Salon has a new piece by Daniel D’Addario decrying the female celebrities who have turned to touting woo; these include, of course, Jenny McCarthy, Suzanne Somers (who I wasn’t aware was promoting a ton of hormone and pill therapy to forestall aging), but also Mariel Hemingway and Mary Steenburgen, who seem to be pushing less harmful “lifestyle” stuff. (Steenburgen, for instance, had some minor surgery which, she claims, suddenly made her able to play the accordion. That reminds me of the old joke about the guy who was having a hand operation and asked his physician, “Doc, will I be able to play the piano after this operation?” The doc says, “Yes, of course—your hand will be just as flexible as before.” “Great!” replies the patient, “Because I can’t play it now.”)
Somers’s regimen, however, sounds dire:
And, most infamously, there’s Suzanne Somers, the author of some 24 books largely on the topic of wellness; her concept of wellness involves filling the body with hormones in order to fool the body into thinking it is not experiencing menopause. As shown on “Oprah,” Somers takes 60 pills a day, as well as injecting hormones into her vagina and rubbing them into her skin. The one-time “Three’s Company” actress has questioned the efficacy of chemotherapy as she promotes medical treatments not subject to the strict scientific method evaluation as, say, traditional medicine.
Somers, of course, sells the hormones on her site. She was also invited to write a “Experts” column on Obamacare for the Wall Street Journal, for crying out loud, and did such a bad job that the paper has had to issue three separate corrections (you can read her piece here). What was the WSJ thinking? Well, they’re conservative, of course, and I suppose they thought they’d get attention by getting Chrissy to diss Obama.
We all know about Jenny McCarthy and her anti-vaccination campaign based on phony research and lies, but she now has a voice on the talk show “The View” (I’ve never watched it), which reaches millions of female viewers. You’ve also probably seen the “Anti-Vaccine body count” site, which totes up the number of preventable illnesses and deaths that have occurred because of anti-vaxers like McCarthy. Of course the estimate is rough, but here are the figures from a few minutes ago:
Why are these woo-pushers often ageing female actors? D’Addario has an interesting answer, which may well be partly correct:
Would Somers be as passionate about hormone-replacement therapy if she weren’t booked on the sort of talk shows her acting career can no longer get her with every outré statement? If she weren’t enlisted by the Wall Street Journal to write an “Experts” column denouncing Obamacare — one that’s already received three corrections and that substantially misrepresents the government program? (If you’ve noticed that the figures this piece focuses on are exclusively female, that may be because Hollywood didn’t boot out George Clooney — or John Larroquette — once he hit a certain age. Women have fewer opportunities to get attention and income solely from their acting.)
That sort of sexism is almost certainly real, but I’d much prefer that the superannuated actresses tout less harmful stuff (Cindy Crawford is one example, doing skin care informercials that for some reason fascinate me, making me unable to leave the t.v. when they’re on. They’re funny, as they feature a sleazy French doctor who has discovered the “secret of youthful skin” in extracts from cantaloupes. The products are called “Meaningful Beauty” and have LOLzy, faux French names like Crème de Sérum.)
But what McCarthy and Somers do, whatever their reasons, is damaging to others. I can’t imagine that it’s useful to inject hormones into one’s vagina or take 60 pills per day, and Somers is no “expert” on Obamacare. I’ll let Salon take down the odious McCarthy:
But Somers’ and McCarthy’s statements have real human cost: as Salon wrote in 2009, Somers takes her information from sources “many of whom are neither experts in women’s health or endocrinology, nor board-certified physicians, nor experienced researchers.” McCarthy’s anti-vaccine rhetoric, which has helped to erode the sort of herd immunity that prevents disease outbreak, is based on a discredited medical study retracted by medical journal the Lancet; the talk show host has alleged a coordinated media campaign by vaccine manufactures. Somers’ Wiley Protocol was designed by a self-styled “molecular biologist” who only holds a B.A. in anthropology and has been criticized by medical doctors for lack of proof of efficacy.
Finally, D’Addario speculates about why this Celebrity Woo attracts so much attention:
These actresses’ work lies at the intersection of two uniquely American desires: the love of celebrity and the distrust of academic authority. The reflexive distrust of orthodoxy — as demonstrated by Somers’ dismissal of Obamacare with half-remembered or made-up anecdotes that merit a Journal correction, or by her claims that she knows more than those fuddy-duddy doctors, or McCarthy’s imagining a global conspiracy against the truths she alone can figure out — has been a part of American life since snake-oil wagons rambled through towns. Americans know better than the medical establishment — no wonder TV’s Dr. Oz, with his throw-everything-at-the-wall approach to treatment, is so popular, or why visualizing wealth is a popular thought system despite no non-anecdotal proof it works, or why it’s so easy for some minds to leap to “death panels” when imagining a nationalized healthcare system.
This attitude, expressed by parents who treat their sick kids with prayer rather than conventional medicine, comes up repeatedly in the book I’m reading: When Prayer Fails, by Shawn Francis Peters. (I recommend it as both a good history of spiritual “therapy” and a horrifying account of its damage.) Over and over again you read about these parents and their pastors arguing not only that medicine can’t be trusted, but is in fact a tool of Satan. “God is the best healer,” they say. In the case of McCarthy, it’s close to the same thing: Western medicine is in a conspiracy to hide the autism-inducing effects of vaccines, and no evidence to the contrary will convince her.
The more I hear about this woo, and the anti-science attitudes behind it, the more I see a strong parallel with religiously based woo, including not only creationism but the “prayer therapy” I wrote about yesterday. Both religion and McCarthy-eque woo make empirical claims but distrust real science, tout other ways of healing based completely on “faith,” and depend heavily on celebrities (in the religion case, celebrity “healers” like Oral Roberts). In fact, the more I think about it, the more I see religion as a pseudoscience: for it makes claims about the world and shows many of the characteristics of classic pseudoscience like UFOlogy and Bigfoot-ism; these include truth claims that are often couched in ambiguous language, poor standards of evidence, the adherence to unfalsifiable claims, arguments that the scientific method can’t be used (“you can’t test the supernatural”), the acceptance of questionable data as “proof,” and the rejection of replication, outside verification, and disconfirming data by special pleading. Finally, both pseudoscientific and religious woo have clear emotional motivations.
Yep, religion is a pseudoscience.