A DISCUSSION OFScience, Celebrities, and Public Engagement
In March 2014, Toronto Public Health launched a social media campaign to pressure the popular ABC daytime television talk show, The View, into firing outspoken US celebrity Jenny McCarthy as one of its hosts. Health experts worried that McCarthy’s strident anti-vaccine views would influence Canadian parents nervous about vaccination and undermine the efforts of medical officials to increase vaccine uptake at a time when preventable diseases have been making a comeback.
McCarthy isn’t the only celebrity to publicly espouse views at odds with mainstream science. In the vaccine wars, we also have Jim Carrey and Bill Maher; on homeopathy and new ageism, there’s Oprah Winfrey; Gwyneth Paltrow has the cleansing market cornered; and the increasingly fraught world of activism opposing genetically modified organisms is occupied by a range of stars, including Michael J. Fox, Gisele Bundchen, and Neil Young.
In “Science, Celebrities, and Public Engagement” (Issues, Summer 2016), Timothy Caulfield and Declan Fahy explore the mixed influence of celebrity culture on the public’s understanding of science and the potential benefits of celebrity engagement for science policy, literacy, and communication. Do celebrities influence what citizens believe about science? If so, how can these effects be determined and measured? Can celebrity influence be mobilized to advance a pro-science agenda? These are important empirical, normative, and strategic questions.
The authors’ observation that celebrities have achieved a state of pervasive cultural influence is consistent with decades of critical social science research. Yet, most academic observers, echoing the arguments of mainstream cultural critics, are often too quick to dismiss contemporary celebrity culture as thin, vacuous, and fleeting (as opposed to some make-believe bygone era when public discourse was deep, durable, and robust). For many observers, the celebrity embodies the artifice of contemporary pop culture, while celebrity power is linked to the decline of modernity and its faith in reason, knowledge, and expertise. As the Toronto Public Health campaign suggests, celebrities may also pose a clear and present danger to the public’s health.
Caulfield and Fahy present a more complicated picture. They acknowledge the worrisome effects that celebrities can have on our health. Yet, elements of the argument are also measured and pragmatic. They decry and mock the influence of some celebrities, but point to examples of others who have made important contributions to public science and health literacy. Gwyneth Paltrow (about whom Caulfield has written extensively) can be ridiculed for her goofy advice to women about diet and sexual health, yet the normalization of popular discourse about HIV and AIDS, particularly among men, could not have occurred without the determined advocacy of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. They also discuss examples of scientists (e.g., Neil deGrasse Tyson and David Suzuki) who have fashioned themselves into media stars with celebrity-like appeal of their own. The boundaries between celebrity and science are thus becoming increasingly blurred, and Caulfield and Fahy capture this fuzziness well.
The British cultural theorist Raymond Williams famously remarked that “we live in an expanding culture, yet we spend much of our energy regretting the fact, rather than seeking to understand its nature and conditions.” Like Williams, Caulfield and Fahy suggest that celebrity culture is better viewed as a phenomenon to be examined and understood than as a problem at which we should sneer (sneering, after all, doesn’t make what is there go away). Their call for more research into the nature and impact of celebrity culture on public understanding of science is important if we are to better know how citizens make sense of complex scientific and public health issues in our increasingly media-saturated environment. Although this requires attention to the influence of celebrities on science and health, it must also include examining the myriad ways in which celebrity media culture is transforming science and science communication.