New York Blog

Celebrity-based science and the decline of journalism

There has been much discussion here on Nature Network and on other blogs on the decline of traditional media outlets due to the rise of the internet and other means by which journalism as a whole is being reported. Science and medicine are obviously no exception to this rule, with both ends of the quality spectrum being represented out there on the World Wide Web. One example of the evolving online media is the Huffington Post, touted as “The Internet Newspaper”. The HuffPo as its also known, publishes a variety of news articles on world events and featuring articles on politics, entertainment, business and “living”.

As a regular reader of the site, it I’m no fan of the science coverage in the latter section, which seems to feature articles of an anti-scientific nature (extensive coverage of this over at Science-Based Medicine). Two such examples pointed out here include an article by Kim Evans (author of Cleaning Up – The ultimate body cleanse) on how “Antibiotic cause cancer?” citing the outstanding quackery of Dr. Tullio Simoncini who claims that cancer is a fungus and Margaret Ruth (a metaphysical teacher) who reports on the “intuitive scan … provides an energetic profile of the client”, as a diagnostic tool akin to an x-ray.

Could it get any worse? Well, this last week was no disappointment with an “editorial” from the actor / comedian Jim Carrey. In this article titled “The Judgment on Vaccines Is In?”, Mr Carrey voices a range of arguments including the safety of vaccinating children, the link between vaccines and autism, and a conspiracy of the CDC and pharmaceutical companies to create toxic products with only profits in mind. Mr Carrey and his partner Jenny McCarthy are part of an increasing movement to “green our vaccines” and “too many too soon”; claims that vaccines are full of toxins and the increasing vaccination schedule of children today being too much for a child’s immune system. How did this anti-vaccination viewpoint start?

Historically as long as vaccinations have existed there has been opposition, either due to religious or political beliefs. This opposition started with the introduction of the first vaccine against smallpox by Dr Edward Jenner, and continues to this day. One of the most recent examples is the controversial link made between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. This originated from a study published by Dr Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet in 1998, which suggested a link between the initiation of an inflammatory bowel condition, and the administration of the MMR vaccine in autistic children. In this paper of 12 subjects and no controls, Dr Wakefield and colleagues described a series of case reports where the authors mentioned eight of the twelve children developed behavioral problems within two weeks of MMR vaccination. Although, numerous studies could not reproduce these findings, media coverage did not adequately highlight these findings.

If that wasn’t bad enough, 10 of the original authors of this paper issued a retraction in 2004. It took however, an additional paper authored by Dr Wakefield in 2002 (known as the “O’Leary" paper) to fully create a widespread media induced panic in the UK. Ultimately, the one-sided media reporting induced an understandable panic amongst parents, ultimately causing a drop in the number of children being vaccinated with the MMR vaccine (93% to as low as 50% in some areas of the UK). Subsequently, the incidence of measles (previously eradicated in the UK), has risen from 56 cases in 1998 to 1,348 reported cases in 2008.

It would take a few years for the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S to seize on these publications, which would ultimately result in court cases against the vaccine makers in both the U.K and U.S. The U.S case also rested on the premise that thimerosal, a mercury derived compound used as a vaccine preservative was the responsible for the apparent rise in autism. There are a few points worth noting here though; 1. thimerosal has not been used in vaccines in the U.S. since the FDA called for its removal in 1999. 2. since this time, autism diagnosis rates have continued to increase, mainly through increased awareness and diagnostic criteria. 3. thimerosal was not used in live vaccines such as MMR.

These two papers would not only become the central scientific evidence in these court cases (MMR Vaccination Litigation in the UK and the Vaccine Court Case (Cedillo v. Health and Human Services) in the US), but also their downfall. The expert testimony of Professor Stephen Bustin; an expert in PCR, would question the validity of the O’Leary paper too. In this study, the authors had demonstrated that the measles virus RNA had been detected in gut biopsies of children with autism by RT-PCR, linking directly the MMR vaccine to autism. The problem with these findings were that noone could reproduce these findings. Professor Bustin’s analysis concluded that the study was flawed on a number of counts, the first being due to probable PCR contamination with positive control plasmid DNA. The second flaw and quite a considerable one, was that on examination there were instances where the authors seemed to have forgotten to perform a reverse transcription step before performing real-time PCR on the biopsy samples. Yes, before you check your textbook, ladies and gentlemen, the measles virus is RNA based. You can read Professor Bustin’s report here and the court testimony here

