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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: When did B movie starlets become medical experts?

As suggested by reader Jester, and as framed by Amy Tuteur, MD, at Open Salon: When did B movie starlets become medical experts?

Tuteur writes:

Ricki Lake is evidently an expert on childbirth, Jenny McCarthy is an expert on immunology, and Susan [sic] Somers is an expert on chemotherapy (in the immortal words of Orac of Respectful Insolence, she is currently carpet bombing the media with “napalm-grade stupid about cancer”).

What, you might ask, are the qualifications of these experts beyond their tawdry celebrity? Well, Ricki Lake completed two (count ‘em, 2) semesters at Ithaca College; Jenny McCarthy dropped out of Southern Illinois University in favor of a career at Playboy; and Suzanne Somers dropped out of Lone Mountain College after 6 months.

All three had advanced training as well. Ricki Lake has actually given birth to two children. Jenny McCarthy has a child she believed was afflicted with autism. And, Suzanne Somers actually had cancer. If that’s not enough to make you a medical authority, I don’t know what is.

Tuteur hits on a couple of obvious explanations for the fact that some people do seem to listen to celebrities about matters outside their areas of expertise: the general strain of anti-intellectualism in American culture, a lack of faith in authority figures and/or the government. Is it as simple as that? Is something else at work? Why would anyone take medical advice from the likes of Jenny McCarthy… and is it really any different from taking dubious advice from similarly unqualified friends or family members?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • I can’t speak for the other two, but Jenny McCarthy’s “expertise” stems from her claims that she “cured” her son’s autism. (Without considering that, perhaps, her son was not autistic in the first place…)

    “Mother fights medical establishment and wins” is her story. Is her story credible? Not to folks who know science, but her notoriety for her anti-vaccine witchdoctery stems from that, and that’s important to understand.

  • Accounting Ninja

    I think people feel a comraderie with their favorite celebrities. So they might be more likely to follow their advice. Sort of how lots of people will more likely follow anecdotal advice of their families and friends than the latest medical research, even if the anecdotes are questionable.

    That being said, I don’t think I like the tone of that article and how it focuses chiefly on women who are implied to be frivolous and stupid. Even the word “starlet” has derogatory connotations. Plenty of celebrities, male and female, like to stand on their soapboxes whether they are qualified or not. I DO think we (Americans) place too much credence in the latest “expert” (an excuse to slack off on our critical thinking skills? Maybe) and that sometimes, a very expensive college degree is overrated. But on the other hand, these people work hard for their degrees. I guess I’m pretty skeptical of any expert, celebrity or not…I like to wait and see if time and plenty of evidence bears out, especially with the alarmist-type claims.

    I just don’t like the misogynistic tone of the article. (Yes, I know a woman wrote it.)

  • Mimi

    Wow. I am surprised to see Amy Tuteur’s name show up on flick filosopher. She’s something of a, well, wingnut? With an axe to grind? She is a formerly practicing OBGYN who posts rants (often the same cut-and-pasted rant) on childbirth and parenting websites, railing against midwives and homebirths and just about anything that deviates from the ACOG-approved rules of childbirth.

    It’s interesting that she’s tarring Ricki Lake, Jenny McCarthy, and Suzanne Somers with the same brush. The difference between them, though, is that the childbirth and health care reforms Ricki Lake advocates are well-supported by peer-reviewed, published literature and widely accepted in other first-world countries (like the Netherlands and, to a lesser extent, the UK). From what I can tell, McCarthy and Somers are relying on snake oil salesmen, blind faith, logical fallacies, and paranoia to build and spread their philosophies. And I think people are willing to believe them because people have ALWAYS been willing to ignore science and embrace the irrational… for as long as we’ve been, well, people.

    (This is hugely annoying to me as a parent — parents of young children seem especially susceptible to visceral reactions as opposed to rational/data-supported decisions… I say this as someone who supports limited-intervention (aka “natural”) childbirth as well as routine vaccination… you won’t find a lot of parents out there, unfortunately, who like both… but you know what? THE SCIENCE SUPPORTS BOTH.)

