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RS34 - Celebrities and the Damage They Can Do

Release date: May 8, 2011

If the recent hoopla about the royal wedding wasn’t enough to remind you, we live in a culture of celebrity, one where famous people command our attention and often pontificate on things they know nothing about. Obvious examples include the nonsense spewed out by Prince Charles about alternative medicine, and the former model Jenny McCarthy and her dangerous notion that vaccines are harmful because they cause autism. But these, of course, are easy targets. What are we to make of Ray Kurzweil (he of Singularity fame), who recently co-authored a book with a homeopath? Or of otherwise savvy political commentator Bill Maher, who doesn’t trust vaccines or anything coming from “Western” medicine? And then there are highly respectable intellectuals, like Stephen Hawking, who write off entire fields of inquiry (philosophy, in his case), without apparently knowing much about them.

So what is going on here? Why do so many people listen to Jenny McCarthy? And why do so many bright minds go public with ridiculous notions? Is there a pattern? Can we do something to defend ourselves and the public from the celebrity attack on reason?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's un-pick:  "Proust Was a Neuroscientist"

Massimo's pick: "Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Superintelligence"

References (1)

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  • Response
    Response: Big Pharma
    Blogger PZ Myers occasionally makes reference to his disdain for comedian Bill Maher. This disdain stems largely from Maher’s cynicism aimed at western medicine. The Rationally Speaking Podcast jumped on a similar topic with this past week’s episode, when they discussed some of the dangers that can come about when a ...

Reader Comments (7)

The "Cyrano Project" sounds like a very interesting way to promote critical thinking and skepticism to a public audience. I'm into volunteering, so let me know if you ever need any minions for this. :-)

May 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCory Albrecht


Halo Effect: I definitely agree that in the case of certain personality traits like friendliness, kindness, etc., that the attractiveness halo effect definitely comes into play. But in the case of science or technical knowledge, there may be more of a "reverse halo" effect as far as attractiveness, where a tendency exists to trust experts who are less "attractive," following from the stereotypical nerdy or awkward scientist cultural construct.

Celebrity endorsements: It was just briefly talked about, but it sounded like the assumption that was being made was that because a celebrity endorses a particular product (beverage, apparel, car, etc.) and presumably doing so for money meant that people ought to not trust that endorsement as legitimate. Of course, some endorsements are surely only about the money. But could it also be the case that when, let's say, Michael Jordan, was being approached by the 5 shoe manufacturers that he chose to endorse the one that he either already used or performed the best.

Knowledge of other things: I also think there was a false assumption being made that just because someone doesn't have "expertise" in, a Doctorate in, etc. (e.g. being a Nobel Prize winner in Science talking about politics) that this should discredit them from being knowledgeable about another subject. Just as in the case of Bill Maher, a comedian, who has development himself as a social/political commentator. Couldn't the Nobel Prize in Science winner have a passion for a field outside of his/her "expertise?"--and hence develop themselves as a legitimate speaker of that subject. As much as I hate using her as an example, Jenny McCarthy could, though I disagree she has, become an "expert" of sorts by devoting herself to studying vaccine research on her own. Furthermore, such as person could actually further the debate based on their differing non-"expertise" perspective. Certainly, all expertise was born out of non-expertise at some point.

May 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersartre121

A comment on intelligence and current intelligence theory:

I felt like much of the discussion of intelligence and intelligence theory was somewhat dated, so I thought I would include a comment on this in the hopes to disseminate some more recent information about current intelligence theory and research.

First, I wanted to comment on methods. Few researchers today use the type of factor analysis discussed in the podcast to examine intelligence test data, which sounds like what is known as Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) and includes methods like principal components analysis. These methods use the observed correlations of tests to extract underlying factors from the data, and then a theory about what is measured is built up from the results. Rather, methods of Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) are commonly used now, where a theoretical structure of a set of tests must be created before the analysis occurs, and this method examines how well the theoretical structure fits the observed data (it compares the covariance matrix of the theoretical structure to the covariance matrix obtained from the data). CFA is a better method which requires one to start with a theoretical foundation, CFA can do what EFA does, but it is a more rigorous method and not based so much on chance relationships as EFA.

