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Science communication for celebs

January 3rd, 2007

Dr Petra

In today’s Guardian there’s a curious little story about celebrities and science claims. It appears the charity Sense About Science have become very worried about the claims celebrities make around health or science issues. In particular concerns about celebrities discussing MMR, cancer, radiation or other ‘big science’ topics have led to their developing a leaflet called ‘Need to speak to a scientist?’ which has been distributed in “VIP hangouts such as Premiership football clubs, exclusive restaurants, and clubs such as London’s China White and Boujis, as well as the Virgin VIP lounges at Gatwick and Heathrow. The charity has even set up a telephone hotline for the great and good in need of scientific advice”.

Now I’m all for improved science communication and as regular readers of this blog know I get very irritated when bad science is in the media. So any attempts to improve science communication are a good thing, no?

Well, I’m not convinced. Let’s think about this for a minute. Your average celeb is entitled to any view they want on cancer, MMR or similar – just as members of the general public are. Whilst these views might be outdated, incorrect or just plain barking the only reason we get to hear about the celeb quack claims is because the media gives them a platform to share their views on the healing powers of berries or Kabbalah water.

I don’t expect for one minute that your average celeb on a night out is going to say ‘hey, what’s this? A helpful leaflet on how to communicate science to the public? Wow! Just what I’ve always wanted’ and then suddenly change their practice. Most celebrities have agents and advisors who should know to counsel them against false claims, but if this doesn’t happen it’s down to the press to set things straight.

And that’s where the problem lies. Journalists do know about science communication. They do know there are numerous charities, organisations, professional bodies and universities out there because that’s where they get their expert sources from to back up stories. Rather than tackling celebs who frankly aren’t going to give a toss, Sense About Science and similar organisations need to toughen their approach towards journalists who don’t get science coverage right.

Hoping celebs will read a leaflet, call Sense About Science and liase with an expert who will put them straight is just a New Year’s wish that’s never going to happen. If celebs wanted to get things right don’t you think they’d already do it? Doesn’t the fact that they’re not checking in with scientists show they already believe they are promoting correct messages? If the charity really wanted to do something they could name and shame journalists and publications that persistently gave coverage to quackery.

There are plenty of scientists out there who can refute such dodgy claims and there’s a growing, vocal body of scientists doing just that. Unfortunately on a daily basis this isn’t making a massive difference to journalistic practice – particularly where you’ve non-science and health writers documenting health/science stories (actually even then things still go wrong). If Sense About Science want to make a difference they need to work with journalists and the public and encourage greater communication with journalists and scientists, not a leaflet drop at The Ivy.

It’s ironic the charity assumes that celebs will jump to heel but we know journalists consistently don’t seem too bothered about getting their facts right on science/health stories. So even if a celeb gets it right, journalists will continue to get it wrong. And I suspect an evidence-based celebrity will be as boring to a journalist as they currently find scientists. Journalists want wacky claims, cults and poor science because it sounds exciting and they can sell copy with it.

Since the charity is about getting evidence-based views to the public I wonder what the evidence base is for a need to target celebrities? Sure, we see a lot of weird and wonderful claims coming from the rich and famous but do we know there’s a specific link between their views and the general public acting in an unhealthy, dangerous or ill-informed way?

The saddest thing about this story is I suspect Sense About Science have also caught on to the idea that to get anything into the papers you need a celebrity angle. So if you tell the press about your new campaign to stop celebs talking nonsense they’ll cover you. If you tell the press you’ve trained up a load of scientists to tell the truth to the public about bad science nobody will give it a second look.

Who knows? Perhaps this press coverage might indicate to the public that celebs do come out with some health-related nonsense – but again this assumes the public don’t already know this. Most people can probably tell when a celeb advocates a healing bracelet, curative water, exercise plan that it’s either a fad or just a bit bonkers. Most people can’t tell that a large proportion of ‘health’ or ‘science’ stories within the popular press are also a bit bonkers (or more often out of date, wrong or not evidence based). That’s where the danger lies, not with celebs.

Anyway, I can’t leave the house today as after this leaflet drop I’m anticipating hundreds of calls from celebrities who over the years have given very bad sex advice. They’ll obviously be turning to me to help put them on the right track. Not.

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