Ten Most Wanted: Celebrities Who Promote Harmful Pseudoscience
A critical look at the pseudoscientific antics of some of today's celebrities.
Today I have a list for you: The ten celebrities who most abuse their fame to promote dangerous or otherwise harmful misinformation. You may be disappointed that this is not simply a list of Hollywood Scientologists. On the contrary, I think Tom Cruise deserves a medal. He's done more to discredit Scientology than anyone else. If anyone didn't already think Scientologists were nuts, Tom Cruise has sealed the deal. You also won't find anyone who's simply a harmless wacko. I endeavored to include only celebrities who are actively doing harm to the public by spreading misinformation that does damage. Thanks to the folks on the Skeptalk email discussion list for suggesting and helping to refine this list.
Reminder: This episode is from 2008! So these were indeed a great Top 10 for 2008.
#10 - Montel Williams
He's all the way down at the bottom of the list because his daytime talk show is no longer on the air and he doesn't have much influence anymore, but when he did, he was best known for promoting psychics as the best way to solve almost any crisis. You can quarrel with psychic predators like Sylvia Browne, but her career was created by Montel Williams. Montel's worst offense was to use psychics to provide made-up information to the parents of missing children, which he did on many occasions, not just the one or two high profile cases that made headlines. Without exception, this information has always been either uselessly general or flat-out wrong. All the while, Montel Williams unapologetically promoted psychic powers to his millions of viewers. Read Dr. Hal Bidlack's Open Letter to Lt. Commander Montel Williams from one military officer to another, in which he asks "Have you lost your honor?"
#9 - Chuck Norris
He deserves to be on the list anyway for making primarily inane movies, but Chuck Norris' main offense against science is his frequent public appeals to teach a Biblical "alternative" to science in public schools. In a series of public service announcements (here and here), Chuck and his wife advocate the mission of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a nonprofit organization with its own 300 page textbook advocating Young Earth fundamentalism, The Bible in History and Literature. Although Chuck and the Council state that it's legal and has never been legally challenged, this is patently untrue, its having failed every Constitutional challenge brought forth against it. Chuck, become a Sunday School teacher in the church of your choice. You should not use your celebrity status to wage war against religious freedom, or to further erode the quality of science education in the United States.
#8 - Joe Rogan
Comedian Joe Rogan does what he can to promote virtually any conspiracy theory that he stumbles onto, apparently accepting them all uncritically with a wholesale embrace. He believes the Apollo astronauts did not land on the moon. He believes the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He believes the Oliver Stone version of the Kennedy assassination. He believes aliens crashed at Roswell in 1947 and the government is covering it up. He thinks Men in Black from Project Blue Book stole his friend's camera, even though Project Blue Book ended over 38 years ago. The worst part is that he promotes these ideas to the public at every interview opportunity, but gives himself the intellectual "Get out of jail free" card of not needing any evidence by hiding behind the childish debate technique of saying "Hey, I'm just the guy asking questions." Joe, if you're going to put so much effort into promoting conspiracy theories and eroding what little rationality the public has left, at least have the courage to come forward with a cogent argument and well-sourced evidence, instead of the lameness of "I'm just the guy asking questions." Take the responsibility.
On January 14, 2014, I went onto Joe's show The Joe Rogan Experience to discuss this. This blog post explains what happened and why I decided to leave this here. It also includes references for each of my assertions above.
#7 - Ben Stein
There's nothing wrong with being a religious person, but actor Ben Stein takes it many steps further, employing fallacious logic to claim that everything bad in the world is caused by non-Christian ideas. His favorite is that the study of science caused the Holocaust. He's now infamous for his quote "the last time any of my relatives saw scientists telling them what to do they were telling them to go to the showers to get gassed … that's where science leads you." Ben's open hostility toward scientific literacy is aptly described by Scientific American's John Rennie, who wrote: "Ben Stein wants you to stop thinking of evolution as an actual science supported by verifiable facts and logical arguments and to start thinking of it as a dogmatic, atheistic ideology akin to Marxism." Science is, quite properly, independent of politics and religion. A celebrity who argues that science should be subservient to either, especially one who exploits the Holocaust to do so, is an intellectual felon.
#6 - Pamela Anderson
Although we here at Skeptoid endorse their annual "Running of the Nudes" in Pamplona, Spain, we don't like anything else about PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Pamela Anderson lends her celebrity to them and serves as one of their primary spokespeople, as do many other celebrities. Senator James Inhofe has criticized PETA for its support of self-described domestic terrorist groups Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. Groups like PETA do far more harm than good to the animal rights movement by exploiting the Holocaust for its advertising or for complaining only about the death of a donkey in a Jerusalem bomb attack that killed dozens of people. And Pamela, you might want to think twice before donating money to PETA. The Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance has noted that PETA fails to meet several Charity Accountability standards, and a Senate committee has questioned its tax exempt status for funding organizations later designated as terrorist.
