Think for Yourself: Celebrity pseudoscience

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With Gwyneth Paltrow telling women to steam their intimate areas and Kourtney Kardashian chowing down on placenta pills to help post-natal depression, critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look at the cult of celebrity pseudoscience.

Would you take medical advice from some random person you met on the street? Probably not. What about that friend who swears that reiki cured her back problems and acupuncture is a fool-proof way to quit smoking? You might give the alternative therapies a try, but most rational people would speak to a medical professional and take their advice.

Why is it then that so many people listen to health and medical advice from Hollywood celebrities without a second thought? Why do their ludicrous miracle cures and superfood diets get reported by the mainstream media as if they are iron-clad fact?

Celebrity pseudoscience: Top 10

10. Vinegar shots for weightloss

Transformers star Megan Fox promotes vinegar shots to get rid of retained water and "clean out her system", while model Miranda Kerr uses apple vinegar on her salads to stay slim. 

From a medical perspective, eating salads over burgers will certainly help you stay slim, but the addition of vinegar probably doesn’t make much difference. All available evidence suggests that while a shot of vinegar isn’t going to do you any harm, it’s also not going to do you any good.

9. Sunscreen is poison

Back in 2011, Supermodel Gisele Bündchen stated that she refuses to use sun cream, claiming that she would never put "poison" on her skin and never uses anything "synthetic". Somewhat unsurprisingly, this ridiculous statement came at a time when she was launching her own all-natural skin care line and she quickly backpedalled when met with universal condemnation from doctors and dermatologists.

The Australian Cancer Council says there is clear evidence that regular use of sunscreens helps prevent skin cancer. Long term studies of sunscreen use in Australia have found no harmful effects of regular use.

8. Placenta pills for post-natal depression

Pushed by a number of celebs including January Jones from Mad Men and Kourtney Kardashian from the most horrible family on earth, placenta pills are claimed to reduce the symptoms of post-natal depression and provide valuable vitamins and nutrients.

Catherine Collins, principal dietician at St. George's Hospital in London, counters:

"Apart from iron, which can be easily found in other dietary choices or supplements, your placenta will provide toxins and other unsavory substances it had successfully prevented from reaching your baby in utero."

Just because some other mammals consume their placenta after birth doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for humans to do the same thing. After all, some mammals, including bears, hamsters and even cats eat their own babies and you don’t see celebs pushing that as a good source of nutrition (not yet, at least).

7. Oxygen shots for a youthful glow

Simon Cowell, best known for being mean to young people on TV talent shows, carries around cans of pure oxygen to give him a "youthful glow", help him manage stress and supress the urge to smoke.

Kay Mitchell, a scientist at the Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine, warns that very high levels of oxygen can in fact be toxic, particularly in the lungs, where oxygen levels are highest. Unless you have severely impaired lung function, oxygen shots aren’t going to give you any advantage over simple breathing.

6. Psychiatry is a pseudoscience

To be fair, much of the medical misinformation that comes out of Tom Cruise’s mouth is due to his belief in Scientology, the sort-of religion invented by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Taking this into account, Cruise has been vocal in touting the anti-science nonsense favoured by the church, most notably that there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance and that Brooke Shields was irresponsible for taking medication to treat post-natal depression.

The American Psychiatric Association responds:

'Science has proven that mental illnesses are real medical conditions that affect millions of Americans .... Over the past five years, the nation has more than doubled its investment in the study of the human brain and behavior, leading to a vastly expanded understanding of postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, and attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder. Much of this research has been conducted by the National Institutes of Health and the nation’s leading academic institutions. Safe and effective treatments are available and may include talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Rigorous, published, peer-reviewed research clearly demonstrates that treatment works.'

5. Leech therapy to detoxify the blood

Apparently a fan of pre-scientific medicine, actress Demi Moore is a fan of using leeches to detoxify her blood as part of a total body cleanse.

Ignoring for a moment that the concept of "detoxing" has been repeatedly shown to be medically meaningless, one wonders how the leeches know where the toxins are, and are able to pull them out so effectively with the small amount of blood that they actually consume.

