Saturday, January 05, 2008

Celebs and Quack Science

Our gilded mountebanks believe that quackery can pass for gravitas

Celebrities' attempts to influence the medical and spiritual choices of ordinary punters is nothing short of tragic.

Marina Hyde

We begin with two quotations. The first comes from the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who last year told the world about "evil genes", and declared that "by eating biological foods it is possible to avoid tumours". The second comes from the uncle of Peter Parker, Spider-Man's mild-mannered alter ego, who observed that "with great power there must come great responsibility".

Alas, if only Paltrow had some wise avuncular presence to remind her that just because she's good at pretending to be other people, she knows the square root of nothing about science and medicine, and has an even more minuscule right to preach to others on how "possible" it is to avoid tumours with diet. ("Diet cannot prevent cancer," Ursula Arens, a dietician at the British Dietetic Association, states. "It is reasonable that the risks of some of them can be reduced with certain diets, but some cancers, alas, show no link to dietary factors.") Indeed, whereas one might regard it as merely a shame if the surgeon general were cast in a movie and ruined it by mugging to the camera, it's morally offensive and dangerous to find Gwyneth gatecrashing a field in which she is completely unqualified.

Warmest thanks, then, to the charity Sense About Science, which this week published its annual report into gaffes made by actors and presenters, in which Ms Paltrow was among those criticised by a panel of experts.

Editor's note: more about Sense About Science
can be found here. Download their report (pdf) via the link provided on that page
(scroll down a little).

The influence of celebrities can, of course, be overstated. In 2001, GQ magazine ranked David Beckham as more powerful than Rupert Murdoch, and only last month Kevin Federline - Britney Spears's unemployed ex-husband and former backing dancer - was placed at No 7 in Details magazine's list of the most powerful men under 45 on the entire planet. He came one spot higher than Moqtada al-Sadr, six above the YouTube founders, and 14 above Syria's President Assad.

But despite these idiotic exaggerations, celebrities' hold over ordinary people grows stronger all the time. Advertisers know that simply associating a star's face with a product shifts myriad units of it, while the thirst for content means media outlets air celebrity views largely uncritically. All very well, but when this influence extends to crazy medical theories, it becomes a genuine social tragedy.

Increasingly, celebrities seem to think that quackery by another name is the route to gravitas. There tends to come a point at which the borderline narcissism that drives many stars to seek validation in the entertainment industry is no longer sated by simply being talented and successful in one discipline. An intellectual or mystical dimension to one's public persona is craved, and this kind of hocus pocus starts worming its way into their utterances. Our gilded mountebanks appear to think it passes for a radical, even hip, "belief system" - and unfortunately, they are not given to worshipping in private.

About the same time as Madonna stopped being cool and transgressive and interesting, and tipped over into being a pretentious country lady manqué, she began publicising her adherence to Kabbalah - a sort of cod-Jewish cult whose followers are encouraged to spend a small fortune on, among other things, a set of books whose Hebrew text one is not even required to understand to gain spiritual benefit, but merely to look at.

Indeed, Madonna began to pepper her interviews with the declaration that she and her husband never watched television but only read books. Books with very small words in very large print, it seemed, because she also began extolling the heal-all powers of Kabbalah water, which is simply water that has been blessed (remotely) by a Los Angeles-dwelling authority figure I am convinced would be going to hell if I believed in its existence.

Among other things, this Philip Berg has stated that large quantities of Kabbalah water were emptied into a lake near Chernobyl to clear it of radiation, and aside from the suggestion it could help troops in Iraq, Madonna told one interviewer that "it has gotten rid of my husband's verrucas". Kabbalah water costs £4 for a 1.5-litre bottle.

The thing is, a celebrity shouldn't even be talking about verruca cures, let alone cancer. But the boundaries are gone. There is now a sort of continuum between celebrities telling people how cutting out crisps got them into a pair of skinny jeans, and telling cancer patients how to eat.

Much as Sense About Science's report is to be welcomed, what more can be done before we realise, too late, that the fifth horseman of the apocalypse is probably celebrity quackery? In Brussels, the EU's UK press room collates Euromyths peddled by some British tabloids, and in moments of idle fantasy I sometimes envisage a special body being set up to regulate all celebrity utterances. It could be called OfSleb.

Editor's note: visit also The EU in the United Kingdom, a comprehensive overview of Euromyths circulated in the British gutter press. Some of this stuff would be simply hilarious if the attitude of some British 'journos' to the EU wasn't so sad...

Alas, this seems faintly unscaleable. But given that celebrities tend to come out with this stuff during interviews to promote personally enriching projects, perhaps the answer would be to treat such outbursts as ads, and subject them to the same censure as all


At 9:00 PM, Blogger Frank Partisan said...

I dislike that public hospitals are having "alternative medicine clinics." I think they represent quackery and false hopes.

Atleast the macrobiodic diet is gone.

I sent you an email.

At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you get my email, Gert?

Renegade Eye: I've been on "conventional" meds almost all my life, and I must say that although they've helped tremendously, I'd love to get off of them because they harm you tremendously in the long run.

At 4:40 PM, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

While I may have a separate opinion about verruca and Madonna's ability to cure it (well, let's settle on pimples, at least), the post is spot on.

I am not sure, though, that the phenomena is so new. Our tendency to let outstanding professionals in any occupation to become gurus in areas they don't have a slightest idea about goes way back. From kings time if not earlier.

Look at Chomsky, to take one example...

At 7:07 PM, Blogger Gert said...


What's the Chomsky connection?

At 1:21 PM, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oh, I expected you to take the bait ;-)

Of course, Chomsky is just another example of a (possibly brilliant, I wouldn't dare to opine) scientist that decided to apply himself without appropriate training and background to politics, sociology, economics, you name it.

But please, I really used him as an example. Not very random, I confess, since my personal antipathy to this character is not something very well hidden.

I could name a lot of others, but the funniest one would be Einstein playing on his fiddle. The results, as it is well known, were disastrous. Anyhow, we agree that stardom does not make one's brain omnipotent.


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