Reason on the red carpet
A UK science group takes on Madonna, Mills McCartney, and other celebs to promote sense about science
If Sense About Science
(SAS), a London charitable trust, were a red-carpet starlet during awards season, she would be the one wearing sensible shoes. She would also be the one with the ruler, giving a sharp rap on the wrist to any celebrity spouting off publicly with bad science.
Indeed, the group last month published a flyer entitled "Science for Celebrities
," and has since been inundated with calls and Emails -- everything from people wondering what fingernails are made of, to scientists volunteering their services to be on-call subject experts for the curious and the confused.
The flyer includes examples of celebrities weighing in on science, scientific experts providing the state of scientific understanding of each issue, and a phone number to call for scientific clarification. The material has created a file of press coverage an inch thick. "It helps when you can have a full-page picture of Elle MacPherson, " said Director Tracey Brown
"I think a lot of scientists moan about inaccuracies and the misleading nature of some media reporting," Shawn Treweek of the University of Dundee School of Medicine, said in an Email to The Scientist
. "But moaning is not enough. Scientists need to do something, and an organisation such as Sense About Science helps to put journalists in touch with scientists who want to do something."
SAS has their work cut out for them. As part of the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation anti-milk campaign, Heather Mills McCartney said: "The fact that those kids who drink most milk
gain the most weight should cause alarm bells to be ringing everywhere." A quote from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, appearing on the Web site of the nonprofit group Organic (Ltd)
, encourages people to use organic ingredients. In between projects, Madonna
once lobbied the British government to use Kaballah techniques to neutralize radiation.
American media outlets have also disseminated celebrity thoughts on science. "We have three or four filters on the water system before it gets to our mouths," said John Travolta in a 2002 USA Today
article entitled "Meryl Streep takes lead in environmental health." Martina Navratilova has spoken out
against research studying homosexuality in rams. And who could forget Tom Cruise's 2005 interview with NBC's Matt Lauer
, in which Cruise insisted that mental illness can be treated with vitamins and exercise?
A literature search published
two months ago in The Medical Journal of Australia
found 38 celebrities who have voiced their opinions about alternative or complementary therapies. Some of the most popular treatments included homeopathy (cheered by Pamela Anderson, Tony Blair, Cher, Cindy Crawford, Tina Turner, and Catherine Zeta Jones), and acupuncture (Kate Moss, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet). "If celebs were to promote a healthy lifestyle, or (even better) evidence-based medicine, there would be plenty of potential for good effects," lead author Edzard Ernst
, said in an Email to The Scientist
. "In other words, it's not the promotion itself, but what is being promoted (and what for)."
When celebrities talk, people listen. Demand for apples plummeted in 1989 when a powerful media campaign fronted by Meryl Streep announced that the pesticide Alar could cause cancer in children. And parents in the UK, inspired by celebrity chefs who endorse the brain-boosting function of omega-3 fatty acid supplements, are buying omega-3 supplements for their children to take before important exams, Brown noted. The supplement probably does no harm, said Brown, but it is also unknown whether it is doing the children any good.
However, not all celebrities confuse the public about science, Brown noted, and some have even done a lot of good -- for instance, Christopher Reeve spent his last years of life encouraging research about spinal cord injuries. During last year's US elections, actor Michael J Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, filmed an advertisement
encouraging Missouri residents
to vote for Claire McCaskill, a candidate who supported stem cell research. McCaskill won the election.
Links within this article
Sense about science
Science for celebrities
T Brown, "Making sense of science," The Scientist
, November 21, 2005.
Jamie Oliver, at Organic
Madonna's magical nuclear waste cure
Tom Cruise interviewed by Matt Lauer
E Ernst and MH Pittler, "Celebrity-based medicine," Med J Aust
, December 2006.
Michael J Fox advertisement for Claire McCaskill
C. Tran, "Stem cell divide in midterm elections," The Scientist
, November 1, 2006.