Timothy Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, said the influence celebrities have on society can result in damage on those who look up to them.
He told a Humber audience on Nov. 4 that misconceptions were being spread about health, dieting and even personal hygiene. He said it was part of a clash between celebrity culture and science.
Caulfield, who is also a Professor in the Faculty of Law and School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, devoted his studies to the ethical issues of medical research and pseudoscience.
“I think you can make an argument [that] never have we seen so much misinformation being spread,” he said. “It really speaks to the need for more critical thinkers.”
In Caulfield’s lecture, he continuously brought up celebrities who preach medical procedures, both ancient and modern, that have been scientifically proven to be either ineffective or more hazardous than healthy.
“I hear it every day on my Twitter feed, it’s ancient, it’s been around forever, and therefore it works, which is not necessarily the case. This may be a reason to investigate it more but it doesn’t prove its effectiveness,” he said.
Caulfield covered an ancient medical procedure known as the phenomenon of cupping, where special cups are applied to the skin to create suction and is said to help with pain, inflammation, blood flow, relaxation and well-being as a type of deep-tissue massage.
This is a therapy many celebrities and athletes have preached about working for them, from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Caulfield said there is no scientific evidence that shows cupping works.
“Just because something has been around for a long time, does not necessarily mean it’s efficacious,” he said.
Caulfield also credited one celebrity in particular for helping him with his studies and writing a national bestseller.
“Thank you, Gwyneth,” said Caulfield, after joking that Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress and socialite, is the reason his book became so successful.
In his award-winning book, Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Caulfield tried out celebrity-recommended beauty routines and debunked them, giving the scientific side to each procedure.
Paltrow owns a Goop, a website that has wellness newsletters and also collaborates with high-end fashion brands to sell merchandise.
“On this website, she gives a whole bunch of ridiculous bits of health advice,” said Caufield about Paltrow’s website. “I go on it every day. I know what she’s up to. It’s always something wacky.”
Paltrow has faced criticism for promoting and selling products and treatments that have no scientific basis and are recognized by medical establishments as harmful or misleading.
Caulfield said many of these misconceptions could be avoided if people just thought critically before going through with these treatments.
Nathan Radke, professor of Cultural Theory, emceed the event and said he teaches the same ideas of critical thinking that Caulfield spoke about.
“This lecture is so important because it teaches the dangers and the effects that pop culture have on society,” he said. “I’ve been covering the importance of critical thinking in my conspiracy theories course, it’s crucial.”
Caulfield also spoke about celebrity culture and vaccinations. With celebrities like actress Jenny McCarthy claiming vaccines cause autism in children, vaccination rates have significantly dropped.
According to a study published last year by PLOS Currents, a health research website, about 27 per cent of Canadian parents have some degree of vaccination hesitancy that is tied to the autism myth.
Caulfield said, however, vaccines have helped more than they harmed.
“I think you can make a very strong claim that vaccines are the single greatest achievement of biomedicine. They save millions of lives every single year,” he said.
Caulfield said the World Health Organization announced an outbreak of measles in the United States and Europe. He said this was due to the misinformation that celebrity anti-vaxxers offer the public.
Kathy Blain, a second-year student in Humber’s paralegal program who is also a mother, said vaccinating her children just seemed like the obvious thing to do.
“I had all my vaccinations done so it felt like the right thing to do in getting my kids vaccinated,” she said.
“Not just because they have to be vaccinated for school or extracurricular activities, it’s mainly and most importantly about their health.