    But I realize no one has to, and no one likely will, take my word for it that the evidence supporting natural childbirth is solid, and the other two not so much. And I have observed that Amy Tuteur is good at tracking her own name down on the internet and spewing impressive-sounding statistics (and occasionally vitriol) when someone dares to point out her, um, wingnuttiness. So don’t be surprised if she shows up here to tell me I’m an idiot.

  • I don’t think it’s that people are “following their advice”. Riki Lake, for instance, produced the film but the information is out there already and is being an advocate for said information, it’s just a presentation of that information presented as a documentary. Most friends ask their friends advice for real answers, and I think they would be just as informed as her if not less so.
    I think that some people are stupid enough to say “Riki is right gosh darn it” but the other side is that people are likely watching it because they are interested in the subject. (I watched a good portion of it for that reason and because Riki Lake is hot, lol) If someone does want to watch a film about the subject, it’s easier to find something a celebrity produced because it’s going to be more available.
    As far as the credibility of going to a regular doctor, things are going to be just as shaky. If you read the book “Don’t Swallow Your Gum”, it shows medical myths that people actually believe. A lot of information that doctors themselves espouse but has become so ingrained in our culture that it’s still handed down, even though it’s not true.
    So while I do believe it’s stupid to take your advice, singularly, from a celebrity, I think if they’re making an informing documentary that it is okay to take that information as well as any other advice you can get a hold of and make your own informed decisions.

  • JoshDM

    Two words people: Lorenzo’s Oil.

  • Jester

    Anyone who doubts that people will jump to the defense of their favorite celebrities is invited to read the comments for the piece. It’s kind of funny how absolutely rabid some of the comments are.

    And yeah, on the childbirth issue, Amy Tuteur is about as biased as they come. Given her job, though, you kinda have to make allowances for that. ;-) On other medical topics, she’s much more balanced.

    The wider question is interesting, too. Angelina Jolie and Bono have SOME credibility on the world refugee situation, for instance, given the amount of time they spend in the middle of those situations. But the opposite, when it happens, I find hysterical. Sean Penn springs instantly to mind, for instance. That particular individual hired a camera crew to follow him around Louisiana to “document” how he was “assisting the victims” of Katrina. He’s also a noted expert on Cuba, the Iraq War, third party politics, consumer affairs, and Iran.

    Celebrity endorsements are funny things. As Will says, when they’re done well, they can do some good. But few of them are done well. There was a satire of this posted yesterday, as a matter of fact: Felicia Day endorsing the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope. Check it out; it’s an absolute scream, on several levels.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/10/26/felicia-day-collides-galaxies/

    Do I believe for a second that Felicia Day groks advanced astrophysics? Probably not. ;-) But it got me interested in learning a bit more about the Spitzer telescope.

    But a poorly-done endorsement can actively harm a cause. There might be some tiny bit of validity to what Jenny McCarthy’s snake-oil salesmen are telling her. But we’ll probably never know because any likelihood of an intelligent scientific discussion of childhood immunizations will likely be instantly crushed because of the messenger.

  • AJP

    Felicia graduated with high honors from UT with a degree in mathematics (doubled with violin performance). I’m guessing that astrophysics isn’t that difficult for her to understand.

  • Jester

    @AJP: Yep, I looked at her IMDB bio too. ;-)

    But you just demonstrated what this thread is about. Does the fact that she has a TV show and a degree in Mathematics instantly make her an expert in advanced astrophysics?

    You jumped to her defense pretty quickly there… ;-)

  • Ken

    I object to the suggestion that any of them make the “B” list.

  • AJP

    No, it doesn’t make her an expert. It does, however, throw a little bit of cold water on the notion that she doesn’t grok what she’s talking about though. If she can understand mathematics well enough to earn a degree in it (even if it is “just” an undergraduate degree), then the physics in the video should be a piece of cake for her.

