim Carrey/Jennie McCarthy and Steve Novella/Rebecca Watson. WHAT NOW BI+CHES!!!

  15. @Elyse:

    Do they have a greater responsibility than the rest of us? Sure, I guess, I dunno. I mean, I can sit here in my cushy blue-gray-green Cubicle of Internet Authority and declare that celebrities ought to watch what they say in front of the children unwashed masses, but what’s the practical upshot of my saying so?

    The far more important question is: what are we going to do about it?

  16. I think the reason that celebrities seem so much louder these days is that the mass audience keeps on getting smaller. You make more noise shouting in a lecture hall than a coliseum.

    The mass audience keeps getting more and more fragmented every day. Internet culture has its own celebrities that are barely known to the majority of people who only use the net for email and eBay. (Remember when the Gem Sweater Lady, Peter Pan, and Tron Guy teamed up to fight Net Neutrality laws? Most people don’t.)

    There used to be a thing called “popular music,” and everyone knew what it was. Do the Indie Rockers know what the Grindcore fans are listening to? Hell, the Grindcore fans don’t even know what the Death Metal fans are listening to. And I’m currently listening to Samba and MPB, so I have no idea what any of them are on about.

    Movies and TV are about the last bastion of mass culture, and even that’s changing. The people who watch Bollywood musicals look down on the people who watch Italian exploitation films who look down on the people who watch contemporary Indie dramas who look down on the people who watch mainstream special-effects blockbusters who look down on the people who watch mainstream gross-out comedies. Seeing movies in theaters these days is more about getting out of the house and spending time with friends than actually seeing movies. That’s what DVDs are for.

    Basically, the only people who still pay attention to the remnants of mass media are people who seek validation by being part of the crowd, and the members of the very mass media that are desperate to prove they’re still relevant. So everyone from CNN to US magazine push Jenny McCarthy’s latest tripe because they’re all invested in promoting the idea that mass media celebrity means something. And the result is that basically everyone in the world says, “Who cares?,” followed closely by “Oh, my God, there are people who actually care what that woman says!”

    So I think a lot of this is what I call “Last-Gaspism.” Right before a cultural movement (in this case, woo, but we’re seeing the same thing with social conservatism and public religiosity), goes into decline, it becomes increasingly loud, strident, and insane. It’s the cultural equivalent of island gigantism.

    So that’s my thesis. But to answer your question, I fall back on the old standby, “The answer to bad speech is more speech.”

  17. I think people should be allowed to champion the causes in which they believe, and if someone’s celebrity can help improve sex ed or decrease rape or fund a cure for (dare I say it?) aiutism, then more power to them.
    The trouble is, there is a difference between championing a cause and dispensing “scientific” information and “medical” advice, and that line is far too often blurred. Especially since, let’s face it, on the science of the issues the celrbrities (Amanda Peet excluded) are so often WRONG.
    I think celebrities should be help to a higher standard than the rest of us, because they (like it or not) are role models for our children and have a far greater reach than regular folk. With that reach and position come greater responsibility to get it right. We should all be getting it right, but a Jenny McCarthy-type monster can reach so many more people that she has to be doubly-sure that she gets it right. Except apparently she just does not care…

    So, causes are fine. Science, not so much.

  18. @Howard: I pray to Almighty Atheismo you are correct, sir. The idea’s very intriguing, but I’d be a shoddy skeptic if I didn’t request historical corroboration of such a thesis?

  19. Folks are folks.

    Some are very famous or influential, others not.

    Everybody tries to convince others of the correctness of their positions insofar as they are able.

    Famous or influential people can try to convince millions that their beliefs are right.

    Others, only the person on the next barstool or the other end of the couch.

  20. I see it as a zero sum game.

    Yes there are more “smart” celebs than “dumb” ones, but the “dumb” ones get all the press.

    I appreciate the ones that know what they’re talking about, and I think they are the majority, but them thar other folks get a lot more press. It seems. to me, to balance out.

