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When celebrities promote pseudoscience and quackery…

If there’s one thing that’s irritated the crap out of me ever since I entered the medical field, it’s celebrities with more fame than brains or sense touting various health remedies. Of late, three such celebrities have spread more misinformation and quackery than the rest of the second tier combined. Truly, together, they are the Unholy Trinity of Celebrity Quackery.

The first two of them, of course, are that not-so-dynamic duo of anti-vaccine morons, Jenny McCarthy and her much more famous and successful boyfriend Jim Carrey. Having apparently decided that selling “Indigo Child” woo was not the ticket to fame and fortune, in 2007 McCarthy reinvented herself as a “mother warrior” fighting for a “cure” for autism, with which her son Evan had been diagnosed. All well and good, except that what she is warring against is the one medical intervention in all of history that has arguably has saved more lives than anything else produced by medicine, namely vaccines, even going so far as to lead a march on Washington demanding “green vaccines.” Why? Because she has fallen for the misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement claiming that vaccines cause autism, and she blames vaccines for her son Evan’s condition. Even worse, what’s she’s fighting for is the “biomed” movement, a movement of “alternative” medicine practitioners, many quacks and charlatans, who claim to be able to “recover” autistic children using all manner of scientifically dubious treatments ranging from mildly plausible but with no evidence of efficacy to pure quackery like homeopathy. Moreover, McCarthy advocates for “biomed” treatments using a misunderstanding of science that would be hilarious were it not so sad to contemplate the sorts of horrors to which autistic children are being subjected in the name of “biomed.” Meanwhile, Jim Carrey demonstrates himself to be at least as dim a bulb as his girlfriend and even as dim as one of his characters from the 1990s, Fire Marshal Bill. (In fact, whenever I hear Carrey speak or see him write about vaccines I now find it comforting to picture whatever he is saying being in the voice of Fire Marshal Bill; it makes the material sound the way it should.) In any case, Generation Rescue, an anti-vaccine organization that used to trumpet that “it’s the mercury [in vaccines], stupid!” but has now moved on to “too many, too soon” and “greening” vaccines, has been reborn as “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization,” making this depressing duo the prom king and queen of the anti-vaccine movement.

The third of this unholy trinity is, of course, Suzanne Somers. Somers, of course, was a topic of this blog in its first month of existence as an example of how a “cancer cure” testimonial in which a brave maverick woo-lover eschews chemotherapy and lives to tell the tale, is often inherently deceptive. Of late, Somers has been pushing that principle (of deceptive personal testimonials) to new heights (or should I say depths?) of misrepresenting reality in her recent book, Knockout: Interviews With Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer and How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. Not only does the book contain a testimonial on her part about a “whole body cancer scare” that is not what Somers thinks it is, but it carpet bombs the reader (just as Somers has been carpet bombing the media) with appalling medical ignorance and the promotion of dubious physicians and “practitioners, many of whom in my not-so-humble opinion would be far better characterized as quacks, such as Nicholas Gonzalez. Indeed, Somers doesn’t even know that her “bioidentical” estrogens are steroid hormones or that her “bioidentical” cortisol is a corticosteroid that can suppress the immune system! All of this is why I truly fear what can happen to cancer patients who might actually believe Somers’ dangerous quackery.

As 2009 draws to a close, you might think that I would be depressed. To some extent, I am, but I do see some reason for hope. An example of this hope came in a most unexpected place, too. I’m referring to articles in yesterday’s USA Today entitled Are celebrities crossing the line on medical advice? (with a side bar entitled A “Knockout” punch from medical experts) and Don’t believe medical advice from Internet, celebs when… Combined, these features manage to hit nearly all the right notes and avoid the pitfalls of such articles, all in a nice, compact, USA Today-length set of articles. Getting it right in such tight space constraints is very difficult, as you might know. Heck, if it were easy, Orac-length would mean under 1,000 words, not my usual 5,000+ word magnum opuses (opi?). Because it’s Christmas Eve, I think I’ll just hit the high points, and you can read the rest.

First, the reason why celebrity testimonials have such an effect, aside from just the sheer fame and power they wield:

Doctors say they can understand why patients sympathize with celebrities and closely follow their battles with serious illnesses.

“It helps people to realize that health problems they have affect even celebrities,” says pediatrician Aaron Carroll, director of Indiana University’s Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research. “Knowing that a rich and famous person can have the same problem as you or me makes it seem more fair, maybe.

“It also can make it easier to talk about your own problem, because a celebrity has the same issue.”

