How to Treat Celebrities that Champion and Muddy Science?

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. 


41 Responses to “How to Treat Celebrities that Champion and Muddy Science?”

  1. I agree these otherwise science champions should be recognized for the good accomplishments but still should not be beyond reproach.

    Bill Nye, for example, has been a great advocate for the public understanding of science so we were dismayed by his anti-GMO comments. That is why we hope he uses this opportunity as an example of how people should change their minds when confronted with conflicting science. Kevin Folta has been a gentle science advocate and would love the opportunity to have a public conversation of these GMO issues with Bill Nye.

    Please join us in support for a Bill Nye vs Kevin Folta GMO Debate at Purdue University. #NyeFoltaDebate

  2. Tom Scharf says:

    Curious how it is now politically correct at all levels to level the denier slander against those who disagree with (any) parts of AGW prognostication, but our fragile little flowers in academia now require trigger warnings and need to be exempted from exams due to the emotional trauma of the latest political activism du jour.

    I would suggest most people just stop reading once the denier term is used, as the rest is of the discussion is pretty predictable. It’s really just throwing red meat to the local tribe.

    There is a difference between winning a debate and shutting down a debate. Shouting down the opposition and silencing any discussion within your in group is sometimes confused with being right, when it is simply enforcing dogma via peer pressure.

  3. mem_somerville says:

    I think that there are some good examples of science holding their own to account for bad behavior that relies on their science cred. We just saw this in this past month with the Watson stuff. It’s not easy to call out Watson because of the important work that got him the Nobel, but most of the genetics/genomics community does it anyway. Because using science cred to make racist and sexist claims is wrong–no matter who does it.

    I think it’s equally wrong to use your science cred to put kids at risk with vaccine misinformation. I don’t care if she’s a woman and a celebrity. That doesn’t help women in science at all to overlook stupid claims just because she’s a woman, nor does it help to give her attention and endorsement like Plait did.

    I would love to see some of the team organic/foodie network call out their cranks, but it very rarely happens.

  4. Kuze says:

    “This reticence intrigues me.”

    If reason/skepticism is a looking glass, morality is what tells it where to look. In-group solidarity is an important human trait but also prevents us from refining our knowledge.

    “Hmmm this looks like bullshit, ooops it’s one of my guys nevermind”

  5. JH says:

    The idea that engineers, mathematicians, scientists and academics are immune from nutty beliefs is something most people would have laughed at a few decades ago (and many still do). IMO, being highly educated allows some of the nuttiest kinds of nuttiness to proliferate.
    Within the last few years, even as the rising tide of oil was washing the ground out from under their feet, many (mostly pro-climate action) academics were still denying it. And up until a few years ago, even Ehrlich was denying that he was wrong about famine. From what I’ve read, these days he works carefully around admitting he was wrong.
    So here you have two examples of people are standing in the rain claiming it isn’t raining. Now imagine what it’s like trying to convince them it’s raining when they’re just looking out the window, or that it won’t rain 20 years in the future. Good luck.

  6. Dan Pangburn says:

    Search “agwunveiled” to see what an engineer discovered about climate change.

    1. Historical evidence that CO2 change does not cause climate change.

    2. The two factors that correlate 95% since before 1900 with average global temperature including the current plateau, and predict the ongoing down trend of average global temperature.

    3. An explanation of why CO2 change does not cause climate change.

  7. Buddy199 says:

    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.

    “I worship you, Dr. Oz,” one woman told him. Another threw her arms around his neck. “I haven’t seen a doctor in eight years,” she said. “I’m scared. You are the only one I trust.”

    Oz squeezed her shoulder and stared into her eyes. “I’ll see you inside,” he said. “We are going to get through this, and we will do it together.”
    Sounds like he’s re-created himself as the Liberace of medicine, playing a different tune to the same crowd. I guess once you’ve enjoyed the sweet taste of fame and success it’s easy to rationalize cutting a few factual corners here and there to keep your fans happy and yourself in the limelight.

  8. Tom Scharf says:

    I’m not so sure about this. This may alternately be a good example for squashing politically incorrect thought. You cannot touch certain aspects of genetics without a firestorm as The Bell Curve demonstrated. You are literally threatening your career if you make claims related to intelligence / race. It is toxic. It is intuitive (though not necessarily true) to assume that the same processes that evolved the different races also evolved the brains differently and studying it would be interesting. The outrage one feels when reading this simple statement is unscientific.

