Science and the Appeal to Celebrity

Science and the Appeal to Celebrity November 28, 2018

You’ll believe anything a celebrity tells you. Don’t believe me? Ask George Clooney!

Celebrity Science Fan Says

The folks at Science Alert tell us in an article called “George Clooney Can Probably Convince You That Evolution Is True” that celebrity endorsement doesn’t just work for selling sneakers or cars. They cite a published paper describing an experiment performed on Canadian undergraduates in which the students read an article that was either supportive or critical of the theory of evolution, then completed a questionnaire on their opinions concerning evolution. If the article bore the name of some fictional scientist from a prestigious institution in the USA, the students reported no change in their views. However, if the article was presented as a book review by George Clooney, the students appeared more likely to change their attitudes about the scientific validity of evolution.

To my way of thinking, this is a diabolical development. It’s bad enough that a celebrity can make us crave a certain brand of liquor or clothes; it’s worse that someone’s star power can influence what we believe about natural history. It also suggests that pop-science figures like Neil deGrasse Tyson are probably more influential for the amount of times they appear on talk shows than for their expertise.

The article makes it seem like the phenomenon is a positive thing, as long as you have the right celebrity:

So, when it comes to spreading evidence-based knowledge, celebrities could be the tool that scientists have been missing…[I]f you’re going to follow the [research] team’s results and get celebrity endorsements for your science project, finding the right celebrity is a must.

Fame and Folly

Of course, there’s no guarantee the star supports valid science. The Science Alert article points out a pretty obvious downside to the matter of celebrity influence: when the celebs spout nonsense, like Justin Bieber and his Big Bang skepticism, Jim Carrey’s anti-vaxx hogwash, or Kyrie Irving’s flat-Earth comments, people tend to buy it too.

Though the article handwaves this away by calling the phenomenon of celebrity influence a “double-edged sword,” I think it perfectly describes the reason this issue disturbs me. If we’d consider someone a fool for listening to what Justin Bieber says about cosmology (and we would), then I think we should think the same thing about someone who would support evolution because of George Clooney’s endorsement.

This isn’t how we should approach scientific or historical matters. College students in particular should understand the basis of our knowledge about things like evolution, astronomy, and vaccination, and not just respond to the celebrity who’s making noise about them. The study itself warns that “a celebrity publicly voicing an opinion about evolution that contains misconceptions might not only negatively influence individuals’ acceptance of evolution, but the misconceptions about evolution that are endorsed by the celebrity may be difficult to correct.” This may very well be true, but it misses the point entirely. If our society teaches people that the same thought processes they use in choosing a beer or a watch are the ones appropriate to affirming the validity of scientific claims, then we’re in trouble.

Can I Have Your Monograph?

Whether the endorsement comes from a celebrity or a supposedly reputable scientist, that’s still an appeal to authority. Anti-vaxxers make a lot of hay pointing to Doctor Whomever or Area Scientist and using his or her anti-vaxx opinions to legitimize their conspiracism.

This is why I keep saying that we need to have a more comprehensive understanding of the history and methodology of science rather than treating it like a factoid war. People need to acknowledge the complexity of empirical inquiry, the way theories develop and compete, and the hard work involved in constructing consensus.

What do you think? And could George Clooney change your mind?

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  • Kevin K

    It’s “Argument from Undeserved Authority”. Common as grass.

    But no, I don’t assume that George Clooney (who is awesome, FWIW) is an authority on matters scientific or political. And I have yet to see anyone who cited a celebrity endorsement as someone who “changed my mind”, but rather “reinforced my previous biases”.

  • Anthrotheist

    I’m not sure I see a way around it really. This is just my own conjecture here, but I have come to understand humans first and foremost as social animals. That means people will always come first, before facts, figures, methods, or ideas. Moreover, any sense of a personal connection with someone will increase our credulity regarding what the person is saying; a familiar name is more compelling than a list of credentials, at least at first glance. I may be feeling particularly cynical today, but I tend to chalk this up as another example of how poorly the human organism is suited for modern society (or vice versa).

  • As I’ve noted many times before, humans are social animals with a social hierarchy. And celebrities are alphas in the eyes of most people- people who are not alphas themselves, and are predisposed, at a deep psychological or physiological level to trust what alphas say. (This may be related to the way that children are indoctrinated by their elders, particularly their parents.)