True enough. That, for instance, Patrick Swayze could end up dying of pancreatic cancer or Farrah Fawcett could die of anal cancer, as they did this year, could be seen as a leveling. No matter how wealthy, famous, or powerful a person is, he can’t fight biology and is prone to the same sorts of ills that everyone else is. No one lives forever, and no one is immune from cancer or other dreaded diseases. Some seemingly very fortunate and successful people even end up dying quite young, as recently happened with Brittany Murphy.

One depressing part of the article is that Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccine message are clearly having an effect:

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,017 adults found that more than half were aware of McCarthy’s warnings about childhood shots. More than 40% of adults familiar with her message — 23% of all adults surveyed — say McCarthy’s claims have made them more likely to question vaccine safety. The Nov. 20-22 poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Moreover, as Paul Offit puts it:

Correcting that misinformation — even with a mountain of evidence — can be a challenge, says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s much easier to scare people than to unscare them,” Offit says.

By swaying parents to delay or reject childhood vaccines, celebrities could undermine efforts to protect newborns and other vulnerable children from devastating diseases, says pediatrician Martin Myers, executive director of the National Network for Immunization Information.

“I worry about these celebrities who confuse people,” Myers says. “I don’t think they know how much damage they can cause.”

I would disagree. I think they are coming to realize how much damage they can cause. Clearly, the charges against them that I and many others level, namely that they are contributing to the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases that will lead to suffering and death down the road, are starting to bother them. However, as Jenny McCarthy did this year, their response is not to look at their own activities and ask themselves if they are doing harm but rather to blame anyone but themselves, as Jenny McCarthy did back in April in an interview with TIME Magazine. I find her words to be worth quoting again and again–with the profanity she uses–because they demonstrate better than anything her attitude of shifting the blame to anyone but herself, an attitude shared by the anti-vaccine movement:

TIME: Your collaborator recommends that parents accept only the haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB) and tetanus vaccine for newborns and then think about the rest. Not polio? What about the polio clusters in unvaccinated communities like the Amish in the U.S.? What about the 2004 outbreak that swept across Africa and Southeast Asia after a single province in northern Nigeria banned vaccines?

JM: I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

In other words, in Jenny’s world (and that of J.B. Handley, Kim Stagliano, Dan Olmsted, Mark Blaxill, Barbara Loe Fisher, and other luminaries of the anti-vaccine movement), your children are acceptable collateral damage in her war against vaccines. Yes, I realize that these same people will claim that the position of those of us who defend vaccines is that autism is acceptable “collateral damage,” but there’s a huge difference. There’s no scientific evidence from good scientists and reputable sources that vaccines cause autism.

Finally, the article describing how to spot dubious health advice on the Internet or from celebrities is a pretty good distillation of some simple principles on how to identify quackery. I think that medical skepticism and education could be improved immeasurably if people could be taught this simple rule:

3. The promoter relies on anecdotes and personal testimonies.

An anecdote may generate a hypothesis, which could lead to a clinical trial, but anecdotes, on their own, prove nothing. That’s because anecdotes — including stories in which people made dramatic recoveries — can be misleading, because they don’t tell you anything about the larger picture. Though 10 people may have done well taking an herb, hundreds of others may have gotten much sicker.

There you have it, one major message of this blog boiled down to a short paragraph. Unfortunately, I have to illustrate it time and time again, which is why I am sure there will once again be plenty of material for this blog in 2010.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

22 replies on “When celebrities promote pseudoscience and quackery…”

Wonderful article, Orac. It’s nice to see that the “MSM” is for once refusing to drink the celebrity kool-aid on this one.

Thanks for the article. I have a simple philosophy: Never trust celebrities for health advice, and never trust sports stars for relationship advice.

A related thought you’ve got me musing about: I was just about to suggest that we can only hope you one day get some movie deal and acquire the public celebrity that some of these jokers have.

But then I thought about the MDs out there who have celebrity. They are also most commonly also jokers who are scaring people or otherwise offering dubious, misleading, and pseudoscience-based advice.

The truth – Eat moderately-sized, primarily plant-based meals, exercise at least three days a week, don’t smoke, and drink alcohol in moderation if you must – is not as glamorous as creating hysteria, feeding conspiracy theories, or trying to sell the latest supplement, book, or “practice.”

In other words, in Jenny’s world (and that of J.B. Handley, Kim Stagliano, Dan Olmsted, Mark Blaxill, Barbara Loe Fisher, and other luminaries of the anti-vaccine movement), your children are acceptable collateral damage in her war against vaccines.

As we should always remember, these folks believe that autism is a fate worse than death. So it stands to reason – in their viewpoint – that a few kids dying from vaccine preventable diseases is better than the scourge of autism.

“celebrities with more brains and fame than sense”

I’m pretty sure you meant “celebrities with more fame than brains and sense.”

