At a food exhibit last month I met a man hawking specialty teas. He handed me a cup of mango tea and I took a moment to chat with him. He told me that while the tea may feel good after eating, it will do little to aid my digestion. "Enzymes!," he declared.
"Excuse me?" I asked.
"You need them to digest your food," he exclaimed. "You only get so many enzymes in your lifetime, and as you use them to digest your food, you deplete your supply." He looked over both shoulders as if about to tell me a secret, held the bottle of pills, and whispered deliberately but increasingly loudly, "You need to take these enzyme pills while you are still young. If you use up your enzymes without replenishing them, you'll run out, and then BAM! PARTY'S OVER!"
Bizarre unscientific ideas like this rarely makes their way into mainstream thinking. Unless, of course, they are promoted by a celebrity. As explained in "Celebrities and Science," an annual report by the British non-profit, Sense About Science, (SAS) this happens all too frequently. When celebrities speak without the support of mainstream science, they disproportionately distort our decision making, both at the individual, as well as policy-making level.
In the case of digestive enzymes, Olivia Newton-John told the British Daily Mall that she takes digestive enzymes with every meal, "as well as a tonic containing South American plant extracts that helps boost my immune system and promote calmness." Is that how the body really works? Well, let's get physical and consult the science. Dr. Melita Gordon, a gastroenterologist at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital explained in the SAS report, "All the digestive enzymes you need are produced in a beautifully coordinated way by different structures in your gut...your body makes all the enzymes you need, in the right place, at the right time." So no need to take those pills, the party will go on!
Other examples abound. Where would discredited anti-vaccine fraudster Andrew Wakefield be without Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy? Sometimes, celebrities go to Capitol Hill to lobby for their favorite cause, promoting their image but not always promoting sound policy. In 2002, Julia Roberts asked Congress to earmark $15 million for Retts Syndrome and Congress listened. But should celebrities be advising policy-makers on how to best allocate limited resources? Maybe the funds could have been better spent on some other disease -- or maybe not. But I'd rather scientists inform those critical decisions.
In fairness, celebrities aren't wrong every time they engage in a scientific issue. Michael J. Fox's eponymous foundation has funded nearly a quarter billion dollars of mainstream science, researching Parkinson's disease.And rarely, celebrities will take a stand on the scientific, although less sexy side of a controversy, such as Amanda Peet, who with the backing of top scientists like Dr. Paul Offit, defends the safety of vaccines. Take that, Jim Carrey.
In a culture fascinated with celebrities, we should remember that those we gawk at may be very talented and are often even brilliant -- at what they do. But just like we probably shouldn't watch most scientists act, sing, or worse yet, model, let's keep the celebrities in their proper places too.