    Unwinding the effects of culture / environment from genetics is pretty difficult, but I think we all know what the “preferred” answer is. Maybe it’s true, but I would submit there exists real political pressure to not cross certain very bright lines, less the rage of the social sciences will be set upon, Watson’s nuttier statements not withstanding.

    My view on this is …redacted…ha ha.

  9. Norbrook says:

    One of the things is to point out that one of the great logical fallacies is the “appeal to authority.” That is, just because someone is an expert, or highly accomplished in on field, does not mean that outside of it they have any greater insight – or “truth” – than the average person standing on the street. A look back through the past few decades has countless examples of otherwise brilliant scientists who held completely off-the-wall beliefs. Linus Pauling and vitamin C, and William Shockley and eugenics, are just two of many examples.

  10. Norbrook says:

    You apparently don’t understand “peak oil.” Peak oil says that there’s a level at which new discoveries of oil will simply meet the existing demand, and further new “cheap” oil to meet increased demand won’t happen. Which is pretty much what happened, and yes, the pace of drilling (fracking) turns out to have to increase rapidly to meet production demands the moment.

  11. Norbrook says:

    The Bell Curve was a distinctly skewed book that went out of its way to cherry pick data to “prove” his predetermined conclusion.

  12. Roman Cruz says:

    Maybe we should just stop expecting people’s opinions on topics outside their specialty to have any credence. After all, if in real life you asked your heart surgeon on advice about your kidneys, he’d kindly ask you to see a nephrologist instead.

    Same with Bialik: she’s a neurobiologist, so anything she says outside of her field should be taken with a grain of salt.

  13. Chris Preston says:

    An excellent point and proved over and over again. The real issue we have with this is in the public sphere. People are prone to use this appeal to authority as a means of dismissing arguments based on sound science.

    Dr. Oz is a special example where someone with expertise in an area drifts to anti-science. I am used to physicists being anti-vaccine and engineers being anti-AGW largely through ignorance, but when you have a surgeon who is supportive of non-medicine, you know they should know better.

    I often wonder why. In Dr Oz’s case his wife is heavily into medical woo and may be a significant influence, but it seems that Oz has discovered promoting non-medicine is a great way to remain in the limelight and generate hordes of fanatical devotees.

    he is not alone in this; others have gone the same way; Don Huber is another example. In Huber’s case he was a minor scientist who discovered making ridiculous statements provided him with the fame and recognition he never had in his scientific career.

  14. JH says:

    That’s the commonly understood definition of peak oil:

    Peak oil, an event based on M. King Hubbert’s theory, is the point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline.

    after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline

    That’s pretty much not what happened.

    Which brings us to the next amazing thing about bad predictions: they always seem to keep morphing to avoid being confronted with reality.

  15. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I would love to see them debate, but not at Purdue, UC Davis, or University of Florida. The audience would be filled with people paid by Monsanto/Dow/Syngenta, similar to the last debate, the one with Nye in the audience, in which the roughly 30% undecided audience all changed to pro-GMO. I find that a little hard to believe unless the majority of undecideds pre-debate votes were actually gmo-supports who maliciously/intentionally voted undecided before debate to secure their win when they change to pro-GMO after the debate . Surely I am not the only person who noticed this.

  16. Tom Scharf says:

    You are proving my point. The authors did not attempt to determine causation, only stating that it was likely genes and environment played a role but it was indeterminate how much. Emotional backlash followed.

    There isn’t anything to cherry pick here. You can examine a long list of measurements whether it is high school and college graduation rates, GPA’s, standardized test scores, college acceptance, IQ tests, income, wealth, patents, etc. When it suits the preference of activists, they speak to the “achievement gap” which is basically the same thing except using the correct code word.

    The fact that a gap exists is hardly controversial, why it exists and what to do about it is controversial.

    Caucasians are taller than Asians. Should we exclude genetics? Is the achievement gap primarily due to socioeconomic factors, culture, and other environmental factors? Maybe, but excluding genetics because the answer is uncomfortable isn’t what science is supposed to be about.

  17. Miles Stockdale says:

    “in which the roughly 30% undecided audience all changed to pro-GMO. I find that a little hard to believe”

    Well part of the reason why you might find it hard to believe is because what you said is untrue.

    The breakdown is on the Intelligence squared page. Of the 32% undecided that changed their minds – 22% went to for and 10% went to against.

    But don’t allow facts to get in the way of your conspiracy (especially as the only people who tried to game the vote were anti-gmoers who talked about how to do it during the lead up to the debate).

