Celebrity Nonscience

Two recent blogosphere topics revolve around celebrities handing out scientific advice.  I want to be clear in this post, I'm a huge fan of citizen science, where the public invokes the scientific method to run their own series of experiments, and answer scientific questions for themselves.  After all, science is not meant to be stuffed away in a lab, only attempted by rubber-gloved scientists in white lab coats.  Science needs to live and breathe on our streets, in our schools, and in our backyards.  But it bothers me when celebrities start dishing out anecdotal advice as "science-based", when it's simply based on isolated personal experiences.  Such advice is not citizen science, but rather a ploy to gain media attention, boost ratings, or sell products and books.  I want to highlight two excellent articles I came across -- one that discusses the science that debunked the autism-vaccine controversy, the other on the danger of Oprah's health advice.

First, let's talk about an excellent review featured in PLoS Biology that exposes the pseudoscience behind the autism-vaccine controversy.  To summarize, people began to fear childhood vaccines, such as the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine, which contained a certain preservative called thimerosal that contains ethyl mercury (49.6% by weight).  This type of mercury sounded similar enough to methyl mercury, a chemical that is present in certain seafood, which causes neurological developmental disorders in children when mothers consume large amounts of mercury-tainted foods during pregnancy.  Although a single letter "M" separates ethyl- from methyl-mercury in spelling, they are distinctly different in chemical composition.  Before science had weighed-in on whether ethyl-mercury was in fact dangerous, fear-mongers demanded companies to remove the thimerosal from child vaccines.  Government health agencies complied, removing the preservative from all vaccines in 2001.  Since then, science has determined that the ethyl-mercury in thimerosal does not accumulate in the body in the same was as the methyl-mercury that's in certain seafood, and therefore will not cause the same harmful neurological effects.  From the government health agencies' perspective, they were simply making a safe vaccine safer by preemptively removing thimerosal.  Instead, certain groups used this motion to falsely conclude that the government must have known thimerosal was dangerous.

The PLoS review article says that 25% of people actually believe there is a link between autism and vaccines, despite the scientific and medical experts telling us otherwise.  That statistic is poised to worsen now that celebrities have jumped on the bandwagon.  Jenny McCarthy, has become the poster-child for vaccine-autism controversy as she tells her powerful narrative of her son's struggle with the disease, and his "recovery" through homeopathic treatment.  She's appeared extensively on cable news shows where she has made ridiculous statements such as "parents' anecdotal information is science-based information".  Sorry, Jenny, but that's simply not true.  Another celebrity, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., published his investigation on what he called a government conspiracy to cover up the links between autism and vaccines in the, ahem...illustrious and rigorous scientific journal, Rolling Stone.  As a result of this type of propaganda, infectious diseases once thought to be eliminated from the developed world are reemerging because some parents are not having their children vaccinated.

Next, I want to point out a Newsweek feature that criticized the health advice the infallible Oprah Winfrey is promoting within her media empire.  Don't get me wrong, I know Oprah has done a lot of good for many people, but she has to be held accountable for the health advice she hands out, especially when that advice drastically differs from common medical practice.  For instance, the Newsweek article mentions an interview Oprah conducted with actress Susanne Somers, who advocates using non-FDA approved, synthesized hormone replacement products aimed at post-menopausal women to reverse the process of aging.  Common medical practice suggests that hormone replacement therapy be used in small doses, for a short period of time, to relieve the symptoms of menopause ONLY in very extreme cases.  Hormone therapy can increase a woman's chance of developing cardiovascular disease (heart attack or stroke) and cancer.  During the show, Oprah had medical experts on-site, but since they were in the audience, and had to raise their hands to interject in the dialog.  When a physician expressed concerns over Susanne Somers' promotion of hormone supplements, Oprah came to Somers' defense.  Apparently, Oprah takes the word of an actress over physicians in the audience.

The best advice I ever received in graduate school was, "Don't believe everything you read".  This pearl of wisdom was directed at scientific literature, as one of the most powerful skills a scientist learns is the ability to distinguish between good studies and not-so-good studies.  I suggest a revised mantra for the times -- "(Please, Please, Please) Don't believe everything celebrities say".  Check out the links to the full articles I covered here.  You'd be severely short-changed if you only relied on my 5-cent summaries.

Brian MossopComment