Are Hollywood stars qualified to comment on science?

Hollywood stars as public spokespersons

Nowadays it is not at all unusual for Hollywood stars to lend their public celebrity status to endorse or promote some cause. For example, Angelina Jolie has lent her name and support to international efforts dealing with the refugee crisis. Sean Penn personally assisted efforts to deal with the Haiti earthquake crisis.

What’s more, some Hollywood stars and celebrities have bona fide scientific credentials and achievements. Perhaps the most notable example is Hedy Lamarr, an Austrian-American actress who starred in movies such as the 1938 film Algiers, directed by John Cromwell, and the 1949 film Samson and Delilah, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. She and her musician friend George Antheil were credited with inventing the first radio device with a frequency-hopping signal that cannot be tracked or jammed. It was technologically difficult to produce the item at the time, but updated versions were later deployed by the U.S. Navy. In 1997, Lamarr and Antheil were posthumously inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Some contemporary Hollywood figures with scientific credentials include actress Mayim Bialik, who received a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA, actor-director Ben Miller, who studied for a PhD in solid state physics from Cambridge, and singer-songwriter Brian May, who received a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College London.

Hollywood stars on global warming

Several Hollywood figures have lent their support to various scientific causes, notably global warming. Perhaps the best example here is Lenoardo DiCaprio, who played a role in the documentary The 11th Hour, and, in the 2007 Oscar ceremony, appeared with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to announce new environmental policies for the Oscar awards.

Others who have been outspoken on global warming include Bjork, Emma Watson, Pharrell Williams, Emma Thompson, Akon and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hollywood stars and pseudoscience

Unfortunately, in many cases Hollywood figures are clearly out of their league, and have promoted causes or made declarations that can only be described as pseudoscience. Here are some notable examples:

  • Oprah Winfrey: Oprah Winfrey is widely regarded as one of the most influential women in the world; until recently, when she finally ended her weekly TV shows, she had 40 million regular viewers. She regularly features guests who promote highly questionable “alternative” health therapies, ranging from thyroid “remedies” to USD$30,000 “Thermage” machines, which the promoters claim use radio waves to smooth wrinkles and tighten skin. Among her many guests, she featured Jenny McCarthy, who claimed that MMR vaccination caused her son’s autism (more on this in the next item), and thus led considerable impetus to the anti-vaccination movement.
  • Jenny McCarthy: Ms. McCarthy publicly blamed her child’s autism on his MMR vaccination and has played a leading role in the anti-vaccination movement. This is in spite of the fact that the one (and only) study claiming a link was later thoroughly debunked, and numerous other in-depth studies have found no link whatsoever. Partly a result of McCarthy’s activism, in 2015 the U.S. suffered its worst measles outbreak in 20 years. Similar outbreaks have been reported in Europe.
  • Suzanne Somers: Ms. Somers promotes numerous highly questionable health practices. She suggests daily injections of estrogen for women (despite well-known health risks), taking 60 vitamins and supplements per day; and wearing “nanotechnology patches” to help sleep, lose weight and to promote “overall detoxification.”
  • Ben Stein: Filmmaker Ben Stein produced the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which dismissed evolution as a myth, alleged that countering voices have been persecuted, and even argued that Darwin’s theory paved the path to the Holocaust. Clips from scientists were shown out of context, and a very one-sided view of several other issues and events was presented.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow: Ms. Paltrow has a long history of advocating numerous highly questionable health products, often promoted through her Goop brand. Her latest item is skin stickers, which promise to rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies. Goop also claimed that these stickers employed carbon fiber materials used in NASA space suits. Needless too say, “rebalancing the energy frequency in our bodies” is utter scientific nonsense, but even the claim about NASA is false, quickly denied by NASA. Paltrow has also campaigned against genetically modified foods, in spite of the fact that a recent in-depth report by the National Academy of Sciences found “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health from eating GE foods than from eating their non-GE counterparts.”

Why does the public trust Hollywood celebrities?

All of this raises the question of why the public places so much trust in Hollywood figures. Surely it is no secret that hardly any of these people are qualified to comment on scientific matters. Part of the reason, sadly, is the overall scientific illiteracy of the public.

But even here, scientists must share part of the blame. For all too long, researchers have focused exclusively on their studies, avoiding public interaction and involvement. The events of recent years should make it very clear that this approach is not working. Instead, scientists, mathematicians and others in technical fields must engage in dialogue with the public, writing articles and books targeted to the public, and also seeking opportunities to engage with persons of other disciplines, including the arts and humanities.

After all, we live in a worldwide society that is more dependent on science and technology than ever before. Thus it behooves everyone to become more knowledgeable about science and its implications for society, and for scientific researchers to better share their world with the public, not just research findings but also the excitement, wonder and awe of the research enterprise. We have only our ignorance to lose.

[This also appeared on the Math Scholar blog.]

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