I just got home from seeing a talk given by Timothy Caulfield, the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?. The talk was on celebrity culture and pseudo-science.
During his talk Timothy Caulfield mentioned how people are more willing to listen to celebrities than doctors where health is concerned, and how people are incredibly confused about health. I understand that confusion. There is a lot of information out there, and a lot of it is contradictory. But I can’t understand why anybody would turn to a celebrity for advice on anything other that what they are famous for. If you’re confused about what to eat, why wouldn’t you ask you doctor? They may not have all of the information, but they do have the training necessary to decipher the information. I can understand not fully trusting your doctor: Dr. Oz does apparently have a medical degree and he got rich off selling people “cures” that don’t do anything. But surely a doctor is more likely to give sound medical information than, say, Rob Schnider. Unless, of course, Rob Schnider has a medical degree that I’m unaware of.
Timothy Caulfield studied that very phenomenon. He looked into why people are so confused about health (surprise, surprise, the celebrities cause more confusion than anything else) and why people are so quick to follow them rather than their own doctors. His findings: it’s a culture thing. Celebrity culture is our culture. This means that we are more likely to follow the celebrity advice then the advise of those who actually understand the science. What’s more, this culture is caused by lack of social mobility. Americans often think of the United States as the land where all dreams are made possible. In the US, you’re supposed to be able to go from poor to rich with nothing more than hard work. But the fact of the matter is that this is not true. The United States has very little social mobility, so you are more likely to stay in the social class you were born into than anything else. So people idolize celebrities because they are seen as defying this odd (despite the fact that most of them have famous parents or relatives). In countries with more social mobility, this celebrity culture doesn’t exist. Which countries have the highest social mobility? The social welfare states! Denmark, Finland, Canada, and Sweden are the highest respectively.
So what does all this mean? I’m not really sure, but it certainly suggests that we have a lot of work ahead of us.