    I really don’t see any easy fix for this. Most celebrities are not true alphas, in the sense of being actual leaders. But the nature of modern media gives that illusion, hence their unreasonable influence. We’d need to change our culture so that more celebrity was attached to wisdom or intellect (something we see in traditional Jewish culture). But for every NDT there are a hundred Clooneys. Sure, teaching critical thinking can help a lot… but people are still subject to thinking patterns that go back to our earliest stages of evolution as humans.

  • Have you seen any of the National Geographic series, Years of Living Dangerously? It’s an extremely well done series about climate change. Each episode features a pair of celebrities, each telling their own story. But they don’t present themselves as experts. Instead, they travel around seeing problems first hand, and sitting down with actual experts. They show themselves being educated. They don’t say “Believe me because I’m famous”, they say “Believe this because these scientists are demonstrating it.”

  • Judging by the number of pop-science books I’ve read that follow the Parade of Great Men trope, I think our attachment to simplistic hero myths demonstrates how little our thinking patterns differ from those of our forebears.

    I’m all for teaching critical thinking, but as I said in the article, we need to understand how complex the history and methodology of science is and has always been. If we keep saying “Scientists 3, 44, and 102 demonstrated this,” we’re encouraging people to cherry-pick the personalities they know will validate what they already believe.

  • i’d upvote you again just for alluding to Jewish culture as an example of one that favors wisdom and scholarship.

    here we favor wealth and celebrity itself. so many are famous for being famous.

    and the rest of your comment was on point too.

  • I see what you’re saying. I think putting a human face on a brand, movement, or a religion achieves exactly the intended effects: make people associate consuming with gaining the approval of one’s superiors, and rejecting with personal betrayal of some sort.

  • i think it can be a feature rather than a bug, if only *because* logos and reason are poor ways to persuade.

    But attach some emotional or other benefit to it, and suddenly it gets traction.

    that can be exploited and often is. In this world we can take advantage of it or we can let ourselves be overcome by it.

    but yes, it seems inextricably bound up in our nature.

  • My personal approach- and the one I try to teach- is based on consensus, not any individual scientist. The greater the consensus among the specialists, the greater the likelihood that they have the best answer, and the more strongly non-specialists should “believe” that result.

  • That makes sense. Admittedly, there have been maverick thinkers whose work was vilified or ignored by the reigning orthodoxy but later gained acceptance. This fact fuels all sorts of romantic notions by conspiracists. If you had a dime for every time you heard some tinhat trot out the all-truth-passes-through-three-stages trope, you could afford your own Hadron collider, right? (Assuming you don’t already have one.)

    My point is that the way we teach the history and methodology of science feeds into this hero-worship approach to scientific controversy. There comes a point when the picture-book version of science becomes counterproductive, and we need to acknowledge the political and philosophical background of scientific inquiry as well as the complexity of how theories develop and contend.

  • Kevin K

    That’s a great way of getting at that issue. I am not a fan of the NatGeo channel (nor any of the Discovery Communications channels), but I’ll have to give that series a whirl.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  • John Gills

    Also the ‘transfer’ propaganda device that ‘transfers’ the features – authority, antipathy, glamor, et cetera – from one thing, usually undeservedly to the other, most often for nefarious purposes.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I can state how bad this is in ONE word ‘GOOP’


    *stalks out of room*

  • Jim Jones

    > To my way of thinking, this is a diabolical development.

    To my way of thinking, this is more proof of my contention that most people are as dumb as a sack of rocks.

    “Indeed it may be said with some confidence that the average man never really thinks from end to end of his life. There are moments when his cogitations are relatively more respectable than usual, but even at their climaxes they never reach anything properly describable as the level of serious thought. The mental activity of such people is only a mouthing of clichés. What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard. My guess is that well over eighty per cent. of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought. That is to say, they never think anything that has not been thought before and by thousands.”

    ― H.L. Mencken, Minority Report

  • Jim Jones

    And many of the actual leaders are at least stupid, if not evil.

  • Jim Jones

    One only has to observe the Kardashians, or professional sports players, or pop celebrities, to see how poor most people’s judgment is and how eager they are to follow . . . anyone.

  • Jim Jones

    Now a corporation valued at $250 million.

  • What they mistake for thought is simply a repetition of what they have heard.

    Says the guy who copies-and-pastes all his posts.

  • Jim Jones

    Whines the sad douchebag.

  • See? When you freestyle you can’t deliver.

  • abb3w

    I think it might be productive to distinguish how they “contend” for head space in the human population, versus how they “contend” in more abstract and/or idealized senses.