    I think we’re on our own here.

    I don’t think Hollywood can, or should, help us. (Unless you want to jump off of the sign, which I’m thinking about…If they keep Larry King on the air, that is…Why won’t he die, whywhywhy…Never mind. I’m okay now…I think…Why don’t they replace him with Dick Clark or Garey Bussy?…They’re all bringing just as much of the crazy…only they can tell the time without asking their wives…well, probably not Dick Clark but point scored…)

    I’m just sayin’,


  21. @jtradke: Perhaps it’s not so much a thesis as an idea for a thesis, a sort of hypothesis, if you will. But it comforts me when I am afflicted.

    Certainly, with regard to public religiosity, we’ve all seen the results of the recent survey that shows that actual public participation in religious life has declined precipitously during the last decade, a time when the religious right had unprecedented media access and influence, and have at the same time gone completely apeshit.

    I could go on with numerous examples from throughout history, but I suddenly feel very stupid.

  22. I don’t believe that celebrities should be held to a higher standard. They aren’t role models, they are actors or models or the like. The only reason anyone considers them “role models” is because we have such a culture of celebrity. THAT is what needs to change. Give people their due for what they do. If they are a good actor, great, admire their acting. If they are seriously smoking hot, admire their smoking hotness, but don’t take medical advice from them. The culture of celebrity only has power if it is given power by it’s sheep-like followers, and you can’t legislate responsibility or intelligence.

    That said, I will do anything Salma Hayek tells me to, if it gets me into her pants.

  23. @junco: But to change the culture of celebrity you need information, and most people don’t have that information, so they cannot doubt what celebrities say nor question their biased and BSed claims. No matter what a spokesidiot say, if you know nothing on the issue nor who is advocating against it (only “The Pharma” or some similar anonymous “other” as those depicted in McCarthy’s vague, generic, serious and unsubstantiated accusations of crime and misconduct against mainstream health specialists), you don’t have reasons to be suspicious, your worldview on the vaccines or any other issue is limited to the celebrity’s input. So, the problem here is that, while celebrities exploit their visibility to spread their BS, scientists don’t have free access to broadcasting media to spread the truth. So, for fairness’ sake, either celebrities on TV should keep their mouths shut as regards topics not normally spoken on TV, or scientists advocating for position X should be paid to appear on movies to discuss it (the day TV talks about nanotech 24 hours a day, then let Jim Carrey talk about nanotech as well, and seen what happens. But in this case, even he might have learned something by that time).

  24. infinitemonkey is spot on;
    Any individual who makes claims in public should be held responsible for their claims, regardless of who they are. Politician, scientist, rock star, professor, journalist, activist or actress-it doesn’t matter. Public figures who have influence over others have a responsibility to the people who are or may be effected by their claims.

    Celebrities-for good or ill- are very powerful public figures, (Yes, indeed they ARE role models for many. Unfortunately they have many, many sheep followers) and hold much sway over general opinion*. Therefore one cannot differentiate between a celebrity spokesperson and a spokesperson of credentials, in terms of responsibilities.

    *(more people voted for American Idol than did in the presidential election-Yes, I loath AI, my unfortunate sister watches it-A sister who happens to have an autistic child, and believes the vaccines caused my nieces condition, due to the anti vaccine movement. This inquisition hits close to home.)

    Anyone with sway/power/public influence has a responsibility to the effects of their claims.

    RE: ‘Hollywood’ (Hollywood is not an entity.)
    A lot of these ‘stars’ don’t even live here (Larry King, for instance, is in New York, and yes, I live in Los Angeles).
    I’m very sorry to point out that mass media is far from remnants, seeing how it generates enough capitol to support a metropolis nearly 10 times the size of Boston, and more. (More like your very own ‘Hollywood East’ studio, coming soon to a Plymouth near you, responsible for nearly 1/2 of Massachusetts’ current deficit)

    The reason film studios churn out crap is because the audience demands crap. Great films pass by unnoticed or even at a loss. Most all film profits come from Box Office, not DVD/merchandise sales, so someone’s got to be going to the theaters, watching the crap (I suspect it’s the ‘general masses’, the ‘regular people’, the people who listen to Jenny McCarthy and other ‘star-doctors’, the people like my sister).