For better or for worse, millions of people follow celebrities and hang on their every word. So how about we celebrate the celebs doing the right thing, the ones working as UN ambassadors etc. Highlight a different one each week, let’s drown out the dross.

Merry Christmas ORAC and all the regulars who post here! A big “Bah Humbug” to Jenny, Suzanne, Jim, the Winner of the Richard Dawkins Award, et. al. Now I have to go and finish my knitting and feed the chickens their Christmas treats.

Sometimes when you counsel people, it’s useful to get back to the basic facts of the situation,paring away the extraneous details,verbal modifiers,and surrounding related material in which people can get mired down .The question to the celebrity-entranced might be: are you going to follow the medical advice of an actress with a hs diploma (I’m being kind- it’s Christmas Eve) or someone who has studied/worked in this field for his/her entire adult life? The fame/celebrity issue is a distractor, as is the histrionic behavior and speech of the woo-doer( you can explain this as well).Also, you might point out how the celebrity/ woo-meister *directly* benefits from their stance ( more exposure and fame; financial gain greater than that of the so-called “greedy” doctors and Pharma shills). You might appeal to the person’s own abilities and education, which are most likely *at least* equivalent to the celebrity spokes-model.Revealing the mechanisms of sales and persuasion tactics can be a method.

If there’s one thing that’s irritated the crap out of me ever since I entered the medical field, it’s celebrities with more fame than brains or sense touting various health remedies.

I know you hate pedants, Orac, but I’m wondering if this sentence came out the way you meant it to? True, brains and sense don’t need to go together, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence for brains in many celebrities (there are notable exceptions though but I don’t think the trio you mention are those exceptions).

Never trust celebrities for health advice, and never trust sports stars for relationship advice.

Really? Because I get all my relationship advice from Nick Harper.

I know what you mean Orac. It’s so frustrating dealing with clueless celebrities who pontificate on scientific issues about which they know nothing. This phenomena is of course most prevalent in regards to global warming. Why can’t they just leave the issue to qualified climate scientists such as Algore

Concerning the whole anecdote/testimonies thing, it’s kinda like believing that tobacco is harmless because some guy was able to say “I smoked 30 years and never got cancer”. Even if he was completely telling the truth, it doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, seriously ill, or even cancer if you smoke.

Sid, the reason Al Gore speaks about global warning is because he *listened* to qualified climate scientists.

“I was just about to suggest that we can only hope you one day get some movie deal and acquire the public celebrity that some of these jokers have.”

Ah, but people who are famous, rich *AND* smart are as rare as hen’s teeth. I can’t tell you how much it really disgusts me the way millions of ignorant sheeple let idiot celebrities do their thinking for them and be their role models.

BANG!!! (That was my head exploding!)

As I have written here before, I love my son for who he is. So what if he is somewhat harder to care for than my “normal” children. I wouldn’t give up a single personality trait for better motor skills, fewer behavior issues or clearer language.

He would not be better off dead!!! What a horrible thing to say about people who can’t speak up for themselves. I think if you asked any parent taking care of a child crippled (or dying) from polio, they would prefer autism.

Even if vaccines caused autism (which they don’t) it would be preferable to these (PREVENTABLE) debilitating and possibly fatal diseases.

Jenny McCarthy claims to love her son, but seems to me she wishes he would just be normal or go away.

there are notable exceptions though but I don’t think the trio you mention are those exceptions.

Sometimes celebrities will surprise you. I just found out that Dustin Hoffman is leading a movement, together with some physicists, to bring more accurate depictions of science into mainstream film. That’s one of the coolest examples of celebrity activism I’ve heard of in a while.

Merry Christmas all, Orac I don’t mean to be a sycophant but please keep up the good work.

Questioning what’s handed to us is a sign of intelligence and the best thing anyone can do is look at both sides of any situation and then search themselves for the answer most right for them. Anyone who blindly follows ANYONE’s advice, including yours right here, is misled. Of course I vaccinated my children, but I did it according to MY time, not the doctor’s — my children were all vaccinated before school age but I did not allow 4 shots to be given to my newborn just to “get it over with.” I applaud Jenny McCarthy for withstanding NASTY critics like you because she QUESTIONS what has been handed to the public.

I did not allow 4 shots to be given to my newborn just to “get it over with.”

Why not? What was gained and what was the cost?

You talk about “blindly” following, but then you go right ahead and blindly do something for no reason at all. If you actually searched yourself, you know very well that there is absolutely no benefit to spreading out shots, and it does involve an unnecessary risk. But you know that, right? Because you would never blindly just follow the advice of folks like Bob Sears.

So the doctor gave you the benefit of his/her medical expertise, and you ignored it, just because you didn’t want to “blindly” follow?

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