  18. JH says:

    Long story, but following up on the bell curve I went casting about the web for IQ tests. I found this advertisement:

    “How to Test Your IQ: 5 Steps (with Pictures)”


  19. Nom de Plume says:

    An interesting thing for Mr. Plait to assert, considering that he opposes donations to the Salvation Army. Go ahead and Google it. An odd thing, considering I have seen the Salvation Army assist the needy time and again. Ah, well.

    Be that as it may, I question why we should worry about celebrities at all, be they doctors, astronomers, or actors. You cannot force people to believe one thing or another. You can, however, compete in the marketplace of ideas. That should be the main concern, not who’s currently popular and what they believe.

  20. JH says:

    Well, I kind of agree and disagree at the same time.

    The role of expertise is to give you the knowledge and the skills to make a strong evidence-based argument. So regardless of someone’s expertise, we should expect that they’ll actually make that argument, and they should expect people to challenge it – and be ready and able to respond to those challenges.

    No doubt one of the things that got the climate science community into deep doo doo and still impacts their credibility was/is their extreme reticence to hear and respond to challenges from outside their ranks.

  21. DavidAppell says:

    And why should anyone believe this lone engineer whose ideas aren’t even peer reviewed??

  22. DavidAppell says:

    Most scientists are busy doing science, and don’t respond to (the same old) “challenges” unless they appear in the scientific literature.

    People need to meet minimal standards before their claims can be taken seriously. For scientists, those minimal standards include peer review. I can’t blame them for that.

  23. Viva La Evolucion says:

    sorry, i should have said nearly all of the undecided changed to pro-gmo. Nevertheless, I still find results hard to believe. I am fairly good at spotting BS when I see it 🙂

  24. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I’m sure that there was an attempt on both sides to game the vote, as that is human nature. I am disappointed in intelligence squared for allowing the gaming to happen. Considering that the anti-Gmo side only gained 1 percent, I would say their attempt to game the vote was not very successful. On the other hand, it appears that Monsanto was quite successful at their attempt to game the vote. If you believe Monsanto would spend all those millions against gmo labeling and NOT try to game this vote then you need to get your head examined. These results were bought and paid for plain and simple. All of the real votes were drown out by the ones that Monsanto paid for.

  25. Viva La Evolucion says:

    The fossil fuel industry and GMO seed industry have a lot in common. They both muddy science to give appearance that their products are not harming the environment.

  26. Your baseless claim is baseless. That’s anti-GMO in a nutshell. What IS substantiated by actual real world things that happened is that there was a concerted effort by the anti-GMO Institute for Responsible Technology to rig the vote. You’re damn right it failed, dummies. But that doesn’t absolve them for trying.

  27. JH says:

    :)) More of david’s argument from authority.

  28. Miles Stockdale says:

    If you had any ability to spot BS – any ability at all – you would not hold the anti-gmo views you hold.

  29. Viva La Evolucion says:

    Yes, there is proof of a public non-hidden effort by an anti-GMO website to rig the vote in their favor, and that effort gained them roughly 1 percent of the undecided vote. And, I agree that there is absolutely no proof, other than extreme unlikely outcome of results, that Monsanto and pro-GMO organizations rigged the vote in their favor. But, please keep in mind that this is a very divisive issue that one would not expect to see as big of change of heart as result of one debate, especially considering the effort by anti-GMO side to game the vote in their favor, which is not seen in results. I think the more likely scenario is that Monsanto and crew used their resources in an extremely well hidden fashion to rig this vote, possibly by outsourcing the job to an indian company to post online votes, or something similar to that. I did not like the main question of debate as being for or against gmo. I would have voted pro-gmo on this question both before and after debate, as I certainly do not want to ban all GMO’s. I would like to see Nye debate against herbicide tolerant GMO’s specifically. He can win on these three points. Herbicide tolerant GMO’s crops use MORE herbicide than their non-gmo counterparts. Herbicide tolerant GMO’s crops do nothing to solve the growing problem of herbicide resistant weeds, and actually make the problem worse. Similar to antibiotics, there are a limited number of known herbicides available, so preserving them for future use is wise. But, unlike antibiotics for killing bacteria, there are many affordable and effective alternatives to herbicides for killing weeds, such as cover crops, soil steaming, hydroponics, aquaponics, high tech no-till mechanical weeding.

  30. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I am 99.9% pro-gmo. I just don’t like herbicide tolerant GMO’s, which unfortunately are a big percentage of GMO’s currently in use.

  31. You are making stuff up out of whole cloth. Now you are saying Indian hackers somehow rigged the vote for Monsanto? The vote was from the audience. Did you even watch it?