  25. @junco: As the Quakers say, “This Friend speaks my mind.” I don’t hold celebrities to any higher standard than I do myself, and I have been known to pontificate about things I know little about. Even to write letters to the editor when I had done only a bit of research, and that’s the equivalent of a celebrity’s going public with woo. True, I have since mended my ways and now try to remain silent when I don’t know wtf I’m talking about, but I would reject any attempt to keep me silent just because I’m ignorant.

  26. Hmmmm. Ok. HOW should they be held responsible? How do you determine when they have enough sway over others to matter? Does the crazy (mostly ignored) street preacher on the street corner, who prophesies the END OF THE WORLD, REPENT! count? I mean, ok, I agree that people should shut their mouths more often than they do. I’ve often felt that. (I normally lurk on websites and feel a little conflicted about opening my digital mouth right now, for instance) But how do you hold people responsible for what they say without becoming some sort of weird, draconian police state? The responsibility has to lie with the listener, to question what they hear and act in a personally responsible manner. Freedom, (such as we have it) is hard. But I prefer it to the alternative.

  27. Sorry, been drinking. Didn’t mean to come across as all “From my cold dead hands!” libertarian. But the problem remains. When you say someone should be held responsible, there have to be clear guidelines, and those are very problematic. Does the guy on the barstool who gives you financial advice have to be wary of a lawsuit? How about the friend who counsels you to fuck with your Feng Shui? Those people aren’t (necessarily) celebrities. When does someone count as a celebrity who has to watch their mouth? As the person who is listening, you have to determine if this person knows what they are talking about before you start putting your money or your chi at risk.

  28. I think the idea of outlawing celebrity causes is unenforceable at best and downright wrong at worst. Every one should have the right to speak their mind. Also, you can’t hold them responsible for people following their foolishness, sad as it is that’s the fault of whoever decides Jenny is a better source than their doctor.

    But, I think the media should be more responsible. Jenny and Suzanne aren’t powerful because they’re famous, they’re powerful because Oprah and Larry know they “put bums in seats” as we used to say in theatre. Sylvia Brown is a dirtbag but she’d be much poorer and less known if not for that double dog dirtbag Montel.

  29. Junco, I agree, it is hard to define who should watch their mouth and how they should be held responsible (if at all-Because free speech is just that). Really, people should acknowledge their influence and take responsibility themselves, but that, of course, is impossible- It’s similar to the people who say they want world peace when asked their opinion of, say, the current wars in the Middle East. Well, yeah, no kidding, everyone wants world peace, but how do you do it? It’s not that simple.

    Don’t worry about how you come across. My post wasn’t very friendly, and I wasn’t drinking. It’s just my poor social/communication skills (it’s 10x worse in person-I’m a giant, cold scab who alienates and/or offends anyone who passes within 10 feet of me).

    But back to people in media giving out advice-It’s true to an extent that the listeners are responsible for their own information, but most people don’t, can’t or won’t think for themselves. Again, it’s not that simple.

    My sister, for instance, gives my autistic niece homeopathic medicine for her condition. The poor kid still flips out at school every week, still goes to the emergency room ever other week, and shows no improvement whatsoever. I can explain in great detail how homeopathy does not work, and show her all the studies in the world that demonstrate the disconnect between vaccines and autism, but I can’t get through.

    Should I blame Jenny McCarthy, Oprah and the anti vaccine movement?
    Or should I blame my sister’s own willful ignorance and general American-Idol-watching, Brittany-Spears-listing stupidity? These are difficult questions, and really, the answer is probably a mixture of both, but there is a reason my sister is duped by this BS and I am not (we come from a similar environment and education). Perhaps she is a more impressionable individual, the kind of person influenced by public figures, and the sort of person big mouths need to think about before they spew word-vomit everywhere?