#5 - Larry King
Larry King's job as a professional interviewer is to bring on a huge number of people from all backgrounds and let them speak their minds, and this is a good thing. We hear from people doing good, people doing bad, people we agree with, and people we disagree with. But Larry's show is supposed to be better than all the other interview shows. Only Larry gets to talk to heads of state, U.S. Presidents, the top movers and shakers. He hits them hard, asks them the tough questions, puts them on the spot. Unless — and that's a very big unless — they are on the show to promote some pseudoscience or paranormal claim. Of these guests, Larry asks no tough questions. He gives them an unchallenged platform to promote their harmful claim. He gives their web addresses and shows their books and DVDs. He acts as their top salesman for the hour. Larry King gives every indication that CNN fully endorses celebrity psychics, conspiracy theorists, ghost hunters, UFO advocates, and promoters of non-scientific alternatives to healthcare.
#4 - Bill Maher
While we love Bill Maher's movie Religulous and appreciate that his is one of the very few public voices opposing the 9/11 conspiracy myths, we can't deny that he has a darker side. Bill Maher is a board member of PETA — one of the people actually approving their payments to people like convicted arsonist Rod Coronado — but his ongoing act that's most harmful to the world is his outspoken denial of science-based medicine. Yes, Bill is correct that a good diet and exercise are good for you, but he seems to think that doctors deny this. Not any doctor I've ever spoken to. Bill made it clear on a four-minute speech on his show that he believes government and Big Pharma conspire to keep everyone sick by prescribing drugs. If even a single person takes Bill's claims to heart and avoids needed medical treatment as a result, Bill Maher is guilty of a terrible moral crime. Considering the huge size of his audience, this seems all too likely.
#3 - Prince Charles
What's even worse than a comedian denying modern medicine is when the future King of England does the same thing. This is the kind of medieval superstition we expect from witch doctors like South Africa's former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, not from the royal family of one of the world's most advanced nations (well, it would be, except that royal families are kind of a medieval thing too). Through The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health (since closed), Prince Charles attempts to legitimize and promote the use of untested, unapproved, and implausible alternative therapies of all sorts instead of using modern evidence-based medicine. He has a "collaborative agreement" with Bravewell, the United States' largest fundraising organization dedicated to the promotion of non-scientific alternatives to healthcare. As perhaps the most influential man in the United Kingdom, Prince Charles displays gross irresponsibility that directly results in untreated disease and death.
#2 - Jenny McCarthy
The most outspoken anti-vaccine advocate is, by definition, the person responsible for the most disease and suffering in our future generation. Jenny McCarthy's activism has been directly blamed for the current rise in measles. She also blames vaccines for autism, against all the well established evidence that shows autism is genetic, and she spreads this misinformation tirelessly. She believes autism can be treated with a special diet, and that her own son has been "healed" of his autism through her efforts. Since one of the things we do know about autism is that it's incurable, it seems likely that her son probably never even had autism in the first place. So Jenny now promotes the claim that her son is an "Indigo child" — a child with a blue aura who represents the next stage in human evolution. If you take your family's medical advice from Jenny McCarthy, this is the kind of foolishness you're in for. Instead, get your medical advice from someone with a plausible likelihood of knowing something about it, like say, oh, a doctor, and not a doctor who belongs to the anti-vaccine Autism Research Institute or its Defeat Autism Now! project. Go to StopJenny.com for more information.
#1 - Oprah Winfrey
The only person who can sit at the top of this pyramid is the one widely considered the most influential woman in the world and who promotes every pseudoscience: Oprah Winfrey. To her estimated total audience of 100 million, many of whom uncritically accept every word the world's wealthiest celebrity says, she promotes the paranormal, psychic powers, new age spiritualism, conspiracy theories, quack celebrity diets, past life regression, angels, ghosts, alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy, anti-vaccination, detoxification, vitamin megadosing, and virtually everything that will distract a human being from making useful progress and informed decisions in life. Although much of what she promotes is not directly harmful, she offers no distinction between the two, leaving the gullible public increasingly and incrementally injured with virtually every episode.
When you have a giant audience, you have a giant responsibility. Maybe you don't want such a responsibility, in which case, fine, keep your mouth shut; or limit your performance to jokes or acting or whatever it is you do.
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