How to Treat Celebrities that Champion and Muddy Science?

By Keith Kloor | December 22, 2014 11:34 am

Last summer I was at a party where the guests included a bunch of successful heart surgeons. I spoke at length with one of them (I’ll refer to him as Dr. X) who has known and sometimes worked with Dr. Oz at New York-Presbyterian hospital in Manhattan. Dr. X is in his 40s. He told me Oz had been a mentor to him.

I mentioned Oz’s popular TV show and how Oz, an accomplished, highly respected surgeon, had become increasingly known (and criticized) for promoting unscientific ideas and unproven health remedies. Dr. X nodded his head in lament. He agreed with Oz’s critics but he said that on balance, he thought Oz was a force for good because he got many people to care about their health.

It’s an interesting calculation. The next time I see Dr. X I might ask him if he still believes that Oz is a net plus, given this recent finding.

I was reminded of my conversation with Oz’s medical colleague after reading this recent Phil Plait post at Slate. In it, Plait essentially makes the same kind of rationalization.

Earlier in the year he had promoted on Twitter a picture of five well-known actresses with stellar science backgrounds. They were held up as role models. There was a slight problem, though. One of them was Mayim Bialik (with a real-life Ph.D in neuroscience) who played a scientist on The Big Bang Theory. As Plait notes:

The thing is, she also holds a number of beliefs with which I and many others disagree, some of them very strongly. For example, she’s a spokeswoman for a group called Holistic Moms—they support homeopathy, a provably worthless and arguably dangerous bit of “alternative medicine.” They are also strongly anti-vaccination, and Bialik herself supports anti-vaxxers (she has stated she has not vaccinated her own children, a position I am strongly opposed to).

I knew all this when I retweeted the picture. I’ll admit, I hesitated before doing so, specifically because of this. Is promoting this picture also promoting anti-science beliefs? Looking at the responses on Twitter, a lot of people think so. I see their point, but I also don’t think this is quite so black-and-white.

Plait goes on to argue that we should consider a person’s contributions in their entirety. Despite Bialik’s unscientific stands on important health issues, she has, he points out, also supported science. In other words, the scales need not be automatically tipped against her. Indeed, Plait writes,

if you really only want to praise people who are absolutely the perfect icons of science in every way, well, good luck finding them. You’ll be looking a long time.

This is true. The same purist criteria would exclude numerous famous champions of science. The comedian Bill Maher comes to mind. He’s a staunch defender of evolution and climate science, but he’s also loony on vaccines and GMOs. I’ve previously wondered why he and others who reject science in these cases aren’t labeled “deniers,” which is the term used by many to label those who outright reject the reality of anthropogenic climate change. (Personally, I avoid using “denier” because of the Holocaust connotation; I discussed the climate nomenclature issue with colleagues some years ago in this post.)

Bill Nye is a similar case study in selective application of scientific principles. The famed “Science Guy” is a well known public figure, a sort of people’s ambassador of science. Like Maher, Nye also spouts nonsense on GMOs. Nor will he engage with those who call him out on this nonsense. Is he in denial? I don’t know, but at some point I think he’ll have to explain why he accepts what mainstream science says about evolution and climate change but not GMOs.

What’s interesting to me about these contradictions is how they are treated by science writers and bloggers. Maher’s odd views on vaccines and western medicine have been thoroughly rebuked, mostly by skeptic bloggers. Have journalists given him a pass? Not entirely, but I don’t recall Maher’s anti-vaccine rants in the late 2000s getting much attention outside the science blogosphere. (It should be noted that political journalists and writers have widely scrutinized Maher’s views and statements on Islam.)

The same goes for Nye’s curiously unscientific views on GMOs. After I wrote about this last month, a few scientific venues took notice. But it was a no-go zone for most others. This reticence intrigues me.

Which brings me back to Plait’s Slate post and what he says here:

If you knew of someone who did a great job taking down psychics, but also thought global warming was a hoax, would you then stop praising them for their work against psychics? It’s not an either-or thing; I would hope you would continue to praise them where appropriate but also take them to task where needed, too.

This is sound advice. Let me build on it: If you knew of someone who did a great job taking down creationists but muddied the public discourse on GMOs with unscientific statements, I too would hope that you continue to praise this person where appropriate but also take him to task where needed.

UPDATE: Read Steven Novella’s take at his Neurologica blog, Also, Phil Plait has written a follow-up post. 

 

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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