Why People Take Nonsensical Health Advice From Gwyneth Paltrow

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Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Bad celebrity health advice is a troubling and growing problem. Because people have such easy access to quacky opinions about health, and because celebrities tend to have pretty big megaphones, a whole internet subculture of nonsense health-advice has emerged, sometimes with potentially dangerous consequences.

For an interview published on STAT, Usha Lee McFarling spoke with Tim Caulfield, a Canadian lawyer and the author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness, about this trend.

The Q&A is worth reading in full, but Caulfield’s answer to the question of why “the voices of celebrities in the health arena [have] become so loud and powerful” is particularly noteworthy:

There’s interesting speculation we might be predisposed to emulate people with prestige. In the past maybe it was good hunters, today it’s Kardashians. What makes this era different is because of social media and reality TV, celebrities are simply everywhere; they are closer to us. Grace Kelly existed in a different realm, while Kim Kardashian is part of daily life.

The other thing that’s going on right now is distrust in traditional sources of scientific information. People think big pharma and industry have corrupted science. The public hears about the problems scientists have not being able to replicate their studies. One day they hear wine is good for you, the next day it’s bad. They say, “You scientists can’t make up your minds.” That’s all created a lot of space for celebrities.

Celebrity pushers of bunk science, of course, rarely exhibit much doubt about what they’re doing. Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t become Gwyneth Paltrow, Noted Pseudoscience Peddler, by taking a careful, skeptical approach to the claims she broadcasts to her audience.

It’s just not a fair fight, in many cases, given how poorly equipped many people are to evaluate scientific claims. And those two forces Caulfield mentions — the ubiquity of celebrity voices and distrust in science — are connected, of course. Part of the appeal of many of the worst celebrity offenders is that they promise to “tell you what they don’t want you to know” — “they” being a warped, supervillainized version of the (far from perfect, to be sure) medical and pharmaceutical establishments. It’s sad that so many people trust celebrities with their well-being, but it isn’t necessarily surprising.