4. Bioidentical Hormone therapy to prevent cancer

Actress Suzanne Somers, best known for her roles on Three’s Company and Step by Step, is a proponent of Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy, which she claims will manage stress, treat the symptoms of perimenopause and prevent cancer caused by your hormones being out of balance. The treatment that Somers suggests is called The Wiley Protocol, a treatment invented by Teresa S Wiley, an author with no medical or scientific training.

While hormone replacement therapy can indeed be used to treat the symptoms of menopause – although not without potential problems that may include an increase in the incidence of cancer – there is little to no evidence that bioidentical hormones make any difference whatsoever.

3. Vaccines cause autism

Based on the fraudulent work of discredited gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, the belief that vaccines cause autism is still widely held by people who think they know more than medical science. While former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy isn’t the only celebrity to speak out against vaccination, her ongoing campaign puts her in the number two position and has led to the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website.

Let me state this clearly. There is zero credible evidence that vaccines cause autism. This is not to say that vaccines are completely safe, but the exceptionally low risk of complications is far outweighed by the benefits of disease prevention.

A dishonourable mention in this category must go to Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik, who is rabidly anti-vax, yet actually has a PhD in neuroscience, which goes to show that expertise in one area does not translate to knowing what the hell you are talking about regarding other topics.

2. Vagina Steaming and other Lunacy

Probably the queen of celebrity health misinformation is Gwyneth Paltrow. Via her website goop she has promoted such dubious therapies as cupping (using heated cups to draw toxins out of the skin), changing the structure of water and the Dr Junger Clean Cleanse, which sounds tautological but in reality is just stupid.

Her latest obsession is the Mugwort V-Steam, which purports to cleanse your vagina and uterus with a combination of infrared light and mugwort steam. As any gynaecologist will tell you, this is not a good idea. For starters, the vagina does not need cleansing, as the body does this naturally. Secondly, the introduction of steam to this delicate area can have the effect of killing beneficial bacteria, which may lead to more serious medical issues. Last but not least, this treatment reinforces the patriarchal idea that lady parts are "dirty" and need to be cleaned before use. Absolute bollocks. 

Somewhat amusingly, Paltrow’s love of wacky alternative therapies has led to the publishing of a book called Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, which is a pretty awesome title for a book.

1. 67% of Remedies promoted by Dr Oz

If Gwyneth Paltrow is the queen of health misinformation, the king must be Dr Mehmet Oz, who uses his TV program to push a range of miracle cures, superfoods and general quackery. Discovered by talk show queen Oprah, who is herself responsible for a good amount of medical misinformation, Dr Oz calls himself ‘America’s Doctor’ yet continually promotes medical solutions that are unproven at best and downright dangerous at worst.

From Green Coffee Bean Extract, to GMO misinformation, and miracle weight loss supplements, Dr Oz runs the gamut of pseudoscience, preferring to hype the latest fad rather than offer accurate science-based advice.

A recent study in the British Medical Journal stated:

‘Believable or somewhat believable evidence supported 33% of the recommendations on The Dr Oz Show’, which means that a staggering two thirds of remedies presented on the show are not supported by any believable evidence whatsoever.'

Why Would We Trust Celebrities?

In late 2013, researchers at McMasters University published a paper in the British Medical Journal examining why people listen to medical advice from celebrities. Lead author Steven Hoffman proposed that there are ‘deeply rooted biological, psychological and social forces’ that encourage people to listen to celebs, even when they know intellectually that listening to their doctor is a better idea.

Some of the forces mentioned include:

  • the halo effect, where people who think that Gwyneth is good at acting means that she is good at everything, including medicine;
  • classical conditioning, where feelings about a celebrities personality transfer to the product they’re pushing; and
  • herd behavior, which assumes that celebrities represent the majority and should therefore be followed.

Whether you like a celebrity or not is irrelevant, either way you probably shouldn’t take medical advice from them.  

Think for yourself.

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