I’m A Celebrity…Get Me The Facts!

A science charity explains why it has created a helpline for celebs to check their facts before endorsing dodgy campaigns.

Chris Tyler

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It’s hard to remember a week of 2006 when I didn’t receive a clipping from a scientist or member of the public alerting the charity I work for, Sense About Science, to yet another celebrity-endorsed dubious science claim. Lifestyle and health advice is even more ubiquitous than news. Celebrities seem to be the fastest growing socio-economic group, too. So maybe we can only expect more of it? I sincerely hope not.

This new year, Sense About Science has worked with a large group of scientists to launch an initiative to help celebrities to cut down on misleading claims in 2007. With a leaflet and a helpline number, we are telling people in the public eye: before making scientific claims, check your facts! All it takes is a phone call. In the leaflet, Sense About… Science for Celebrities, we show how easily some mistakes could have been avoided. It also includes some simple warnings and rules of thumb: ‘toxic’ depends on the dose; and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. It also provides our phone number for concerned stars to call (020 7 478 4380, if you’re wondering).

To draw attention to the problem, we took a selection of examples from recent years – some where celebrities have been invited to endorse campaigns or products and others where they clearly hope to promote a personal lifestyle or theory. We invited two-sentence responses, in day-to-day language, from scientists in relevant fields. Some have been included in the leaflet to show how straightforward it is to check the facts. These include Madonna’s claim to be working with scientists who are Kabbalah followers to find a way to ‘neutralise’ radiation. As environmental radiochemist Nick Evans responds, radioactivity cannot be neutralised; it decays, sometimes over billions of years and sometimes in a few minutes, depending on the substance in question.

Many of the theories, therapies and campaigns that receive endorsements from the stars are harmless nonsense – like Beyoncé’s maple syrup diet – that are more likely to damage the celebrities than public health. But some claims have been very damaging. The example that has most frustrated scientists was the unfounded (and well-publicised) claims by actress Juliet Stevenson that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) triple vaccine would overload a baby’s immune system. These received much greater publicity, particularly outside of the main news agenda, than the evidence did.

As Professor Adam Finn, a paediatrician at the University of Bristol, points out in the leaflet, ‘The worst fallacies are ones that sound as if they ought to be true’. We have found quite a lot in this category. Carole Caplin, the lifestyle guru, advised women to protect themselves from breast cancer by keeping the ‘lymph system clear and unclogged’ – a claim that, according to one leading breast cancer expert, ‘has no meaning whatsoever’. The actress Joanna Lumley, has said that chemical residues in meat are associated with ‘roaring’ cancer rates. Professor John Toy from Cancer Research UK, well-schooled in chasing after doubtful claims about cancer causes and cures, points out that: ‘Cancer is not “roaring ahead”. It is more common mostly because people are living longer…. There is no definitive evidence that controlled food additives cause cancer.’

It’s not just the actual health damage that might result from dubious AIDS cures, cancer prevention techniques or unfounded scares; it’s not just the unnecessary fear and anxiety that we see in parents and community groups who call us for help; it is also becoming increasingly difficult to have a sensible public discussion based on what we know (for example, about nuclear power or nutrition or a host of other subjects) with so many myths and distortions in circulation.

Once public claims are made, they are really difficult to undo. So we have been working out ways for science to be more available in the first place. Sense About Science has over 1,400 scientists on its database, but there are also many medical charities and scientific societies that would rather handle a phone call than chase after public misinformation. It’s not been that easy to convince scientists that they should make themselves available for celebrities, but I think this leaflet is a friendly hand.

We know that some people aren’t interested in good science or evidence. We are equally sure some will be glad to talk through claims they are asked to front, if only for their own self-preservation in the age of Ali G and Chris Morris! The charitable interpretation is that, until now, it’s not been obvious where you can go to run things past a scientist – most people are unlikely to be familiar with the distinctions between disciplines, let alone the roles of academic institutions and learned societies. We are producing this leaflet to show those in the public eye just how easy it is now to get help from scientists.

Sense About… Science for Celebrities is being sent to celebrity haunts across the UK, including: Virgin’s VIP lounges at Gatwick and Heathrow, clubs and restaurants (China White, Met Bar, Mahiki, Boujis in London; BeLo in Glasgow; Opal Lounge & Jam House in Edinburgh; Living Room in Manchester), hotels and spas, and the VIP areas of Premier League football clubs. It is also being sent to management agencies and publishers. My colleague Frances Downey, who is coordinating the campaign, has concluded that celebrities are a ‘hard-to-reach’ sector; we hope this current publicity will create a bit of discussion, and help get across the message that celebs can ring us with any queries.

Chris Tyler is scientific support co-ordinator for Sense About Science. Sense About… Science for Celebrities is available as a pdf file here.

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