Sunday 30 December 2012

Junk science

One downside of our celebrity culture (are there any upsides?) is that celebrities’ opinions on all manner of topics are taken seriously, even when these celebrities are completely ignorant.

For example, BBC1’s Question Time regularly invites comedians onto the panel, presumably because someone in the BBC’s management thinks this will make the programme more ‘relevant’.

But celebrities need to be careful. They have a duty of care because many people are influenced by what they say. Celebrities’ opinions are widely reported, so that when they promote junk science such as unfounded health scares or quack remedies, they can cause widespread harm.

The charitable trust Sense About Science has just published Celebrities and Science 2012. This report charts the rise and fall of celebrity fads, endorsements and claims about science and evidence, and subjects a selection of these dubious claims to serious scientific review:
  • In 2011, Simon Cowell was responsible for the intravenous vitamin craze. This year, Cheryl Cole and Rihanna are reported to be following the trend.
  • Cowell meanwhile has moved on to inhaling pocket-sized oxygen shots and has also employed someone to ‘heal’ his house.
  • January Jones has been taking dried placenta pills.
  • Patsy Palmer has been rubbing coffee granules on her skin.
  • Goldie Hawn supports an education programme that aims to increase children’s emotional wellbeing with lessons about the brain.
  • Several athletes in the London Olympics were flaunting brightly coloured ‘Kinesio’ sports tape, which makes unfounded claims to help mend injuries.
But there has also been some progress, and the report gives due credit to celebrities who have set a good example by talking sense about food fads, vitamin supplements and alternative medicine.

One Liberal view of this issue is that, if people want to rub coffee granules on their skin, it is their business. But there is a vital distinction between making a purely personal choice to do something irrational and setting a bad example by promoting junk science or harmful behaviour.

This matters to Liberals because Liberalism can trace its roots to the Age of Enlightenment, when blind faith and superstition gave way to the power of knowledge based on empirical evidence and the scientific method, and when the human mind was liberated from a dogmatic state of ignorance that had shored up despotic rulers. Defending and promoting enlightenment values is something Liberals should continue to do.

Even Simon Cowell is not powerful enough to unravel several centuries of enlightenment, but celebrity promotion of junk science should be subject to scrutiny and ridicule, and Sense About Science is performing a public service by doing just that.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please note before commenting: Please read our comments policy (in the right-hand column of this blog). Comments that break this policy will not be accepted. In particular, we insist on everyone using their real, full name. If you have registered with Google using only your first name or a pseudonym, please put your full name at the end of your comment.

Oh, and we are not at home to Mr(s) Angry. Before you comment, read the post in full and any linked content, then pause, make a pot of tea, reflect, deliberate, make another pot of tea, then respond intelligently and courteously.