The Unhealthy Side of Celebrity Influence

The Unhealthy Side of Celebrity Influence

The Unhealthy Side of Celebrity Influence

If a celebrity says it's so, somewhere there are hundreds or thousands or millions of people who believe it. So what to do when celebrity truths are dubious or flat-out falsehoods?

     
The Unhealthy Side of Celebrity Influence
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"I am not a role model," NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley said in 1993, his point being: Celebrity is no reason to look up to someone.

But the unfortunate reality is that society chooses celebrities as role models, often solely on the basis of fame. What to wear, where to eat, whom to elect—where celebrities lead, people follow. And so when a celebrity actually looks the viewing public in eye and says, "Buy this" or "Don't do that," it makes a difference.

With such an unfortunate landscape in view, Sen. Claire McKaskill deserves kudos for taking Emmy-winning TV talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz to task for passing off as fact a variety of dubious, or at least unfounded, health claims, such as asserting that green coffee extract is "a magic weight loss cure for every body type."

“The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called [weight-loss] ‘miracles,'" McKaskill told Oz during a June 17 hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety and Insurance. "[…] I don’t get why you need to say this stuff when you know it’s not true. When you have this amazing megaphone, why would you cheapen your show?”

While Oz admitted that some of the supplements he recommends to his audience "don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact," he suggests that supplements such as green coffee extract can be effective for jump-starting weight loss, even if the only long-term way to lose and keep off excess weight is by way of diet and exercise.

Oz's run-in with McKaskill came only weeks after Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak came under heavy fire for Tweeting, "I now believe global warming alarmists are unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends."

While there is little doubt his words were (as he later claimed) "intended to parody the name-calling directed at climate skeptics," one-time weatherman (i.e., as opposed to a meteorologist, which actually requires formal education) Sajak is truly one of those "climate skeptics," a term that apparently categorizes disregarding the near unanimity of the scientific community as healthy skepticism.

The problem with "climate skeptics" is that they are very possibly retarding the pace at which humans change their behavior in order to minimize our negative impact on the environment. And because no-one knows whether such a delay might be enough to let a bad situation become cataclysmic, Sajak got more bad press than he probably deserved. But the overreaction is understandable when one considers the potential stakes.

A more concerted and protracted (mis)use of celebrity influence is Jenny McCarthy's crusade against childhood vaccination. For most of the last decade McCarthy, whose scientific training is roughly equal to Sajak's, has actively attempted to influence parents not to have their children vaccinated, asserting a scientifically unsupported link between vaccines and autism.

Last year McCarthy joined the panel of The View, a TV talk show that surely does help shape the opinions of the millions who watch it every weekday, discussing as they do not just whether you want to buy a vowel but current events and even science (even if nobody's going to confuse it with Nova).

The New Yorker greeted news of McCarthy's hire with consternation. "When people disagree with her views on television, McCarthy has been known to refute scientific data by shouting 'bullshit,'" notes Michael Specter. He continues:

McCarthy has repeatedly asserted that the rate of autism has grown rapidly alongside the number of vaccines children receive, which is not true. […] That does not mean that vaccines carry no risk: nothing is entirely without risk, and there is a small but measurable possibility that any vaccine can cause a serious adverse reaction. Still, the benefits for society so powerfully outweigh the risks that suggesting otherwise is irresponsible at best. It spreads fear and incites the type of ignorance that makes people sick. That is exactly what McCarthy has been doing. By preaching her message of scientific illiteracy from one end of this country to the other, she has helped make it possible for people to turn away from rational thought. And that is deadly.

How deadly? The Website jennymccarthybodycount.com keeps a sort of tab. No, its numbers aren't specifically tracking the direct result of McCarthy's efforts; rather, it provides updates of three vaccine-related statistics since 2007, the year McCarthy and a passel of other celebrities started driving the anti-vaccine bandwagon. As of June 23, 2014, here is the "Anti-Vaccine Body Count":

  • Number of preventable illnesses: 134,786
  • Number of preventable deaths: 1,393
  • Number of autism diagnoses scientifically linked to vaccines: 0

Who knows how many mothers have heard McCarthy's impassioned talk of how her son's autism resulted from a vaccine and decided against inoculating their own precious little ones? But with the current California epidemic of pertussis—a disease for which there is a vaccine that McCarthy urges parents to deny their kids —it's worth keeping in mind that Charles Barkley was right: celebrities shouldn't be role models just because they're famous.

But for sociological and psychological reasons both fascinating and disturbing, they are. Therefore, those of us not under their spell should do our part to call them out whenever we catch them using their influence for dubious ends. In a world so hyperlinked, misinformation can spread more rapidly than ever. But so can the antidote.

 

Photo By:  David Berkowitz


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Sunday, September 7, 2014