5X5 Episode 109

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5X5 Episode 109
Celebrity Pseudoscience
4th April 2012

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5X5 108 5X5 110
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Celebrity Pseudoscience[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU five by five and tonight we're talking about celebrity pseudoscience. Quite often, a celebrity will publically promote a belief or claim that is not generally accepted by the scientific community, that may be outright pseudo-scientific. Of course they get more attention for their beliefs because they are celebrities. And one might argue that this carries with it a greater responsibility to vet their opinions to make sure that what they're promoting is reasonable, given that they have a wide audience, that their celebrity gives them a tremendous amount of access to the public. And people will listen to them for whatever reason, because they're celebrities. For example, recently Donald Trump, while being interviewed on Fox News, decided to put forward his own theory about what is causing the increase in the number of autism diagnoses in the last decade.

J: Oh boy

S: And he said that he thinks it's the vaccines. And then he essentially put forward a number of standard ant-vaccine talking points: that children are getting too many too soon, he called them monster vaccines and emphasising the fact that these "monster vaccines" are being given to little children. A lot of fearmongering that we hear from the anti-vaccine community. And he offered, as support for his theory, an anecdote. That he knows someone whose child was, you know, again the simplified version of the story, their child was perfect, they got a vaccine and two months later they had a serious neurological issue. Now, this not the first conspiracy theory that Donald Trump has espoused in the public. And he does have connections to people in the anti-vaccine community so I don't think he's coming up with this on his own. But he is using the fact that he's someone who gets interviewed on Fox News to promote ideas which he acknowledged were not accepted by the scientific community. And you have to wonder how much damage he did to the vaccine program, to public health, by doing that. It was arguably tremendously irresponsible.

R: Yeah, you know Trump isn't the only celebrity out there that's promoting anti-vaccine nonsense. One of the first celebrities to give anti-vaxers mainstream credibility was Jenny McCarthy; who was famous for being a playboy model and also for being a really popular game show host on MTV among other things. She claimed that she had a son with autism and she also claimed that it was vaccines that caused that autism. Of course, prior to her anti-vaccination spiel, Jenny claimed that her son was not autistic, but actually was a magical psychic angel. She believed that she was something called an indigo child, and that her son is something called a crystal child, and Jenny contributed to a website called indigo moms that you can still find on, if you go and look at the wayback machine on the internet, you can find that still, and it's got some really absurd claims. Things about how these children are psychic, have tapped into some special all-knowing soul, that they're part of the universe, that indigo children and crystal children are basically better than other children. And eventually her son was diagnosed with autism and she sort of left all that indigo child stuff behind and I'm sure if you were to ask her about it today she wouldn't even acknowledge it because she's moved on to a new, hotter, slightly more believable pseudoscience.

B: Well, obviously celebrities aren't just focussed on vaccines and autism. Joe Rogan was one who I decided to tackle. He's a pseudo-celebrity of sorts, known mostly I'd say for hosting a fun show called fear factor. But he's also a comedian, martial artist and actor of sorts, and he's also unfortunately, a pseudo-scientist. His pseudo-scientific bent is conspiracy theories, and he doesn't seem to discriminate much whether it's the Roswell conspiracy or the 9-11 terrorist hoax, or of course what he's most well known for, the alleged moon hoax. I've recently come across a quote of his that was kind of a little bit surprising. He said, "there's no way man went to the moon. It's impossible today." So therefore, he not only thinks that we didn't do it, but he actually thinks that it can't be done, period, which I found a little surprising, even for him. Joe is also an example of why unstructured debates against true believers is not advisable. Not only does he have all the rhetoric down, this guy, he's a stand-up comedian and he's somewhat aggressive. And you add all that together, which is a powerful combination of attributes, and you add to that a Gish-gallop delivery style that he has and it's really almost a no-win situation. If Joe has one key refrain when he talks about his pet conspiracy theories, it's "Hey, I'm just a guy asking questions." And of course, that sounds reasonable on the surface, you know, what's wrong with asking questions, after all? Nothing obviously. But at some point, Joe you need to move beyond questions and rhetoric and actually offer hard evidence to back up your extraordinary claims.

S: Yeah I think he pulls the I'm just asking questions gambit as a way of being coy. That way, as you say, you don't have to provide any evidence. You don't need to even produce a coherent, logical belief. All you need to do is cast the standard story in a sinister light and cast doubt on it. It's a lot easier to do that than it is to come up with plausible alternatives or explanations.

