Why Do So Many Celebrities Ignore Science?
Coming up with a list of celebrities who support unscientific notions, push pseudoscience, or espouse conspiracy theories is all too easy. Such a catalog includes Jim Carrey, Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mayim Bialik, Robert de Niro, Kim Kardashian, Kyrie Irving, Michael Phelps, Paul McCartney, Ben Stein, David Beckham, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Neil Young, Tom Brady, Jenny McCarthy, Charlie Sheen, Rob Schneider, Kirstie Alley, Doctor Oz, and Bill Maher, among many, many others. On the other hand, compiling a list of celebrities who openly support science is much more difficult. Natalie Portman, Amanda Peet, Tom Hanks, Brian May, Alan Alda, John Oliver, Seth McFarlane, Penn Jillette, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Danica Mckellar, and Jimmy Kimmel all would be on it.
Why do so many celebrities seem to take leave of their mental faculties and not only embrace, but even popularize products, ideas, and policies that go against scientific evidence?
Timothy Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy and a professor at the University of Alberta, may be the foremost expert on the topic. He hosts a television series on celebrity pseudoscience and authored the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Caulfield hypothesizes that the intense and pressured environment of fame can push celebrities to unscientific beliefs. As he told RealClearScience:
Often their careers depend, to some degree, on appearance. This may make them more susceptible to pseudoscience suggestions in the realm of health and beauty. There may a desire to try anything that might work. The same phenomenon plays out with professional athletes. Anything for an edge. Tom Brady is a great example of how this can play out. He seems to genuinely believe his science-free diet and exercise regimens work. He then becomes a powerful, attractive testimonial for pseudoscience. Look how he is playing at 40 years old! How can you argue with results. But it is just an anecdote, not real science.
Another explanation for celebrity pseudoscience should comes as little surprise: Celebrities are narcissists. A 2006 study demonstrated that they average higher on the narcissistic personality inventory than the general populace and even MBA students. If celebrities are more likely to be vain, egotistical, and overly confident in their knowledge and abilities, then it follows that they will be more likely to believe what they want to believe regardless of what scientists and experts say, especially if they have adoring fans supporting them. For example, in response to critics of her lifestyle brand Goop, which sells numerous products that defy evidence and reason, Gwyneth Paltrow said, "I'm interested in criticism based on fact, not on projections. If you want to fuck with me, bring your A game.”
Gad Saad, an evolutionary behavioral scientist at Concordia University in Montreal, offered another explanation for celebrity science ignorance in a blog post at Psychology Today:
I believe that they suffer from a form of existential guilt. They know in the deep recesses of their minds that they are not deserving of the accolades and privileged lives that they lead. One of the ways by which they can assuage this persistent guilt is to demonstrate to the world that they are much more than a "mere celebrity." Hence, they "cure" mental illness; they "eradicate" autism; they "neutralize" radiation!
Alternatively, it could just be that celebrities believe in BS because they're just as woefully misinformed as the general public. A 2015 YouGov poll suggested that just over a quarter of Americans believe homeopathy is effective. Homeopathy is biologically impossible, and this shows in systematic reviews. Also in the poll, 46 percent answered that acupuncture is effective. Acupuncture is, at best, no more than a "theatrical placebo." Moreover, a Pew poll of American adults published in early 2015 found that 57 percent of respondents said it was generally unsafe to eat genetically modified foods. This sharply contrasted with the views of scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Eighty-eight percent of those polled said that genetically modified foods are safe.
It's logical to assume that a similar portion of celebrities are disinclined to think skeptically and scientifically. The only difference is that stars have access to a loud microphone, a credulous audience, and resources they can use to peddle phony products, diets, and ideas.
As is all too often the case, it is those who know little who say a lot and those who know much who say little. Perhaps the best way to diminish the power of anti-science celebrities is for science-minded celebrities to drown out their drivel by speaking out themselves.