    Of course, she’s also not peddling snake oil here, and not claiming any magical insight that has escaped the world’s astronomers. Its not like she’s trying to convince you that the world’s doctors are in some secret conspiracy to give your children unsafe vaccines, or that magic can cure your cancer.

  • JoshB

    That being said, I don’t think I like the tone of that article and how it focuses chiefly on women who are implied to be frivolous and stupid.

    Good point. Bill Maher is also on the antivaxx train. Something about distrusting “Big Pharma.”

    It’s enough to make you think that his belief in evolution and global warming has more to do with anti-establishment sentiment than rational thinking.

  • LaSargenta

    Disclaimer: I do not intend to defend or impugn anyone mentioned on this thread, just putting in my 2 cents on the topic of “experts”.

    I work in a field of experts. I often am at conferences filled with experts. They are highly educated and have lots of experience. There are so many arguments and episodes of cross-fire during the Q&A period that I sometimes come out not actually feeling like I learned anything during the talk.

    I tend to assume that most scientific fields are somewhat like mine: If you get a bunch of experts in a room, you do indeed get highly educated people with lots of evidence of one kind or another. However, you are also getting human beings. These are people who may or may not work for a pubically-owned company with stockholder issues, or be people with huge (or small) egos deeply invested in their projects, or be people who have a product that they really want to get on the market and may not have done as rigorous testing as they would if we lived in a perfect scientific utopia with time to test every hypothesis.

    I think most are well-intentioned. But, I am not about just to adopt the “latest medical studies”. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better and people can make mistakes. I have seen plenty of peer-reviewed topics get completely contradicted in my own line of work.

  • AJP

    It is good to remember, when evaluating McCarthy’s reliability, that she believes her child is not merely autistic, but also a magical “indigo child”.

    And that Somers thinks that “natural” hormone replacement is somehow better than chemically identical artifical hormone replacement.

  • Accounting Ninja

    I think most are well-intentioned. But, I am not about just to adopt the “latest medical studies”. Just because something is new doesn’t make it better and people can make mistakes. I have seen plenty of peer-reviewed topics get completely contradicted in my own line of work.

    Agreed. Often it’s the “new breakthroughs” I face with the MOST skepticism. I wonder if some honcho with only the bottom line on hir mind didn’t push it out before adequate testing could be done.

    Doesn’t mean I have a knee-jerk anti-establishment thing going like Maher, to quoth JoshB. But, yeah, not gonna jump on the bandwagon yet.

  • bats :[

    When they become too old to be considered “B-movie starlets”? Or when the public stops buying their acting credentials to start with?

  • Hank Graham

    Boy, do I know how to throw hot oil on this argument, because I do it often enough in real life.

    The problem isn’t that people take the word of celebrities over any possible expert, although that is a symptom of the real problem. It’s that many folks have a real difficulty understanding what real evidence is, and most folks don’t want to discuss the evidence, anyway.

    You can consider this entire discussion a supporting anecdote of that.

    We haven’t gotten into the nuts and bolts of Ricki Lake’s, Jenny McCarthy’s or Suzanne Somers’s contentions or beliefs. We discuss, instead, the three of them. Felicia Day having a degree in mathematics, McCarthy thinking her child is magical, and Somers’s opinions as to hormone replacement–all of these are examples of arguing ad hominem.

    Want to get all rationalistic and cut through all this bull? Forget the people involved, and swing the argument around to “what does the evidence show?”

    But where this goes wrong is that it is NOT what people want to do.

    Think of all the things people believe in this country: that aliens landed at Roswell and that the government (successfully!) covered it up; that the CIA killed JFK, that 9/11 was staged to get us into a war, that the Mafia killed JFK, that the moon landing was faked, that Israel killed JFG, that Fox News is fair and balanced, that LBJ killed JFK, that Obama is literally the Anti-Christ, that Cuba killed JFK, and that there is no real proof of evolution.

    But we don’t talk about the evidence of any of this. We talk about the people who are advancing (or rebutting) the claims. We like to gossip and talk about personalities.