In addition to this, numerous epidemiological studies from around the world have failed to demonstrate any link between the MMR vaccine (or any vaccine) and autism. Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine concluded on the extensive available evidence that there is no link between autism and either the MMR vaccine (in 2001) or with thimerosal (in 2004). Therefore, you would think everyone would agree this would scientifically close the case on the link between vaccinations and autism, and focus valuable research resources on other potential causes for autism. Unfortunately, not everyone.

Step forward the unofficial voice piece for this movement of the eminent celebrity research team of (Jenny) McCarthy and (Jim) Carrey. In addition to a fervent online campaign, the pair recently organized a march on D.C with the campaign to “green our vaccines” and that the vaccination schedule for children was “too many too soon”. This campaign is focused on the eradication of alleged toxins from vaccines and that a child’s immune system cannot cope with current number of vaccinations recommended within the first few years of life. Whilst no drug treatment can be considered 100% safe, there has been no program in modern health care that has been more successful than vaccination against infectious disease. The campaigners refuse to accept the scientific evidence and consensus outlined above and call for more “research”, mainly still based on the de-bunked Wakefield studies. This brings me to the point of this blog post, namely the dangers of the unscientifically based views that celebrities may have based on their own biases and the role of the media in propagating these points to the public. McCarthy and Carrey are just an example of the daily uphill struggle science and scientists face to effectively communicate to the public. In this case although their intentions may good and to bring attention to a subject (in this case the cause of autism), through unguided and unqualified viewpoints they cause parents to question the need to vaccinate their children. In their defense they vocally question any opposition from scientists, as having “conflicts of interest”, citing even grant funding from the NIH as evidence of being co-conspirators in a grand scheme cooked up by the pharmaceutical industry and the government. Let’s not even get started on celebrity conflicts of interest, especially when aforementioned celebrity has a book out on a “cure” for said disease. Although they cite (and in the article above), they be not against vaccinations, to tell everyone how dangerous vaccinating your child could be, is clearly going to influence some people not to. The drop in vaccination rates and the resulting endemic of infectious disease seen in the U.K is now starting to be seen here in the U.S. Lets not forget that a successful vaccination program only works when the majority of a community is vaccinated against a pathogen (herd immunity).

These two are not alone in their advocacy of their own version of science. Other notable examples include Gwyneth Paltrow’s anti-cancer views; “I am challenging these evil genes by natural means. I am convinced that by eating biological foods it is possible to avoid tumors.” Lets not forget Madonna’s research effort to “work with scientists to find a way to neutralize radiation”. The list goes on and on. So, how can we change this consensus? One such way is the approach taken by the non-profit organization “Sense about Science”. This U.K. based organization composed of ~3000 scientists promotes public understanding of science at the same time tackling misinformation in the media, and also providing guides for scientists to adequately communicate their work and viewpoints to the media. One of their guidebooks “Celebrities and Science” details the various claims by celebrities and the resulting explanation of the real science by experts in the field. They are all available here.

So, what’s the harm in celebrities voicing their views on science? Well, firstly, we have to know whether there is a hidden interest behind these pseudo viewpoints (a book or cosmetic range). Secondly, voicing opinions on important health issues whether just a random offhand quote, can influence more people than the official view which may have taken many years of public health care policy to have had an impact. At the same time however, this can be used positively such as using a public figure to reinforce a health campaign. This obviously all points to one central aspect; the media and how science is reported. Whilst journalists will cry foul that they are only reporting “the facts”, and it is the scientists’ responsibility / fault how we communicate, selling newspapers or viewing figures are the bottom line and therefore sensational headlines trumpet the information. Giving a mouthpiece or column space to this celeb pseudo-science fiction does not pass as science journalism (and that includes you Time magazine).

Ultimately, this comes down to how the modern media will evolve and the role of the scientist in this new medium. It is up to us to not only communicate science to the public, but more importantly explain the actual process of how science is performed and interpreted. If we leave it to the celebrities to communicate their version, in the future we can only expect that we will all just become dumb and dumber.


