Celebrity engorgements

By Phil Plait | April 17, 2009 12:23 pm

Why do people listen to celebrities? Why?

OK, I hate rhetorical questions, and we know the answer anyway: evolutionary pressures acting on a tribal group of protohumans instilled in us an instinctive need to listen to authority figures, and that’s been short-circuited in our recently-developed upper brains which causes us to reverse the authority-is-famous connection to be famous-is-authority.

But still. Yeesh. Jenny McCarthy is an expert in vaccines? Marie Osmond is a nutritional dietician? William Shatner reserves his own hotel rooms?

Every now and again, a little snark is called for, which is why I love love love this column in The Guardian by Marina Hyde smacking down the celebrity authority figure. This is must-read stuff:

We shall come to her latest discoveries shortly, but by way of background, do recall that Gwyneth [Paltrow] has formerly claimed that eating “biological foods” can prevent cancer, reminding us that starring in Iron Man and maintaining a glittering career in clinical research are not mutually exclusive. Then we have Madonna, who has cited the extraordinary healing powers of Kabbalah water, which costs $4 a bottle, is said to have had energy injected into it, and may or may not have been blessed by the former insurance salesman who dreamed up her religion.

… And then there’s [fashion designer] Stella [McCartney], who launched her organic skincare range with the warning that “lots of skin products use the same petrochemicals as the antifreeze in your car!”, and is one of those celebrities who thinks they eat “chemical-free” food and use “chemical-free” products. I beg you not to tell her that water and trees are made of chemicals. The shock could finish her off.

Awesome. I heartily endorse this column, and remember: I’m not just a scientist, I play one on TV.

Tip o’ the $3500 Les Croix (dearie) jewel-encrusted pillbox propeller beanie to Skepchick.

Comments (43)

  1. “Chemical free foods”. You better warn them about the dihydrogen monoxide that is often added to these so-called “chemical free” foods. has more details.

    Well, time to go order some of those “genuine imitation leather” things I’ve seen on TV.

  2. Hmm… Something dropped the URL in my last post. That would be:

    http://dhmo.org

    Oh… “First”. And, I suppose, “second”! :-)

  3. Why can’t we tell them? It would be a service to humanity to let them be finished off, wouldn’t it?

  4. RL

    William Shatner? Really? I don’t recall him passing himself on as an expert in anything. He’s effective as a spokesperson for Priceline, but its because he’s entertaining in the role. Couldn’t you find a third person to fill out your list other than him?

  5. BoC

    I think the Shatner one was a joke. At least I thought it was funny…

  6. The Shat is into Ray Kurzweil’s crazy pill regimen that he thinks will make him live forever. Yes, the same Kurzweil that’s cheering for the Geek Rapture.

  7. Leon

    “…and that’s been short-circuited in our recently-developed upper brains which causes us to reverse the authority-is-famous connection to be famous-is-authority.”

    An excellent way to put it, Phil! I’ve never heard it explained so coherently before. At least now I understand why it happens.

    Sure is good to read a smackdown of these fools.

    Actually, I could see people agreeing to get Shatner his own room–on the condition that he would please, please get rid of that rug and cut his hair close like the rest of us!

  8. Historically, of course, celebrity endorsements started out as relevant. The most famous early instance was Victorian actress Lillie Langtree for Pears Soap. Recent examples would be Kirstie Alley and Valerie Bertinelli for Jenny Craig.

  9. IVAN3MAN

    Phil Plait:

    [E]volutionary pressures acting on a tribal group of protohumans instilled in us an instinctive need to listen to authority figures, and that’s been short-circuited in our recently-developed upper brains which causes us to reverse the authority-is-famous connection to be famous-is-authority.

    I don’t have that problem because I follow the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, and #047 states: Never trust a man wearing a better suit than your own.
    :-)

  10. Gary

    John, how were celebrity endorsements more relevant in the past than they are today?

    I’m not arguing against you, I’m just curious.

  11. Why do people listen to celebrities? Why?

    Why do people listen to Penn Jillette or Amanda Peet?

    My problem with the dismissal of celebrity opinions is that often people don’t realize that the door swings both ways. For example, conservatives yelled “shut up and sing” at the Dixie Chicks, but you won’t hear them yelling that at Ted Nugent or Toby Keith.

    It’s the content of the arguments that should be addressed, not the fact that they came from “celebrities.”

