I have to admit, I’m not the biggest follower of popular culture. I couldn’t pick a Kardashian out of a crowd if my life depended on it. I don’t know who Brad Pitt is currently married to, if he’s married. And I have no idea how many kids Natalie Portman has, if she has any at all. (In full disclosure, I was blanking on names and pulled up People.com to find some examples.)
While I appreciate the music, films, and TV shows that celebrities produce, I’ve never devoted much mental energy to following their personal lives. And I certainly don’t turn to them for advice on, well, anything. But a lot of people do.
Parents Magazine recently published an article called, “Where 13 Celebrity Parents Stand on Vaccinating Their Kids” (intentionally not linked, but you can find it if you must). As you might imagine, not all of their opinions were grounded in science. This may seem innocent enough at first glance, but Parents has an enormous audience, with 2.1 million followers on Facebook and 4.7 million on Twitter. Using that platform to spread myths about vaccines makes parents worry more, makes it more difficult for physicians to do our jobs to keep kids healthy, and may very well result in illnesses or deaths that could have been prevented.
This article was met with an appropriately aggressive backlash on social media from the medical and scientific community, and Parents responded a couple days later with the following tweet:
Readers, we’ve heard you and are updating the article to be clear we fully support vaccinations as well as those celebrities who do as well. Find additional information about why parents should vaccinate here: [with a link to a 2015 article written by science journalist Tara Haelle with input from several physicians].
What Parents failed to do was to remove the original article. They did edit it slightly, including whittling the list of celebrities down from 13 to 11. But even in its edited form, the original article still perpetuates some dangerous misinformation. Here are some examples:
Kristen Cavallari: Regarding her decision not to vaccinate her son, Cavallari is quoted as saying: “At the end of the day, I’m just a mom. I’m trying to make the best decision for my kid.”
Mayim Bialik: Bialik’s stance on vaccines is unclear. She has stated in the past that hers is a “non-vaccinating family,” but Parents quotes a more recent tweet: “dispelling rumors abt my stance on vaccines. i’m not anti. my kids are vaccinated. so much anger and hysteria. i hope this clears things up [sic].” It’s unclear how “vaccinated” they are.
Alicia Silverstone: “While there has not been a conclusive study of the negative effects of such a rigorous one-size-fits-all, shoot-’em-up schedule, there is increasing anecdotal evidence from doctors who have gotten distressed phone calls from parents claiming their child was ‘never the same’ after receiving a vaccine.” But not only has there never been a study that showed negative effects, there have been a lot of studies that conclusively showed a benefit.
Jenny McCarthy: “In a 2010 interview with Frontline, McCarthy blamed her son’s condition on the the MMR shot he received as a baby, among other vaccines.” Parentsomits that McCarthy, despite her insistence that she is not anti-vaccine, has played a large role in popularizing the myth that vaccines cause autism.
Beneath the quotes from these celebrities, Parents adds quotes from people who actually know what they are talking about, like Paul Offit, MD (a vaccine researcher and chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and Neal Halsey, MD (the director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University), among several others. This strategy appears to have been an attempt to “balance” the anti-vaccine opinions, but what it actually does is to create a false equivalence between actresses and physicians who have dedicated their entire careers to studying life-saving medical interventions.
To be fair, the majority of the celebrities featured in the article (Kristen Bell, Jennifer Garner, Julie Bowen, Tia Mowry, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Amanda Peet, and Salma Hayek) — at least from what I can tell — are decidedly pro-vaccine. Some have even devoted some of their time, energy, and financial resources to promoting vaccines. And I do appreciate it when people with a platform use it for good.
But we would all be better off if we all realized that one’s celebrity status has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to think critically, examine evidence, and make rational decisions. A celebrity’s opinion about topics unrelated to their specific field is worth no more than anyone else’s — and worth a lot less than the opinions of experts in the field. I’m certainly not claiming that experts aren’t always right. But they’re far more likely to be right than those who know less about the field–especially when their opinions are backed up by mountains of scientific evidence.
It’s dangerous to rely on celeb-sperts for medical advice. It’s dangerous to publish their opinions about vaccines as if they carry any more weight than the opinions of any other parent. And Parents Magazine: It’s irresponsible to allow inaccurate information about a life-or-death topic to remain on your website so that you can make money from ad clicks.
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