Why do people believe celebrities instead of experts?

You’ve probably seen news coverage of the debate over the safety of vaccines and whether they cause autism in children. In fact, you might have seen new-age medicine spokeswoman and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy speak out against vaccines on Oprah’s hugely popular television show.

Actually, being honest here: if you’re reading this blog, I doubt you watch Oprah. But I’m sure you’ve at least heard about McCarthy’s appearance and her subsequent role as anti-vaccine crusader. In fact, most of you probably know that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence linking autism to vaccines, and the connection has been rightly written off as pseudo-science by all the real doctors and scientists.

David T. Tayloe, President of the American Academy of Pediatricians, had this to say about her:

I think show business crosses the line when they give contracts to people like Jenny McCarthy. If you give her a bully pulpit, McCarthy is going to make people hesitate to vaccinate their children. She has no medical or scientific credentials. It disturbs us that she’s given all these opportunities to make her pitch about vaccines on Oprah or Larry King or U.S. News or whatever. We have to scramble to get equal time—and who wants to see a gray-haired pediatrician talking about a serious topic like childhood vaccines when she’s out there blasting the academy and blasting the federal government?

And he has a very valid point. Most people don’t want to listen to him, or other experts like him. Fans of evidence like myself might, but the average person will be happy having the Playboy model tell them bad science.

Of course there’s no massive conspiracy among scientists, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies to poison children. There’s zero evidence that vaccines have anything to do with autism at all. The whole thing has been completely debunked, but you wouldn’t know it from watching television. Why? Why isn’t the evidence the final word on this? Can’t we just agree that McCarthy is a nutcase and move on?

It’s easy to claim that people are just uneducated about the science. Tayloe hints at this, claiming that one of the fundamental causes of the problem is that those bearing evidence are not given adequate screen time alongside the nutcases. This certainly an important point to make, but I doubt it is the true cause of the continued confusion on this and similar debates.

If I had to point out the real root of the problem, I’d say it has more to do the people themselves that represent both positions. Like Tayloe said above, the evidence-based side is represented by “gray-haired pediatricians,” while the new-age side is represented by actors, models, and celebrities. Picture a “gray-haired pediatrician” next to a Playboy model on television, and you get the idea. It seems average people will take the word of celebrities over the word of scientists any day.

And that brings me to the question I asked in the title of this post. I asked it because I really don’t know the answer.  I thought it might be that people feel the celebrities are more like themselves, but that’s demonstrably false for the average person. It could be a distrust of intellectuals (as seems to be common among the politically conservative), but I don’t understand the cause of that either, so it just pushes the problem back.

Perhaps I’ll never know. But what do we do about it? Fighting the symptoms seems to be the best we can do at this point — do our best to educate people about the science, get experts on television next to the idiots, etc. It may not address the root of the problem, but it seems to be the least we can do.

About probabilityZero

I'm a rather boring, geeky college student. Most of my time is spent at a computer, reading a book, or sitting in (mostly uninteresting) classes. My hobbies include reading, blogging, creating and running websites, creating amateur video games, arguing incessantly on discussion forums, and buying books on amazon.com because I'm too lazy to go to the library.
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3 Responses to Why do people believe celebrities instead of experts?

  1. wwwww says:

    i don’t know if people go out of their way to avoid experts… its just that the experts arent showing up on the tonight show and if they are they dont express themselves as well as the celebrities

  2. Groovy J says:

    Generally, it’s far easier to understand someone’s arguments if you are smarter than them. The average person is smarter than Jenny McCarthy, but less smart than a doctor. Since people don’t like to think of themselves as stupid, if they are unable to understand a person’s argument they tend to dismiss it and pretend it never happened. The result is that even if you find yourself young, attractive doctors to appear on TV and argue for their position, they’ll still lose.

  3. Cynar says:

    Have you heard of the halo effect? In short, if someone looks good then they are assumed to be more knowledgeable than someone who looks less ‘attractive’. Combined with people not wanting to feel dumb and the science nerds are in trouble.

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