Ahh celebrities. From music and acting to the world of supermodeling and sports -- they are respected, admired, even worshiped, for their talent and magnetism. But herein lies the danger when these stars publicly espouse or endorse viewpoints and products in health and medicine without first thoroughly exploring the scientific validity of such claims.
Why danger? For segments of the population -- especially kids who are easily influenced by star role models -- celebrity statements and viewpoints (however misguided and unfounded they may be) are read with interest and often accepted without challenge.
Consider the impact that this statement from supermodel Gisele Bundchen could likely have on a fashion-conscious teenage girl when Bundchen publicly expressed disdain for sunscreen: "I cannot put this poison on my skin... I do not use anything synthetic," she said in 2011. Her comments brought this more correct perspective from pharmaceutical scientist Gary Moss: "Cosmetic products -- including sunscreens -- are regulated and are tested extensively before they are allowed onto the market. And you might be surprised," he continues, "that we use a wide variety of synthetic materials in many aspects of life. 'Synthetic' does not automatically mean bad, just as 'natural' does not automatically mean safe or beneficial."
From a growing compendium, here are several more questionable health and medical claims made recently by celebrities:
-- In espousing the nutritional value of sperm, Britain's famed martial artist and kick boxing star Alex Reid, says, "It's actually very good for a man to have unprotected sex as long as he doesn't ejaculate. Because I believe that all that semen has a lot of nutrition." He adds: "A tablespoon of semen has your equivalent of steak, eggs, lemons and oranges. I am reabsorbing it into my body and it makes me go raaaaahh." The irresponsibility of advocating unprotected sex aside, reproductive research scientist John Aplin reports: "The nutritional content of the ejaculate is really rather small."
-- Former actress Suzanne Somers, a breast cancer survivor, claims that her success in beating cancer is linked to injections of mistletoe extract (despite the fact that she also had a lumpectomy and radiation treatment). And in her book Knockout, she lauds the effectiveness of certain dietary supplements, coffee enemas and other unconventional means in "curing cancer," even though these methods are not supported by scientific evidence.
-- Film star Demi Moore thinks our health can be optimized by treatment with leeches. "They [leeches] have a little enzyme and when they are biting down on you, it gets released in your blood and generally you bleed for quite a bit and then your health is optimized -- it detoxifies your blood."
Even Elle magazine, whose job it is to cover the world of fashion and stars, has to admit the power that such questionable statements can have on influencing the public. "Chances are, most readers chuckled at such celebrities' statements rather than treating them as legitimate, informed beliefs," says Elle UK.com, the magazine's online edition in Britain. "But responding to celeb health claims at face value underlines the extent to which prominent figures' views can sway public behaviours."
Needless to say we need better truth detectors to help the public discern between fact and falsehood in the realm of health, medicine and science. I'm happy to learn that such responsible detectors are on the rise with such organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the British group Sense About Science, as well as Dr. Ben Goldacre's Bad Science website in England -- all of which monitor, and correct when necessary, scientific claims made by celebrities, the news media and others.
As founder and chief organizer of the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering, I am proud to include the festival as among such timely efforts in advancing the accurate perception of scientific research.
The festival's second national gathering will take place next April in satellite events across the nation, and culminate in a massive expo on April 28 and 29 in Washington, D.C. -- an event that will not only celebrate the wonders of technology, but will also, through highly interactive stage shows, exhibits and other activities, help young students and others develop critical thinking skills needed to discern between fact and myth in scientific research.
In these discovery sessions, students will meet and engage with such celebrities and "stars" in science and engineering as: Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman -- hosts of the Discovery Channel's hit TV series Myth Busters -- who will tell how they go about dispelling science myths on their show; Bill Nye the Science Guy, who will take kids inside the known and unknown in science; Chemist Joseph Schwarcz, Ph.D., will help demystify aspects of science through magic; James Kakalios, Ph.D., a physicist that applies science in letting kids know how realistic Hollywood superhero movies are; modern-day storm chaser Karen Kosiba, Ph.D., helps students discern fact vs. fiction in the occurrence of tornadoes and other storms; Seth Shostak, Ph.D., an astronomer involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) explains what science can say about life on other planets; sleight-of-hand performer Apollo Robbins takes you inside the art of telling reality from illusion, and award-winning New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey tells why accuracy in science writing is so important.
The excitement does not stop there. The Festival's Expo also features day-long "Encounters With Scientists and Engineers" sessions in which students can meet real-life role models in these fields and ask them face to face about the accuracy of science and engineering topics in the news and other related subjects.
And leading up to the Expo during the month of April will be a series of other interactive events which will expose kids to leading scientists and engineers, including our Nifty Fifty school visit program sponsored by AT&T, and the Lunch with a Laureate program that gives small groups of middle and high school students the chance to engage in informal conversations with 15 Nobel Prize-winning scientists during a brown bag lunch.
The fight against scientific inaccuracy and misconceptions in the public realm begins with each of us taking the time and effort to be more critical and questioning of what we read and hear, and by exposing our kids to sound experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In our celebrity-driven world, that's something we all need to take to heart.