B: Yeah, and he also loves coming up with just these quirky events in history that happen all the time and by talking about them and revealing them, it's like yeah it does seem a little odd. Like, for example, NASA has one definition of where say the Van Allen belts are, radiation belts from the Earth that he claims should have killed the astronauts and Van Allen himself supposedly has other figures and those are just quirky little things, and I'm sure if you actually looked into that you would find out why there's a little bit of a discrepancy. But he just loves throwing out these little quirky events of history and like you said Steve, casting it in a sinister light.

E: Folks, let's not forget Academy Award winner, Golden Globe Award winner, and Emmy Award winning actor and singer Gwyneth Paltrow. So with an earning power of about 20 million dollars per year, she earns the third-highest spot on Forbes' top 10 list of working mothers. And she attracts legions of fans and admirers by the millions. So this is a woman with influence. But in between making movies and songs and promotions, she finds time to actively cast her own hot spotlight on various pseudo-scientific claims. She promotes cupping therapy which is an ancient form of alternative medicine where a local suction is created on the skin and the practitioners believe that this somehow mobilises blood flow in order to promote healing. And of course there's no scientific evidence that cupping has any medicinal benefit whatsoever. And you remember when she claimed that shampoo is toxic and could lead to things like cancer and ADHD in kids? Well the cancer researchers and cancer centres around the world were quick to challenge Paltrow's claims. But Paltrow is a big promoter of detoxification programs and treatments. Especially with an emphasis on those involving children. And like her buddy Madonna who deserves a mention here, because you know birds of a feather flock together, Paltrow is a proponent of Kabbalah, which is a form of Jewish mysticism with numerology at its core. And of course, Kabbalah and numerology themselves, while boasting all sorts of supernatural claims and benefits, fails to ever deliver anything other than false hope to people. And just a few weeks ago, Paltrow began professing her admiration of bee venom therapy as a means of pain relief. But there are some conflicting reports on how her treatments are being applied. One report says she's using acupuncture to deliver venom to her meridian points in her body. And another report says the same, however instead of venom, it's a homeopathic remedy, which means she's having nothing but plain water or some kind of inert solution injected through those acupuncture needles. So any way you slice it, Gwyneth Paltrow is this one-gal band of many kinds of pseudoscience rolled up into one. Oh, and it should be noted that she runs a website called goop.com in which she gives all kinds of advice on things like health and healthy living, but I think the name of the site should be changed gobbledegoop.com.

S: And Evan, you bring up a couple of good points that often these celebrities have a lot of financial resources at their disposal, and further they can have a huge influence in promoting a specific belief system, in this case, in medical therapy. So again, this is the theme of this 5x5 episode is that they have influence beyond what they really deserve. They're not experts, they're just in some, sometimes they're just attractive actors or actresses, and yet they feel that gives them license to practice medicine, in some cases.

J: So guys, I ran through a few celebs, and then like a thunderbolt it hit me, of course I have to talk about Oprah Winfrey. I was going to talk about Tom Cruise, but, I realised just running through the catalogue of information I have in my head, Oprah is definitely, to me, the biggest and the baddest of them all. Partly because she's widely loved and a trusted celebrity, and also her reach is so profound and her influence is even more so. And I get the impression that Oprah is a kind person, however the facts are that she, in my opinion, has done a very large disservice to humanity than any other celebrity ever. Her TV talk show, her magazine and her cable channel are all outlets for her blatant lack of critical thinking. As she so lovingly hucks the latest pop-culture nonsense which we've all seen her do for the last 25+ years. On top of her ridiculous endorsements sits her book "The Secret," which I know all you guys are aware of. Look it up if you don't know what it is. It's one of the biggest jokes of all time and she was very, very powerfully behind it. And that all by itself is all I would have to mention but it doesn't stop there, and sadly not even by a long shot. She's made careers for, and helped promote celebrity woo-masters like Dr. Oz, Susanne Summers, John of God, Dr. Northrup, Jenny McCarthy and Deepak Chopra and my little buddy Tom Cruise. So, all by itself, Oprah is a woo-celebrity making machine. You know, she's had most of the people that you guys mentioned on her show, and she's pretty much talked about every pseudoscience that we've ever talked about. And supported it.

S: Yeah, I mean, it says something about our culture, but also just about human psychology. It's a version of the argument from authority. In this case their authority isn't even legitimate, it's the argument from celebrity. There's the appearance of authority just because somebody is recognisable and famous, but again, not necessarily in a position to understand complex scientific issues, and unfortunately that doesn't stop them from promoting their personal beliefs as if they were legitimate scientific beliefs.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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