    (Enacting restrictions and regulations on speech, though, is a different matter, of which I would be opposed. Perhaps, though, a public figure who writes a BS book, or gives a BS speech about subjects they know nothing about should be required to present a disclaimer to their audience, similar to disclaimers forced by the FDA on pseudoscience-type herbs and vitamins that have not yet been evaluated? e.g. ‘This speaker has not been evaluated for credentials regarding this subject’ or ‘This speaker is not a doctor’, or, my personal favorite, ‘This is an opinion show, not a news program; it’s contents and claims have not been subject to research, proof or evaluation; Listen to Rush at your own risk’ etc…)

    Most people are like this. Most people don’t understand the value of statistics, or the importance of the scientific method, (or perhaps they are familiar with the concepts in a very general, generic sense, without understanding of the importance) nor do they care. Unfortunately, many people even regard science/evidence with disdain (especially-as you all know- the users of pseudoscience and/or religion/spiritualism).
    Most people feel, rather than think.

    For instance, many people regard pundits as news sources. They soak up their Rush, Hannity or their Olbermann and Madoff (sp? on all)as thought it is news when it is not-It’s an opinion, but these opinions are taken to heart by the masses -their beloved followers- without question, challenge or evidence.

    Do you censor Rush? Can you censor Rush? How would you? Why would you? How do you get regular people to make inquiries into claims made by people they trust and follow?

    Free speech accommodates any public commentator (It shouldn’t be too difficult to assume who would be considered an influential figure. I wouldn’t consider a guy at a bar giving advise a person of great influence-That’s a bit of a caricature on your part;). Aside from the complete morons, like McCarthy, there are intelligent people who pass fine lines;

    Bill Maher is under the impression the entire Western pharmaceutical industry is involved in a global conspiracy to make people sick. Christopher Hitchens is fiercely pro-Iraq war, when Iraq wasn’t even a nation of Islam-A religion he regards as particularly harmful, and the reason for his approval of the war. (BTW, I love both Maher and Hitch-Trying to think about this from a neutral perspective here)

    What about the ‘financial advisers’ on TV who announced to their loyal viewers Bear Stearns was doing just fine, days before it’s collapse? Should they have felt any responsibility for directly or indirectly causing thousands of their viewers to loose money, because those people, perhaps, could not think for themselves, or are highly influenced by them?
    Or should the ignorant and undereducated assume all the responsibility?

    This is starting to drift away from the explicit question (stars and science/medicine). Another poster said something akin to ‘the root of the problem is our media worshiping culture’. That much is true.

  30. @gwenp:
    Wow. I’ve never heard anyone described, or describe themselves, as “A giant, cold scab who alienates and/or offends anyone who passes within 10 feet of me”, so now I’m REALLY curious.

    I do understand your frustration, especially with regards to family members. Or, perhaps I should say I sympathize, because although I do combat woo to some degree with family and friends, I don’t have any family members with any serious medical conditions willfully ignoring evidence and doing themselves or their children harm.
    People want to believe in something. It is something within us that seeks to be satisfied, and there are many, many people who are out there to take advantage of it, on so many levels. People who take your money directly, or just gain in ego and self image from having people believe them, even just listen to them. There are also plenty of people and institutions (churches) that promote the idea that belief, faith, and uncritical acceptance are GOOD qualities, and that skepticism is just, I don’t know, poor sportsmanship, curmudgeonly, DAMNABLE, bad attitude, no fun, pick your pejorative. Thats a whole lot of inertia to try and push back against.
    I read more, watch television less, and hope that the current “skeptical movement” grows to a point where it has AT LEAST equal air time to all the bad craziness out there. Probably just a pipe dream. Best get to drinkin.

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