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06/27/2011

The Problem of Celebrity Medical Activism

In one sense, I will grant that celebrities, just as much as any other person on the planet, have a right to speak out in regard to whatever research or clinical issue they feel passionate about. Arguably many of them have done a tremendous service to conditions like juvenile diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, spinal cord injuries and ALS.

However, in most of these cases described above, the celebrity-cum-advocate has been effected by the condition themselves, have spent a significant amount of time dealing with the condition, and as a result are knowledgeable about the current state of scientific and medical research. Think Michael J. Fox, Christopher Reeve, or Mary Tyler Moore.

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And then there are those celebrities who do not fit this bill. The very first that comes to mind is Jenny McCarthy. The anti-vaccination screed by this “warrior mother” has continued on long after the scientific research has, fairly conclusively, said that we have little to fear when it comes to vaccines causing autism. Arguably, it diverts attention from focusing research time and dollars on the more likely causes of autism. But because she is a celebrity people still listen.

Most recently joining the ranks of celebrity medical advocates is Russell Crowe. Never one to back down from a fight, physical or otherwise, Crowe has donated monies to multiple controversial and non-controversial causes in his day. Still, his most recent comments on the “barbarism” of male circumcision take the cake. While arguably few are taking his Twitter rant too seriously, some have asked, in print, “Is Russell Crowe right about male circumcision?” His sheer celebrity has elevated the male circumcision debate overnight. But why? I think the logic goes something like this: “How could the fine actor from movies like “The Insider” and his band “Russell Crowe and The Ordinary Fear of God” (formerly “30 Odd Foot of Grunts”) be wrong?” The answer: very very easily.

Ultimately, people, including celebrities, will say what they want–particularly on Twitter–and they have every right to. But celebrity’s opinions, even went they consist of rants on Twitter or an incoherent blog, seem to matter to the rest of us. They give us pause, rightly or wrongly. But before any of the rest of us give them too much credence, check to see if their views match with the medical literature or are justified in ANY way.

Celebrities are not medical experts, even if they have played one on TV or pretend to be.

Summer Johnson McGee, PhD

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