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Timothy Caulfield

Timothy Caulfield on Elle Macpherson, Anti-Vaxx, and the Opportunity to Engage

An unrivaled communicator, Professor Timothy Caulfield is well-known for debunking myths and assumptions about innovations in the health sector, particularly when it comes to fads perpetuated by celebrity culture.

He is currently a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. From research on stem cells to diets to alternative medicine, Professor Caulfield sets the record straight.

After hearing that well-known model Elle Macpherson may be dating a disgraced anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist, he took the opportunity to call on scientists, public health advocates, and healthcare professionals to use celebrity culture as a means to get science-informed content in front of people.

In an article for the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal), he wrote, “Research has consistently demonstrated that celebrity culture can have a broad impact on health-related decisions and attitudes”, and “We need to use these cultural moments as an opportunity to spread engaging, science-informed content.”

Below is a segment from his article, read the whole piece here.

Celebrity gossip can be fun. Whether it is about the name of Kim and Kanye’s latest child (Chicago West), Ben Affleck’s odd body art decisions (a massive back tattoo of a phoenix), or Tom Brady’s head-shaking dietary choices (no coffee!), following the foibles of the famous can be an enjoyable distraction.

But when celebrities engage in the spreading of harmful pseudoscience, it is (vastly) more frustrating than fun. My reaction to the recent gossip that model Elle Macpherson is dating Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced antivaxx conspiracy theorist, fell squarely in the category of eye-rolling angst.

In the context of health it may seem wise to simply disregard celebrity culture. Anyone foolish enough to be swayed by the health advice of actors, models, singers, and reality TV stars is likely beyond help. Indeed, this is a sentiment I’ve heard often during the years I’ve spent exploring the influence of celebrity culture. While it is an understandable perspective (why would someone get a colonic simply because Gwyneth Paltrow told them to?) it is both wrong and short sighted.

We need to use these cultural moments as an opportunity to spread engaging, science-informed content. This is a valuable, while-I-have-your-attention opportunity.

It is true that simply dumping more and more scientific facts on people will rarely change opinions. But there is evidence that rational argumentation and creative communication strategies, particularly those using narratives to the relevant audience, can have a measurable impact. Recent research has found that even a good, well-argued Op Ed can influence public opinion.

I am fully aware of the paradox that writing about the need to forcefully debunk the pseudoscience that often flows from celebrity culture also gives these individuals more exposure, which may, in turn, allow them to spread their harmful pseudoscience. It is, no doubt, a tough balance. But, in the long run, it seems essential to set the scientific record straight. Celebrities aren’t going away. And, thanks to social media, the public interest in their lives will likely only intensify. Scientists, public health advocates and healthcare professionals must use creative strategies to become part of the conversation.

So, let’s view the emergence of this pseudoscience “supergroup” as an excuse to circulate engaging information that injects science and critical thinking into the pop culture ether.

In his engaging and humorous talks, Professor Caulfield examines what science tells us about the influence of popular culture and debunks common health myths while providing practical, evidence-based recommendations relevant to both healthcare professionals and individuals seeking to live a healthy lifestyle.

Interested in learning more about Professor Caulfield and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at info@speakers.ca.