The dangers of ‘celebrity science’

A new report shows why we should take celebs’ advice on food, chemicals, how to avoid cancer and other scientific matters with an unhealthily large dose of salt.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Science & Tech

Previously the preserve of amateur enthusiasts like comedian-cum-TV presenter Johnny Ball or astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, popularising science now seems to have attracted a more suspicious type of advocate: the ‘zealebrity’. Superficially, this sub-species resembles the other celebrities currently cluttering up the public sphere, except for one vital difference: they not only have publicity to generate, but causes to pursue, too – from the fight against childhood obesity to reducing the toxicity of make-up. Good fights, one and all? Hardly. As a recent review by the charity Sense About Science indicates, the celebrity calling to pursue the truth and promote the ‘facts’ has very little to do with a passion for science.

Sense About Science first launched its campaign to monitor this celebrity science at the beginning of 2007 (see I’m A Celebrity…Get Me The Facts!, by Chris Tyler). The campaign assessed the dodgy scientific claims made by celebrities during 2006, and set out to ensure that as ‘people in the public eye are often drawn into promoting theories, therapies and campaigns that make no scientific sense’, they should ‘check their facts before going public’ (1). It seems that some celebrities paid attention. Sense About Science’s new report, published last week, examines ‘celebrity science’ throughout 2007 – and it would appear that some ‘slebs’ exhibited ‘greater self-consciousness and awareness’ when it came to the veracity of certain statements (2).

But overall, Sense About Science’s review of 2007 is far from reassuring. For instance, it points out that on Channel 4’s How Toxic are You?, Sarah Beeney waxed quixotically about ‘lovely make-up and moisturisers which don’t have any chemicals in them’ (3). Sadly for Sarah, as Ian Mabbett, a chemist from the University of Swansea, points out in the Sense About Science report, ‘(t)o be chemical-free you have to experience a total vacuum greater than that of space’. Speaking of which, Heather Mills McCartney, the wannabe new Diana, saw fit to take time out of her divorce proceedings to add her two-penneth to this new celebrity enlightenment. She stated that animals farmed for meat and dairy ‘are at the heart of almost all of the world’s environmental catastrophes’ (4). Not for the first time, poor Heather didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Although it’s easy to mock self-important celebrities spouting nonsense, especially the ubiquitous ‘nutritionist’ Gillian McKeith, who seems to be intent on single-handedly reformulating the natural sciences, there is a serious message here. Talking to spiked, Sense About Science’s Alice Tuff, who helped compile the latest report, explained: ‘While much of what the famous promote is fluff, some celebrity-endorsed claims over recent years have been very damaging – claims about MMR leading to autism, for example, or people making false claims about ways of protecting yourself from cancer.’ To avoid unnecessary panics, hopeless hope, and, in the case of MMR, serious health risks, it does seem eminently sensible to make sure that celebrities are aware of whether the science they are citing is of the sound rather than pseudo variety.

Yet certain questions remain. Firstly, why do the sometimes ill-informed witterings of ‘slebs’ command such attention in the first place? Insofar as they are not speaking in a professional capacity, be it as an actor about the theatre, a pop singer about recording studios, or a wannabe cockney cook about jellied eels, they are speaking simply as members of the public, giving their views on certain matters with which they may or may not be familiar. They’re entitled to give their views on a subject as much as the next person, just as we’re entitled to question, ridicule or ignore those views as we see fit. So why have the public utterances of people like Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna or Jamie Oliver acquired such significance?

‘It’s probably the case’, Tuff suggests, ‘that because the public are more interested in lifestyles now, they would be more interested in what celebrities and media figures say about nutrition and health’. There’s a great deal of truth to this view. Whatever the ethical or ethnic branding, lifestyles, and their basis, consumption, increasingly define the limits of our atomised social life – you’re less what you do, than what you buy and what you eat. But the flipside to this is that lifestyle issues, indeed, lifestyle anxieties, such as health and nutrition, have gained in political importance – they’re the concerns that desperate politicians feel they must address. No longer the province of the home economics gurus of the 1950s, such issues can now be pursued with all the zeal of a latter-day Blanqui.

So, while the virtuous nature of the causes might appeal to individual celebrities, drawing on that all too modern Big Brother-style narcissism – the desperate need to be seen as good in the eyes of others – they’re also merely feeding off and channelling social concerns and anxieties as shaped by policymakers. And in many ways, they are able to do so far more effectively than politicians themselves. They are, if you like, the friendly faces of the government’s managerial urge. These strangers, as familiar to us as friends, speak to us where mere policy, let alone science, cannot. And it’s this confluence of the political current with the vanity of the modern celebrity zealot, I suspect, that imbues the latter’s every self-righteous twitter with the significance of a Papal edict.

But here the issue becomes something else; it is not celebrities posturing as scientists, but as proselytisers, that’s the problem. The ‘science’ is merely a means distorted for an end. They sow certainty where there should be scepticism, encourage deference where there should be critical engagement. In such a context, it’s of little surprise that celebrities take positions that ‘make no scientific sense’. Exaggeration and misrepresentation, to the extent that an argument is presented as an irrefutable fact, is endemic to celebrity ‘scientific’ discourse. For theirs is not actually scientific discourse at all; it’s moral instruction, and ‘facts’ are far more compelling than doubt.

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Chris Tyler explained why Sense About Science wanted celebrities to check their facts. Brendan O’Neill described how science is being prostituted for political ends. James Heartfield reviewed a collection of essays that were standing up for science. Mick Hume noted how celebrities have a greater impact than politicians today. Or read more at spiked issue Celebrity.

(1) Sense About… Science for Celebrities, Sense About Science [pdf]

(2) Celebrities and Science 2007 – Review, Sense About Science

(3) Celebrities and Science 2007 – Review, Sense About Science

(4) Celebrities and Science 2007 – Review, Sense About Science

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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