[Maria’s Intro: This is the first article in the brand new Celebrity Advice series. Since celebrities have the power to influence millions, in this series we’ll be evaluating their claims. Sometimes they steer us to the right direction or give us good ideas, but some other times they do the exact opposite. Let’s start today with Gwyneth Paltrow and GMOs. Enter Alison.]
Earlier this week, Gwyneth Paltrow teamed up with Just Label It and the Environmental Working Group calling for federal mandatory labeling on GMOs. Why mandatory labeling is not a good idea has already been written about extensively (here and here are good examples).
So instead of discussing labeling, let’s discuss 5 reasons why you shouldn’t listen to Gwyneth about GMOs (or anything related to science). Gwyneth Paltrow has previously supported:
- Vagina Steaming
- Auras and quantum physics
- Diet advice that’s a how-to guide to eating disorders
- Bee venom therapy
- Emotionally sensitive water
Now this is all a bit cheeky, but it highlights a serious issue and provides a teachable moment. Celebrities have the power to influence millions of people. They can use this power for good or for worse. The problem is that even if they mean well, they may still be just plain wrong.
Now regardless of what celebrities do, it’s important that we are educated enough so that we actually evaluate their claims.
How do you identify a reliable source for information about science-related issues?
Consumers are increasingly faced with a world where understanding scientific issues are important for everyday decisions – food choices, sunscreens, vaccines, I could go on and on. It can be overwhelming to try to understand the intricacies of each issue so it is important to be able to recognize who is a reliable source of information and who isn’t.
- A reliable source for science information needs to have a respect for evidence and an appreciation for the scientific process. They don’t need a degree in a scientific field. They don’t need to have ever worked in a lab. There are many amazing science communicators and advocates who don’t and haven’t. However, they do need to understand some basics and understand how science works.
- Effective science communicators back their statements up with citations to peer-reviewed, reputable journals. They confirm information with scientists. If a scientist or science communicator stops doing these things, you should point it out. Most will do more research to correct or confirm the information.
- The other side of this is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If a science communicator says something that goes against every scientific organization in the world, they must provide some very convincing evidence for why everyone else is wrong.
The International Food Information Council Foundation recently published a guide to identifying reliable and unreliable sources and Compound Interest’s “Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science” is also an excellent resource.
The problem with Gwyneth and other celebrities speaking up about issues like GMOs (and testifying before Congress on the topic, yikes!) is that they do none of these things. Gwyneth has consistently shown a complete disconnect from evidence-based reality. Like a good scientist, I have evidence to show you to demonstrate that she is an unreliable source on issues of science.
Evidence that Gwyneth’s understanding of science and health is at best – limited.
1) Vagina steaming
This past January, Gwyneth recommended vagina steaming to clean the uterus and balance female hormones.
The real golden ticket here is the Mugworth V-Steam: You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al. It is an energetic release—not just a steam douche—that balances female hormone levels. If you’re in LA, you have to do it.
This is not actually a good idea. I know, you’re shocked, just shocked. Doctors don’t recommend douching of any kind. Douching itself alters the pH, which affects the vaginal microbiome and can lead to yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. Add in the heat from both the steam and the infrared and this further disturbs the microbiome; heating above body temp (a perfect 37 degrees) allows the harmful bacteria that cause those infections to grow.
Besides increasing the risk for infections, it’s also implausible that this magical “mini-throne” alters hormones. Hormones are produced in the brain and ovaries and move through the blood to their target organs. A steamy vagina is not going to effect that.
2) Auras and quantum physics
Last October, Gwyneth shared a doozy of a post about trusting your gut. Except it wasn’t about food or digestion. It was about “intuition”. Except by intuition, she really meant being psychic and reading people’s auras. The psychic, I’m sorry, “intuitive,” she had on her page to answer questions explained that psychic powers are explained by quantum physics.
This has been discussed before in detail. Basically, she was referring to that false idea that radiation emitted by the human body can be detected on photographic film. This idea is nonsense: it’s just background radiation combined with the human tendency to see patterns where none exist (sometimes I think of the brain as a pattern recognition machine).
3) Diet advice that reads like a how-to guide to eating disorders
Her book “It’s All Good” should be called “It’s All Bad” because it pretty much tells you the way in which everything you are eating is making you sick. It’s also based on an array of pseudoscience about food sensitivities and inflammation. She also promotes cleanses on her website, which are a favorite of the pseudoscience crowd.
4) Bee venom therapy
On her blog, she recommends using apitherapy, or bee venom therapy because she had success using it to treat an “old injury”. There is no evidence that bee venom therapy is useful for anything and considering that 1-7% of people are allergic to bee stings and bee stings can cause anaphylaxis, it seems to be a bad bet to recommend that people try this.
There is currently no evidence showing the bee venom therapy is effective for treating anything – no benefit, potential harm. Some preliminary studies suggest it may work for pain, but these are very preliminary. Use of bee venom therapy for pain requires isolation of the active compound and then extensive testing to show that it is both safe and effective. We are a long way of from being able to recommend bee venom therapy for pain.
5) Emotionally sensitive water
According to Gwyneth, water is affected by the words you say to it. This is based on the work of Masura Emoto who claims that water molecules are physically altered by the words you say to it. (You may recognize these claims from Food Babe’s infamous microwave and Hitler water post.)
According to the doctor that Gwyneth quoted on her blog, since humans are 70% water and negativity can alter water molecules, “negative words resonates in your cells”. No. That is not how it works and a thorough attempt at replication shows that.
So, it’s pretty clear that Gwyneth’s grasp of basic scientific concepts is lacking. She doesn’t back up her statements with reputable, peer-reviewed citations. She relies on anecdotes. Her “experts” espouse veiws that are completely different from the scientific consensus and there is no extraordinary evidence to back them up.
Her utter disregard of science and scientific evidence makes her an unreliable source for anything remotely related to anything scientific. However, I’m an optimist.
An invitation to Gwyneth and other celebrities to talk to scientists.
Celebrities have a public voice and a public platform. I would love for Gwyneth and others to reach out to scientists and science communicators when they have concerns about scientific issues. I would love for celebrities to use their celebrity status to share evidence-based information instead of promoting pseudoscience and propaganda. I will echo the sentiment shared by Layla Katiraee in her open letter to Gwyneth Paltrow and Lena Dunham with my own invitation.
Gwyneth, I don’t think our goals are that different – safe food for our families, sustainable practices in agriculture and across the board, for example. But your advocacy is based on lies and misrepresentations. Instead of dedicating your time to promoting what will actually make achieving these goals harder, I urge you to meet with scientists, attend a conference, visit a lab.
Use your time and energy to understand the science before you form an opinion. This is how we can work together to promote practices that can really benefit society.
Have you ever been influenced by a celebrity towards the right or wrong direction? Post your experience in the comments!