What Happens When Celebrities Think They Are Scientists?

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One of the most disturbing trends of modern times is the inexorable rise of the tendency for large swathes of the population to substitute proper scientific research in favor of “celebrity science.” Well I apologize, but I prefer to get my medical advice on things like GM foods from the FDA and not from, say, a guest on a chat show or a former swing dancer cum yogic flyer who self publishes books and now thinks he is the world’s authority on the issue.  I’m not sure if my approach is the one taken by the majority anymore.

I’m going to discuss a couple of examples here. It’s time to stand up for the scientists. The real ones, not the idiots.

It’s so much easier for people to listen to a celebrity when they are articulating their expertise on medical matters. Indeed, Time magazine has cited research that claims that 24% of parents place “some trust” in medical information given by celebrities.

The MMR Vaccine and Autism, What the Scientists Said

The most infamous case in modern times is the claim that there was a link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism. Indeed, anti-MMR litigation was directed at companies that manufacture the vaccine. Current manufactures include GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) and Merck (NYSE: MRK). Who speaks up for these companies when they are subject to this sort of nonsense in the media?

The original report on which much of the MMR/Autism claim is made was published in the The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield. The report has subsequently been denounced as a fraud by the British Medical Journal and has received widespread condemnation in the scientific community.

In case anyone is in any lingering doubt as to the validity of the claim, the following bodies have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • The National Health Service in the UK
  • Institute of Medicine (IOM)
  • World Health Organization
  • New Scientist Magazine

In addition the FDA reported on the subject  and discussed the final report of the IOM’s Immunization Safety Review Committee in 2004

“ body of evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, and that hypotheses generated to date concerning a biological mechanism for such causality are theoretical only…  …the benefits of vaccination are proven… … widespread rejection of vaccines would lead to increases in incidences of serious infectious diseases”

So this is what the scientists said but they don’t always get listened too, according to a report  until relatively recently “one in four Americans” still thinks that vaccines cause autism.  Why?

What the Celebrities Said

There is no higher profile celebrity expert on autism than Jenny McCarthy and indeed her status on the issue has been raised by appearances on chat shows like Oprah Winfrey and Larry King where she has been on record as believing that vaccines caused her son’s autism. She is not alone as other television and radio presenters have also reiterated these claims.

Indeed media coverage of the Wakefield research caused widespread fear and declining rates of vaccinations with the inevitable disease outbreaks occurring afterwards. Of course the overwhelming scientific evidence (or rather the lack of scientific evidence) is presented to these people, but nothing works. Everything seems to be subservient to homespun anecdotal evidence which is given widespread credibility for no other reason than they saw it on television spoken from the mouth of a celebrity. As another celebrity and great philosopher, Marina & The Diamonds, correctly once wrote “TV taught me how to feel, now real life has no appeal”.

It’s not just celebrities and the media that were at fault here. The Wakefield research was always highly questionable and even after it was widely discredited and evidence came to light that made the Anti-MMR litigation case in the UK untenable, the lawyers still displayed their usual tendency to make money irrespective of the situation. According to an interview with Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, the lawyers who lead the campaign

“refused to acknowledge openly that the scientific case against the MMR-autism link was overwhelming and advise their clients to conclude the action. Instead, they continued to pursue the case, allowing it to drag on for a small number of families, acting without legal aid funding, for a further three years.”

In addition Fitzpatrick claimed that £8m of the £15m ($23m) in legal aid funding used up in this case went to the solicitors. A further £1.7m went to the barristers and expert witnesses took up £4.3m.

Shameful.

Conclusions

This sad tale of misinformation which was promulgated by self-appointed celebrity experts, fraudsters, self-interested parties and lawyers would be an interesting footnote in history if it was an isolated case. Unfortunately there seems to no end this hogwash. The latest media friendly scare stories-backed up by flimsy “science”- seem to surround genetically modified crops and companies like Monsanto and Syngenta.

I’m certainly not arguing that these companies shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny, but what I am saying is that any criticism of them should be based on the body of scientific evidence rather than listening to chat show ‘experts’, celebrities whose usual response to the overwhelming evidence against their case is simply to find another chat show.

If I want to know about scientific facts I listen to a scientist.

Dig Deeper

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SaintGermain has a position in Sanofi. The Motley Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend GlaxoSmithKline and Monsanto Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.

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