    And that’s our problem.

  • AJP

    Suzanne Somers thinks, despite a complete lack of evidence supporting the idea, that injecting mistletoe extract will heal her cancer.

    Jenny McCarthy thinks, despite a complete lack of evidence supporting the idea, that the MMR vaccine causes autism, and that all diagnoses of autism are merely misdiagnoses of mercury poisoning (once again, despite a complete lack of evidence).

    Should we take these claims seriously?

  • Accounting Ninja

    @Hank, that was part of my original problem with the article. Instead of calling out the theories/beliefs themselves as nutty, it indulged in catty, sexist and gossipy snipes against “starlets” (ugh). It’s as if Tuteur wanted us all to laugh at the crazy bitches. Ad hominem indeed.

  • Paul

    My earliest memory of celebrity sales was an old white haired gentleman saying, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” If only he’d known what he had spawned.

    @JoshB: I was under the impression that evolution and global warming were the establishment views, since the vast majority of scientists support both. Or are you defining the establishment as the Christian-capitalist ideological machinary to overthrow the truth so they can go back to polluting our air and minds? (opps, did I just reveal my bias? oh dear)

  • bitchen frizzy

    The *language* is catty, but attacking the credentials of someone putting forth claims is not ad hominem.

    Also, this is an argument over alleged facts, not opinions. The “all opinions are equally valid” spirit of blogs does not apply.

    Tuteur is a doctor challenging medical claims made by others. Further, this is serious business. People might very well forgo cancer treatments and vaccines based on their favorite celebrities’ advice.

    It is valid – and necessary – to challenge BOTH the claims AND the credibility of those making the claims. Tuteur could have done a better job at the latter.

  • JoshB

    Doesn’t mean I have a knee-jerk anti-establishment thing going like Maher, to quoth JoshB.

    Skepticism is good. It’s a basic sign of intelligence. Be skeptical of new breakthroughs and corporate greed. I approve wholeheartedly.

    Do not, as Maher, McCarthy et al. do, disregard the eradication of smallpox. Smallpox was worse than Big Pharma.

  • JoshB

    Grrr. Crosspost.

    Or are you defining the establishment as the Christian-capitalist ideological machinary to overthrow the truth so they can go back to polluting our air and minds?

    Yes, that’s exactly how I’m defining it. No, I’m not being sarcastic. Reread my post with that in mind.

  • Muzz

    This series of blog posts on gender differences in “Woo” might be interesting to folks.

    http://podblack.com/2009/10/retrospectacle-women-and-superstitions-part-one/

    The nutshell is that there’s a greater tendency for women to be the ones who talk about this stuff, particularly on physical and emotional health, children etc, and a correlation with interest in celebrity I guess. But when looking at what people actually believe, males are just as likely to have whacky ideas about things.

    Also interesting was the recent study in England that found, of all people likely to follow alternative medicine and be a “vaccine skeptic” and the like, the largest group was tertiary educated middle class women.
    I doubt there’s any grand gender narrative here, but it’s a curious trend.

  • MaryAnn

    Wow. I am surprised to see Amy Tuteur’s name show up on flick filosopher.

    Considering that this QOTD was prompted by this, I really just cannot win, can I? :->

    Skepticism is good. It’s a basic sign of intelligence. Be skeptical of new breakthroughs and corporate greed. I approve wholeheartedly.

    I try to follow the aphorism, Be openminded, but not so openminded that your brain falls out.

  • to be completely accepting about everything or to be completely skeptical about everything are two sides of the same lazy coin — they eliminate the need for actual thought.*

    *paraphrased from a sign i saw on an NYC bus.

  • Jester

    Suggested QOTD for next week:

    Are there few female writers in Hollywood by choice, or is Hollywood actively hostile to female writers?

    Prompted by the first para of this piece:
    http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/features/2009/10/david-letterman-200910?currentPage=1

    It’s an interesting question. There are certainly no lack of female novelists and short-story writers, so it’s obviously not a female disinterest in writing.

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