  12. rob

    ahh. reminds me of “Golden Throats” a few albums with songs performed by actors. the jacket liner notes (on LPs in the old days) says that acting ability does not necessarily correlate with singing ability. the songs support this statement. if you don’t believe me, try to find “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” performed by William Shatner. oh my.

    just because you can act or design clothes does not mean you have a grasp of medical sciences.

  13. theinquisitor

    Have you seen the Guardian article about the survey that shows how acceptance of climate change is significantly less among evangelical christians?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2009/apr/17/climate-change-religion

  14. And then you have the wannabe celebrities who need smacking down just as much. Here is my treatment of the leaders of the Jenny McCarthy anti-vac movement.

    http://age-of-ignorance.blogspot.com/2009/04/honoring-leaders-of-aoa-collective.html

  15. Darth Robo

    >>>”I don’t have that problem because I follow the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, and #047 states: Never trust a man wearing a better suit than your own.”

    Dude! Freaky man, I just watched that one!!! THERE IS A GOD!

    :D

    Maybe…

    ;)

  16. “Then we have Madonna, who has cited the extraordinary healing powers of Kabbalah water, which costs $4 a bottle, is said to have had energy injected into it, and may or may not have been blessed by the former insurance salesman who dreamed up her religion.”

    It’s amazing that we have hundreds of years of priests writing esoteric works of complexity that could drive a religious student mad and spanning every religious approach from deism to devoted theism, yet a couple of shmucks can delude it into meaningless New Age nonsense sold to celebrities seeking religion as a promotional tool.

    It’s just plain disrespectful.

  17. theinquisitor

    “I don’t have that problem because I follow the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, and #047 states: Never trust a man wearing a better suit than your own.”

    And of course #190: “Hear all. Trust nothing.”

  18. rob Says:
    ahh. reminds me of “Golden Throats” a few albums with songs performed by actors. the jacket liner notes (on LPs in the old days) says that acting ability does not necessarily correlate with singing ability. the songs support this statement. if you don’t believe me, try to find “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” performed by William Shatner. oh my.

    I prefer his version of Rocket Man

    when I need my ears to bleed, that is.
    :)

    J/P=?

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    he same Kurzweil that’s cheering for the Geek Rapture

    Eh, isn’t that the guy who claims that exponential trend curves [insert non-mathematical magic here] gives singularities?! Is that a mistake a geek is likely to make?

    I propose we name it Freak Rapture.

  20. nick nick bobick

    And damn! Aren’t petrochemicals just about as organic as one can get?

  21. coolstar

    Cleon has it exactly right when he says:
    “It’s the content of the arguments that should be addressed, not the fact that they came from “celebrities.” That’s true, of course, whether the statement in question is from a “celebrity” or a “scientist”.

  22. MadScientist

    Kabala water? I think I’d rather have Moo Pee (and if I mumble it people might even think I’m saying “Snoopy”).

    Eat biological foods? Hey! It sounds great to me – in fact that’s my only recommended cure for starvation – eat biological foods. Yes Gwyneth, eating mud and other non-biological foods is a mental disorder; it even has a name: pica. [OT] I must admit that while most people love organic food, I have a special interest in non-organic food. My favorite is a carving of a cloven head of Chinese cabbage produced from a single block of jade. Unfortunately I can’t find any links to it on the web. Needless to say, you can’t eat inorganic food – you can’t even eat all organic food – paraffin fruits taste awful.

    Fantastic article – I wish we’d see more like it ridiculing the blonde leading the blonde.

  23. gss_000

    So, if we take this to the next step, a well known astronomer shouldn’t use his authority to write blog posts about politics and religion because that is not his area of expertise? Or maybe every blog should shut down because most of them are not written by experts? :)

    That’s silly, but it is essentially what we’re saying here. I find it funny that this seems to apply only to actors, but never to people in other fields. Like somehow by choosing a profession in the arts you’ve lost your right to speak your mind and hold opinions on a host of matters. This is why Cleon has it right. Listen to the message and forget about just attacking the messenger.

  24. PJE

    Phil….like it or not, to various people, you are a bit of celebrity!