  32. bobito says:

    I’m a big fan of Plait as I share interests with him. But I also find him biased, to a flaw, towards liberal ideas. It is nice to see others note this.

    I think its easy to get away with unscientific views that line up with liberals. I’ll go with MSM bias as the reason. From my understanding it can be difficult to get work in the entertainment industry if you champion some of the nutty right wing causes, so its probably likely you can more easily get work if you champion the left’s whacky views.

  33. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I just looked at previous debates on intelligence squared and they all have around 1,000 votes or or so for any given side, but this debate had over 10,0000 votes for each side. I can understand that as this is hot topic, and I am not conspiracy theory type, but I am highly suspicious as to the results and this is why. I can understand a lot of supporters for one side or the other voting, but to have that big of a percentage of undecided even take the time to vote and then nearly all of them change to pro-gmo is quite suspicious. Do you agree? The voting is allowed to be done online and does not seem to do great job of verifying identity, and easy to be fixed.

  34. Viva La Evolucion says:

    Yes, even celebrities we like say embarrassing things at times, but what I think is worse is when corporations use their power and resources to muddy science, as with the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries manipulating scientific studies to give appearance that their products are safe for the environment.

  35. alykatma says:

    I also strongly object to GMO’s being used to profit and sell poisons. I prefer my food without a dose of Roundup, thank you. $100 million was spent to create golden rice, that has high Vitamin A. Instead teach poor to grow vegetables high in vitamin A, sweet potatoes, carrots etc. $100 million would have fed a lot of people, but where is the profit in that?

  36. Dan Pangburn says:

    They shouldn’t believe it blindly, just like they shouldn’t believe the consensus blindly. But my stuff includes all information needed to check the findings. After they check it and find it to be valid, they can believe it.

    Much of peer review of climate related papers has morphed into an academic club approving each other’s papers relating scary stories to get politicians to provide grants to continue writing papers.

  37. JonFrum says:

    Funny how this works. The Republicans in Congress who fit the ‘denier’ smear/language have all voted for science research in the federal budget. Many have spoken out in favor of particular scientific research projects. But somehow, they don’t get a pass for all the good things they’ve done for science. Oh, wait…. that’s different.

  38. Jeffn says:

    This is exactly backwards. Activists “called attention” to an issue, an event was held to discuss it and people with open minds (unlike yours apparently) went to it to see if the activists were on to something. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Frankly, the fact that only 48% of the audience had an open mind on the matter should give everyone pause.
    The left has this strange aversion to having non-activists examine their claims even though their claims are ostensibly made to “call attention” to an issue. We’re seeing it with AGW, and most recently the ridiculous “rape culture” meme (college students are less likely to be sexually assaulted than similarly aged non-college student women- both are less than 1%)
    The problem with the left is an anti-intellectual bent in favor of authoritarian policies.

  39. Viva La Evolucion says:

    I like to think of myself as being quite open minded. and I would have voted pro-gmo for this debate both before and after, as I do not want to ban GMOs, although I do believe they should be better regulated. I believe that many in the PRO-GMO crowd are the ones who are closing their minds to the possibility that this debate was fixed. I still find it hard to believe that 48% of audience had a change of heart after this debate on this polarizing of an issue. That is like me going to church and converting 48% of the crowd to agnostic/atheist after giving one speech. It is just not likely to happen.

  40. beareck says:

    Honestly just because you think they are half crazy just shows your own narrow-mindedness. For any research you find “proving” something there is research that disproves it. Global warming is fact but at the same time it is not likely anthropogenic. When looking at global temperatures over the history of the Earth this is a normal cycle and CO2 is as low as it has been in millions of years. Many physicists and climatologist disbelieve anthropogenic global warming.

    Physics has been common place proven science that we keep “proving” more and more strange effects yet there was an article not long ago talking about the science being wrong and having to rethink the whole science behind it. If not for the people you don’t agree with or think are nuts then nothing would ever be accomplished.

    Though many posts here speak to “how can they believe in such and such and think GMO is real” or some such nonsense. I am just guessing, but I would bet many of you are Christian and believe in God. By your own scientific criteria how could you believe scientists are correct about global warming, physics or anything else and think they are wrong when they say there is no God and that we are here because of evolution. It is very narrow-minded and hypocritical. If you do believe in the Bible (I don’t) then how are GMOs good? God said everything He made is good but apparently it isn’t good enough if we have to change it? You are all caught in your own catch 22.

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