  1. Report this comment

    Darren Saunders said:

    Nice post Barry. Your previous brief mention of this topic a few weeks ago got me thinking… maybe we should be trying to co-opt some celebrities into selling real science. I’m not talking about gifted science communicators, of which there are many but “bona fide celebrities” (oh, it’s hard to type that little phrase).

    Alan Alda is one example that springs to mind with his previous work on US TV, but I’m sure there are others. Maybe there are some candidates within the previous discussion of the cross-over between music and science (I’m struggling to find the link).

    We had a lot of success at my previous institute (albeit on a small scale) inviting local (but well informed) celebrities (TV presenters, sports people, even models etc) to join panel discussions with scientists on various topics… stem cells, neuroscience, cancer, depression, diabetes etc. I was always impressed by the amount of time and effort these people put into their background prep and presentation, and and they were very effective at helping to draw a crowd (ie increasing the reach of the discussion).

    I guess what I’m suggesting is that we should consider fighting fire with fire?

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    Val Jones said:

    Great post. Thanks for mentioning Science Based Medicine. There are a growing number of us MD/PhD/RN bloggers doing our part to educate the public and provide quality health reporting. Perhaps we should indeed promote our work through celebrities? 🙂

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    Caryn Shechtman said:

    Great post Barry. I should point your attention to a lovely radio broadcast of This American Life where they discuss the herd immunity issue, in particular those who choose not to vaccinate their children, and the ethical implications of this.

    I agree with Darren and Val. It would be most beneficial to have celebrities be the spokesmen for accurate scientific research (thanks for your work Science Based Medicine), but I think this requires a lot of time and brain power on the side of the celebrity, which they often don’t have too much of (time, not brain power).

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    Darren Saunders said:

    A great example of what Barry is talking about. I saw a clip on TV last night of a well known heiress and sometime amateur movie star giving her well-informed opinion on what she was doing to avoid infection with “swine” influenza… “I don’t eat that crap”. Indeed.

    Why anyone would A) want to ask her that question or B) care what her answer was is beyond me.

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    Lee Turnpenny said:

    Top blogging, Barry – thanks! The thing is, some of these ‘celebrity-based scientists’ can give rise to an almost cult-like ‘following’, either wittingly (in which case, they’re selfishly malign), or unwittingly (in which case, they’re selfishly ignorant).

    ’It is up to us to not only communicate science to the public, but more importantly explain the actual process of how science is performed and interpreted.

    On the money. Problem is, this is the media, celebrity-obsessed age. People need ‘gods.’

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    Barry Hudson said:

    Thanks all for your comments. This blog posting started off as a few comments and developed into a more intensive reading and research piece. What really is the central point in all this is the disinformation out there on the internet, and portrayed in the name of “science” journalism. For every great blog site like Science-Based Medicine, there is an equally uninformed, biased, lacking in evidence site. Whilst this makes the internet an exciting and greatly open, free form of communication and information, it is our responsibility to educate non-scientists how science is done and draw attention to exaggerated claims and pseudo-science. We can’t change the media and how they report science overnight, but we can have influence on the online realm. What the people at Sense About Science are doing is exactly spot on and right to this point. They have so much information for both scientists and non-scientists. I really recommend anyone reading this to check them out here

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    Barry Hudson said:

    @Darren – nice points. An example of celebs involvement in science is exampled in the upcoming World Science Festival in NY in a few weeks. Alan Alda is one of the speakers. Obviously, people want to hear science from someone in the media spotlight they “trust”. I think we could learn something from this, such as what a lot of organizations do using a known public figure to promote their cause (eg. type 1 diabetes, cancer). Perhaps we need a few big names (adequately informed) to rubbish unsubstantiated claims by other celebs.

    @Val – welcome to Nature Network and thanks for commenting. The blogs on your site are very informative. Again, as above, perhaps we do need the help of celebs to counter all this misinformation by other celebs. Sort of like celebrity science anti-matter theory?

