‘Stick to sports!’: Celebrities and science, an endorsement too far?

In a world where science is used to make most of the decisions about our lives, we still have an insatiable appetite for celebrities and their opinions, whether it’s on something their famous for, what they had for breakfast or who they’re voting for.

Celebrity endorsements have somewhat of a credible basis in neuroscience: studies have shown that we trust people we recognise, a common-sense adaption to protect ourselves from danger or predators, but also also to develop social bonds. Even though we know that we’ve never met a particular famous person, our brains can’t really differentiate between people we know in real life and those we think we ‘know’ because we’ve binge-watched a whole series of a TV show they starred in.

This trust, created by repeated exposure, can act as a stand-in for evidence in advertising, demonstrated very well in adverts for fast food and soft drinks such as Pepsi, who’s adverts almost exclusively feature famous people. The need for substantive information about the quality or benefits of the product to human health are negated when a shiny, recognisable face is beaming at us from inside a screen.

Neuroscientists have even shown that individual brain cells have a direct response to people and names we recognise. A study found an individual neuron in the brains of participants that responded only to pictures of Jennifer Aniston, and in others, a neuron that responded exclusively to pictures of Halle Berry, or even her name written down.

This powerful and deep-rooted reaction to celebrities seems harmless when used to sell an item of clothing or a car, but when it’s selling science, then people start to become wary.

Although most focus is on celebrities misrepresenting science, the relationship can be a positive one. Famous people who suffer from a rare disease can become impassioned spokespeople who create awareness and provide information and even create funding opportunities. Recent examples of Lady Gaga suffering from fibromyalgia, a symptom of which is chronic pain, and Selena Gomez who suffers with lupus and recently received a kidney transplant.

These announcements can cause the diseases to become more high profile, increasing the chances that they will be recognised, researched, funded and potentially cured. A study on the effect of Charlie Sheen revealing he was HIV positive caused a huge spike in demand for home testing kits that lasted for months after the incident, potentially changing thousands of people’s lives for the better and also reducing stigma around testing and diagnosis.

When celebrities combine their influence and money to take on scientific issues in a positive way, the results can be inspirational. Leonardo DiCaprio’s film ‘Before the Flood’ gained international attention and contributed to the slow but steady push for more legislative change in the USA to combat climate change and its effects.

But should everyone be getting involved? Those who speak out against the scientific consensus, most commonly in the realms of homeopathy and other alternative medicines, are roundly criticised for endangering people’s lives, presumably because celebrity’s influence is thought to be so powerful that people will turn their back on conventional medicine and science to emulate the famous people they know and love. Particularly contentious examples include Gwyneth Paltrow claiming that cancerous tumours can be shrunk and even cured completely simply by eating a healthy diet, and actress Suzanne Somers publicly criticising chemotherapy for causing irreparable damage to people’s bodies and promoting alternative, unproven methods instead.

The assumed power that celebrities hold over our consumer choices have been increasingly questioned by social and political scientists in the wake of the US Presidential Election of 2016, where celebrity-backed Hillary Clinton failed to beat Donald Trump, much to the shock of Hollywood and the mainstream media. A study of the ‘power’ of certain celebrities was studied by political researchers who showed that celebrity endorsements could actually negatively affect a political candidate despite the celebrity being ‘well-liked’. Many people seem to think that celebrities should stick to their own lane and not get involved in politics, science, or issues where they’re not experts and also don’t want to be manipulated by a quick shallow celebrity endorsement.

Despite craving the opinions of celebrities, we hold them to higher standards than we would our everyday acquaintances and criticise them for not committing to truth and morality in every aspect of their lives. If their efforts to change the world align with the aims of science and technology the results can be inspiring: Elon Musk tells us we can dream of buying a ticket to the moon and Bill Gates will maybe one day tell us that his foundation has eradicated Malaria from Africa.

But until our brains have evolved to distinguish between people in front of us and people on a screen, we will continue to implicitly trust them, for better or worse.

Izzy Sturt is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London

Banner image: The Press, Flickr / Diamond Geezer

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