Celebrity Pseudoscience: 2017 Edition
Hollywood celebrities have a reputation for espousing a sort of prepackaged, fast-food version of politically correct "liberal" issues, as if they buy a kit of personal convictions off the shelf at Whole Foods. It includes environmental concerns, usually exaggerated and often wrong; rejection of "all things corporate" including pharmaceuticals and biotech, with a corresponding embrace of alternative medicine, organic agriculture, and "empowered individual" philosophies like home birth. Then there are the outliers who go the other way toward full alt-right with an imagined superior insight into world affairs. They tend to reject history and science in favor of conspiracy mongering and alternative science, be it the young Earth, the flat Earth, or calling us all sheeple for believing in the standard model of the universe.
Interestingly, anti-vaccination is found in both camps. Left-leaning antivaxxers tend to reject it because it's not a natural healing method, and right-leaning antivaxxers think it's an evil government program of enforced mercury poisoning. It increasingly seems that a rational, level-headed, science-literate Hollywood celebrity is as rare as a truly good movie.
So here my list of top 10 celebrities, 2017 edition, who contribute to the Endarkenment by abusing their notoriety to spread misinformation far and wide:
#10 - Shaq and the NBA Flat Earthers
Former player Shaquille O'Neal and current NBA basketball players Kyrie Irving, Wilson Chandler, and Draymond Green have all expressed their belief that the Earth is flat, but I put them all the way down at #10 because it's not clear that all four literally believe this. They may just be trolling. But whether they are or not, they do genuinely influence a huge number of young people, including some demographics where education is not necessarily a life priority. Guys, if you want to inspire kids to achieve and succeed, you're doing it wrong.
#9 - Michael Phelps
I include him as a representative of the many athletes and celebrities who loudly and proudly promote cupping, the overtly pseudoscientific technique of suctioning great round hickeys into the skin by rupturing capillaries. A lot of trainers sell this because it costs nothing to administer, requires no training, and they can charge whatever they want for it; and since it's unregulated, they make a vast array of claims for whatever workout benefits they say it confers. Usually, it just happens to solve whatever that athlete's complaint of the day is. Phelps proudly shows off these ugly bruises, as do many other athletes and celebrities, and has even posted pictures of himself getting it done on his Instagram. Sellers have even come up with a sciencey-sounding name for it to impress the scientifically illiterate: "myofascial decompression".
#8 - David Beckham
For more than a decade, the world's most visible soccer player has been extolling the virtues of homeopathy, both for general wellness and for the treatment of injury. He's not alone: Sir Paul McCartney, Usain Bolt, Jennifer Aniston, Cher, Cindy Crawford, and Bill and Hillary Clinton proudly talk about their use of homeopathy — the thoroughly debunked and implausible treatment of disease using nothing other than dextrose pills claimed to channel the spiritual essence of some disease agent. Comically, Johnny Depp credits homeopathy as the reason he's able to keep a level head as a celebrity.
#7 - Pete Evans
Australia's top celebrity chef was a recent recipient of the Australian Skeptics' annual Bent Spoon award for pseudoscience. There isn't much he claims his recipes can't do, including "shrink tumours, reduce diabetes, cure autism, stop asthma and reverse chronic fatigue". Promoting the pseudoscientific Paleo Diet is about the tamest thing Evans does from his huge television pulpit. He advocates against both fluoridation and vaccines, claiming both important public health measures are poisonous. Notably, he has also advised people never to use sunscreen because he thinks it's harmful — in the country with the world's highest rates of skin cancer.
#6 - Tom Brady
At a time when there is renewed focus on the brain injuries suffered by a frightening number of professional football players, it's essential to cast our skeptical eye on one of their own. Tom Brady, one of the most successful quarterbacks to play the game, is co-founder of TB12, an online company that sells every type of fitness supplement and holistic training regimen you can imagine, even the thoroughly-debunked brain training games. Notably, TB12 grew from Brady's association with Alex Guerrero who sold a scam drink called NeuroSafe claimed to protect against head trauma. Brady called it a "seatbelt for your brain". After some Federal Trade Commission enforcement actions, NeuroSafe is no longer sold, but the two partners are still united in their separation of money from hopeful athletes using pretty much the full dictionary of pseudoscientific babble. TB12's snacks are organic, raw, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free, and laughably overpriced.