    Pete

    On an unrelated note, I watched three episodes of firefly tonight…just thought I’d let you know :)

    Pete

  25. Sundance

    I heartily agree with Cleon, it’s the content of a statement or argument that matters. A fool can say whatever they like, but their foolishness doesn’t necessarily make it untrue. What matters is getting people to understand that a statement is not necessarily true, just because a self-proclaimed expert says it is. Which brings us to an interesting article the Hive Overmind ran a few weeks ago…

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2009/03/26/expert-but-bad-financial-advice-turns-off-decision-making-in-the-brain/

    It seems that being told something by an ‘expert” actually shuts down activity in the
    anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made and probabilities are calculated.

  26. Pat

    NO – Bill Shatner singing “Tambourine Man” – It’s like listening to the sound of burgeoning insanity as it crests and washes over you. And I think it’s where he got his practice for “KHAAAAN!” in Star Trek II.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0hTtsqiFCc

    The celebrity endorsement: it’s a bait-and-switch. An argument from authority from a non-authority. They did something to be noteworthy, ergo it translates across to everything they do. Kind of like statements we often hear prefixed with “As an Electrical Engineer with fourteen years experience, I can tell you that blonde women are prettier.” A non-relevant element held up to support an opinion with a shaky opinion-based pedigree.

  27. csrster

    I read the first paragraph of this post and was about to respond “You should read Marina Hyde”. It’s a good thing I read on.

    She has a whole book out about this celebrity culture nonsense and you can hear her pushing it quite amusingly on the BBC’s Start The Week at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00jh4f5 .

  28. csrster

    I pusdhe submit too quickly on that comment because I should also have said that the same broadcast features biologist and skeptic Lewis Wolpert talking about the subtleties of cell biology.

  29. Christina Viering

    Everyone seems to want to be famous and if they aren’t on youtube, they live through the media.

  30. Someone beat me to it, but I just wanted to echo the sentiment that at least Amanda Peet is speaking out against this crazy celebrity woo-speak, and saying that people should listen to scientists, not them.

  31. Michael Campbell

    > I hope that a lot of people watch that video (and the one made by actress and mom Amanda Peet).

    Ahem.

  32. Gary Ansorge

    One major difference between Phil and most celebrities is,,,he gives references,,,

    GAry 7

  33. John Keller

    Phil,

    You forgot to mention Oprah.

  34. Zar

    “Biological foods”? Is there any other kind of food?

  35. Well, maybe Shatner doesn’t book his own hotel rooms, but probably his assistant uses Priceline.

  36. dragonet2

    I have a very dear friend (pretty much a brother to me) who is a physical chemist.

    It is not pretty for the person who claims that they only eat ‘organic’ foods in front of him.

    The start of it is that some of the most toxic chemicals we use are basically ‘organic’. The rant goes on from there but I don’t remember a lot of it.

  37. Ray

    “William Shatner reserves his own hotel rooms?”

    And how do you know he doesn’t?

  38. Wes

    evolutionary pressures acting on a tribal group of protohumans instilled in us an instinctive need to listen to authority figures, and that’s been short-circuited in our recently-developed upper brains which causes us to reverse the authority-is-famous connection to be famous-is-authority.

    This may not be entirely true. Hunter-gatherer societies don’t have “authority figures” in the same sense that complex societies like ours do.

    A better explanation might be that we evolved a capacity to learn, a capacity to imitate, and a tendency to conform. More importantly, we tend to imitate things that appear to work. Since celebrities are rich and successful, there might be a stronger psychological urge to listen to them and imitate them.

  39. another mike

    Hunter-gatherer societies don’t have “authority figures” in the same sense that complex societies like ours do.

    There would certainly have been a peer leader, or a tribesman with advanced skills that all the other apes looked up to. What about that great hunter warrior in the tribe who brings home a whole mammoth single-handedly? The one who all the babies look like him and all the other men want to.

  40. Ray

    “OK, I hate rhetorical questions, and we know the answer anyway: evolutionary pressures acting on a tribal group of protohumans instilled in us an instinctive need to listen to authority figures, and that’s been short-circuited in our recently-developed upper brains which causes us to reverse the authority-is-famous connection to be famous-is-authority.”

    I think you’d have some trouble running that by any competent Paleoanthropologist.

  41. K

    Of course, when it comes to politics, the Guardian has no qualms whatsoever about pushing uninformed celebrity opinions in your face – as long as they’re of the far left.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2007/nov/04/seanpenn.madonna

    Oh, the hypocrisy.

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