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    Barry Hudson said:

    A good example of celebs and science, actually is with the vaccination issue. Amanda Peet is part of the Vaccinate Your Baby campaign to counter Ms McCarthy found here

    Quote Ms Peet: “I’m not an expert and I’m here to tell you do not listen to actors, do not listen to celebrities and do not believe everything you read on the Internet,”

  9. Report this comment

    Darren Saunders said:


    World Science Festival in NY… Oh to be closer to NYC!

  10. Report this comment

    Caryn Shechtman said:

    Darren: Barry and I will cover the the WSF, so at least you can read about it!

  11. Report this comment

    Heather Etchevers said:

    Excellent post and I completely missed it earlier on. Thanks to some advertising from Darren, caught it later (better than never!). I look forward to more.

  12. Report this comment

    Darren Saunders said:

    Jenny McCarthy is at it again – this time with a media heavy-hitter in her corner.

    May as well add the cross-post here 😉

  13. Report this comment

    Barry Hudson said:

    Thanks Darren (for links and cross-posting).

    I saw the “poop” post as well.

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    Darren Saunders said:

    Harking back in time to the original theme of this thread… I just saw a great example of a way to engage people in science through “celebrity”. I don’t know if anyone here has seen the PBS doco Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives about the musician Mark Everett (aka “Eels”) going on a very personal journey through his father Hugh’s life and career as a famous physicist. If not, fantastic stuff, check it out if you get the chance.

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    Kyrsten Jensen said:

    Brilliant post. Having been involved in vaccine research, I spent a lot of time going through the literature, learning about adjuvants, preservatives, vaccine modes of action, and whatnot. I hadn’t had a chance to take a look at the original papers that showed a correlation, not cause=effect, between autism and the MMR vaccine (though without positive controls and an n=12 I’m not entirely convinced they should have been able to publish). I had no idea that a subsequent paper tried to do RT-PCR without the RT (again, how that got past the reviewers, who are normally so excellent?) wnd that this one was the crisis point for this furor.

    I’ve had non-scientist friends who ask me about their newborns and what I think relating to vaccination/no-vaccination. For me, personally, the decision one day will be an absolute “yes”. Knowing what I do about how these vaccines act, I’m certainly not worried about having myself or giving them to my future children. That’s my personal opinion though, and while I have no problems with others disagreeing, I hope that they have scrutinized the science as well.

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    William Gunn said:

    Since this debate isn’t in the realm of facts, but rather in the realm of emotion and deeply-help beliefs, I think Darren’s initial comment is a great one.

    It’s also why the Oprah issue is so unfortunate. One of our own celebrities, Shirley Wu, has written a great Open Letter to Oprah, laying out the argument with a good deal of compassion.

  17. Report this comment

    Dave Macdonald said:

    Barry, thanks for this post.

    It’s really a challenging situation for scientists, and critical thinkers (I’m hardly a scientist), as we’re really a minority.

    As a society, we often commend celebrities for their contributions to causes: Lance Armstrong on cancer, Sarah McLachlan on many social causes, Bono for his humanitarian work (as controversial as it might be…). This is how our society is built and often just proving that a celebrity is wrong isn’t enough to offset the momentum they’ve gained.

    There’s a lot of work to be done in reclaiming the title of “role model” from people who have gained it by simply pretending to be something else for 90 minutes at a time. It’s quite disturbing to think that what is right needs to be marketed and contend against influential people without an ounce of sense about them, but such is the state of our world unfortunately. Thanks for bringing this out – I came across this via Twitter, so hopefully it’ll hit the mainstream as time goes on.


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    Barry Hudson said:

    @Krysten – regarding the RT-PCR paper, if you read this there is an RT step in the methods, but you have to read Prof. Bustin’s two reports (I’ve fixed the link / text)), to find out about the RT problem. Prof. Bustin went to the lab and analyzed the raw data and found the problems mentioned in his report. The main problem concluded was most likely contamination.

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    Kyrsten Jensen said:

    @Barry – contamination – isn’t that what replicates are for? anything less than a n=5 and my PI would have not allowed me to present even at a lab meeting. RT-PCR contamination is rampant, but not if you are really careful.

  20. Report this comment

    Barry Hudson said:

    @Kyrsten – “but not if you are really careful” that was the conclusion from the reports being the problem

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