#5 - Neil Young
Love his music, but not his crusade against lifesaving biotechnologies. Neil Young is emblematic of celebrities who selected that box of beliefs off the shelf at Whole Foods we talked about earlier. His music album The Monsanto Years attacks not just GMO crops but also makes absurd claims like pesticides cause autism. A lot of scientifically illiterate celebrities have joined the anti-GMO bandwagon alongside Neil Young, such as Mark Ruffalo, Chuck Norris, Jennifer Garner, Roseanne Barr, Dave Matthews, Bill Maher, Jack Johnson, Jim Carrey, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. There's even the The Hollywood Food Guild, an anti-biotech lobbying group promoted by Woody Harrelson, Susan Sarandon, Morgan Freeman, and advisory board member Moby. It seems that when you become a celebrity, you lose the ability to understand the most basic food advice of all: Your species is omnivorous. Relax.
#4 - Scott Baio
The actor has become one of the most vocal advocates of police state conspiracy theories, particularly the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre which he claims was a hoax staged by government crisis actors. He's even gone so far as to claim that the mother of Heather Heyer, the protester killed by white supremacists at the 2017 Charlottesville riots, is played by the same actor as the mother of Vicki Soto, a teacher killed at Sandy Hook. It's been suggested that Baio's disconnection from reality could be profound enough to be diagnosable.
When he tweets this stuff to his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, he sometimes gets thousands of likes and retweets (despite many of the replies being ridicule). That shows a dangerous reach of misinformation. The conspiracy theory subculture is larger than many people know, and Baio's brand of encouragement enables even more jettisoning of reality.
#3 - Robert de Niro
The actor has turned much of his attention these days to anti-vaccination activism, repeatedly plugging the movie Vaxxed. De Niro did a lot to put Vaxxed in the spotlight when he added it to his Tribeca Film Festival, then withdrew it under immense protest. He has partnered with career anti-pharmaceutical activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to offer a $100,000 prize for anyone who can show them a published paper showing that thimerosal in vaccines is safe. Of course there are many such papers, so won't the prize be claimed easily? No, because the offer is a sham. To submit such a paper, you have to pay De Niro and Kennedy $50. Unnamed judges, likely De Niro and Kennedy themselves, will decide on the validity of the paper. When they reject it, you can appeal. When you do, De Niro and Kennedy will send your appeal to an unknown, unnamed panel of experts that they select, and whom they describe as "imposing"; and you must pay each of those people $200/hour to evaluate your appeal for as long as they like. And your appeal will only be successful if this obscure panel of experts is unanimous in their support of vaccine safety. Given the probability that they are all anti-vaccine activists of De Niro and Kennedy's acquaintance, I would recommend not applying for their prize. It is a sham, intended to fool the general public into thinking science is unable to find any evidence that vaccines are safe.
#2 - Mayim Bialik
The actress is frequently lauded for her PhD in neuroscience, for her role on the TV show Big Bang Theory with its huge geek following, and for being a science ambassador and spokesperson everywhere you turn. But turn the coin over, and it turns out she is the ambassador and spokesperson for any number of flagrant anti-science groups such as the Holistic Moms Network, as well as personally harboring pretty much the full suite of typical Hollywood pseudoscience beliefs. It has been argued that while Bialik does a lot to encourage young girls to get into the sciences, her ideas about what science is are so offbeat (and in some cases harmful) that she's more likely to do harm than good.
Bialik is a tireless advocate for homeopathy, home childbirth, the Waldorf method of homeschooling, and eating your own placenta. But she is most vocal about her opposition to vaccination, on the principle that it is unnatural. The views she expresses are typical of the "empowered mommy" fallacy: that being a mother gives her special insight into health questions that are superior to what the the history of medical research has found.
How could someone who is at odds with the scientific community on so many issues actually have a legitimate PhD? Well, the fact is that just about any person of average intelligence is capable of following any academic program through to completion. It doesn't always mean what you hope.
And our headliner for celebrity pseudoscience:
#1 - Gwyneth Paltrow
The sadness of every nerd is that Iron Man's right hand, Pepper Potts, is currently Hollywood's top spokesperson for the rejection of science. Her investor-funded company Goop sells a bewildering array of nonsense products claimed to produce magical health benefits: crystal therapy, grounding, body stickers, aromatherapies, supplements, all sold with specific health claims. She most infamously made the headlines for her egg-shaped jade stones meant to be inserted into the vagina where they can likely cause serious infection. At this writing, Goop is facing more than 50 charges for deceptive advertising for illegally claiming that their worthless products can treat, cure, or prevent specific ailments.
And here is where Paltrow is her own worst enemy: whenever her claims are challenged by experts, rather than fixing the problem she doubles down instead and attacks those experts. Paltrow is not some well-meaning celebrity whose name is being exploited by a marketing company, she is herself the driving force of the misinformation.
So that's our 2017 list. 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 throwing balls or acting or whatever it is you do.
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