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The University of Celebrity

Marina Hyde has written a deliciously satirical rant in the Guardian exposing the insanity of celebrities who feel they are magically experts on complex scientific topics. She is the author of the book: Celebrity: How Entertainers Took Over The World And Why We Need An Exit Strategy.

In her article she takes on the waky claims of Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Stella McCartney. I would have added to my hit list Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, but her examples are worthy. She exposes, as only satire can, the special celebrity version of the “arrogance of ignorance” – being so ignorant of science as to lack any appreciation of the gulf that separates your ignorance from actual experts who know what they are talking about.

Now before you get all PC on me – I don’t make a habit of criticising people just for being scientifically iliterate. My job is to educate, not ridicule – to make up for, to some extent, the failure of the public education system and the media. But when someone is scientifically iliaterate AND they enter the public arena to advocate for or sell harmful ignorance, they are fair game. They are especially fair game if they exploit their celebrity to advance their ignorance.

I will extend Hyde’s article by relating what was told to me by a skeptical actor friend (anecdote alert – take it for what it’s worth). He said that the equation of celebrity with authority is built into the culture of Hollywood. On the set there is a specific linear pecking order among the talent, and it is determined exclusively by their relative celebrity (perhaps with some dickering by agents). On the set, the person with higher celebrity has higher authority, on any topic – period. You can only express a contradictory opinion if you are given permission from higher in the pecking order. If they recognize your expertise and give you permission, you are allowed to have an opinion.

If true, then the problem may stem from celebrities failing to recognize the difference between the reality of the set, and the real world outside of fantasy land. In the real world authority comes from hard-won expertise, the demonstration of scholarship and fair-mindedness, and trust earned over years. Even then, authority is always cautionary, must back up its claims with facts, and is trumped by logic and evidence.

For many celebrities it seems hopeless to break them out of their cozy unscientific fantasy worlds. Therefore we need exactly what Hyde advocates – an exit strategy.  One method is to constantly remind the public that celebrity does not equal authority. Actors are skilled at pretending to be other people, not making sense of cutting-edge science.

The wider culture needs to change. It needs to become a matter of pride and self-respect to not give a fig for the opinions of celebrities just because they are celebrities.

(Thanks for Rebecca from Scotland for sending in this article.)

2 comments to The University of Celebrity

  • dcardani

    I agree, her article was wonderful!

    I’m just curious, did you intentionally misspell “illiterate” not once but twice in the third paragraph? Because I have to admit, it’s kind of funny.

  • GHcool

    As somebody who works in the film/tv industry, I slightly disagree with Dr. Novella’s description of politics on set. It is true that the person with the most clout in the business (a Jim Carrey, for example) ought not to be contradicted while on set. However, this mostly applies to orders related to efficiency or comfort while working. In that sense, it is akin to the military. While it is considered unprofessional to contradict higher ranking folks in general while working on set, controversial truth claims are generally not made on set by anyone including “the brass.” Occasionally it will happen (for example, a famous actor might give copies of Dianetics to crew members as a “thank you gift”), but the appropriate response is to smile and nod and keep your thoughts to yourself. Nobody is forced or demanded to give serious consideration to controversial claims.

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