Many of the tests and techniques for measuring and understanding the structure of intelligence have changed dramatically in the past 20 years. There was some discussion of multiple intelligences (like emotional intelligence, or Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences), but I think a better understanding of this comes through thinking of these as Broad Cognitive Abilities. In 1993, John Carroll published a book (‘Human Cognitive Abilities’) in which he reanalyzed over 460 datasets from previous research which included a large variety of cognitive tasks. In a nutshell, he basically taxonomy of cognitive abilities and found that this huge variety of cognitive tasks measured about 10 broad intellectual abilities. Current tests (specifically the Woodcock-Johnson - Third Edition or the Differential Ability Scales - Second Edition) have used this as a theoretical model (known as CHC theory) to measure 7 broad intelligence factors: Comprehension-Knowledge, Fluid Intelligence, Processing Speed, Long-term retrieval, Short Term Memory, Visual Spatial Thinking, and Auditory Processing. Tests like the Woodcock-Johnson include over 50 different tasks which can be combined to measure these different Broad Cognitive Abilities, as well as academic skills. Additionally, all of these Broad Cognitive Abilities are also correlated, and it is possible to estimate a higher "g" factor above these broad factors as well.

Finally, a comment on "g", or general intelligence. Julia mentioned that she is not sure what general intelligence would look like or what it is - and frankly no one knows exactly what it is because it is very abstract. Each of the Broad Abilities mentioned above are more abstract than the tests which measure them, and g is an abstraction above the Broad Abilities. For example, if we want to measure "Visual Spatial Thinking", there is not a single test which measures this specifically, but there are several tasks, when combined, can give us a good estimate of this Broad cognitive ability (because it includes more narrow skills like visualization, visual memory, spatial relations). Common variance between individual tasks are used to estimate Visual Spatial Thinking. Then, the common variance between Visual Spatial Thinking and other Broad Cognitive Abilities can be used to estimate g. Once you get to this higher level, just about any set of cognitive tasks, even ones which are very different, can give you a measure of g. Additionally, these different measures of g are almost perfectly correlated when included in a CFA model. This does not suggest that g absolutely exists or we know exactly what it is, but the data suggest that there is a general processing factor which can account for the correlations between the Broad Cognitive Abilities mentioned above.

The history of intelligence testing and the use of tests has been ugly at times, and I definitely agree that is was poorly used when it came to the US from France. I believe these tests are being used in a more productive way today. For instance, the measurement and understanding of Broad Cognitive Abilities have been used to help understand the nature of several different disorders, including learning disabilities.

Sorry for the long response, I don't know how much this helps (it is probably just more confusing) but I think it is important to provide a little background on more current theory and research on intelligence. For those interested in more information, Dr. Kevin McGrew’s blog ( has a lot of information on CHC theory and the quantitative underpinnings of it.

May 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKid A

According to the new investigation, "a substantial number of children compensated for vaccine injury also have autism." There is clear evidence of a link between the two in some children. The Congress should hold hearings about the link. 4rx

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer @ 4x

Spencer, I believe the Congress will be holding hearings regarding the link. I hope that they can finally provide answers. buy xenical

November 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFlorence @ buy xenical
I believe similarly to what I think you guys were saying about why people believe what Celebrities are endorsing. I think Celebrities and other Famous people are such a huge part of our Culture that people preoccupy so much of their time around what is happening in the lives of the Rich & Famous. And in some way, this probably brings them more excitement, enjoyment in their own lives and therefore makes it easier to believe a lot of what they say because of all this invested time they already have previously given them.
November 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Children get most of their vaccines from birth to 15 months, and Autism usually presents around age 1 to 3. Autism just happens to present after the period of early infant vaccinations. Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Tetanus, and many others pathogens cause horrible disease to individuals and the general population. People should definitely vaccinate themselves and their children.

If Stephen Hawking said that philosophy has no value since he thinks Philosophy of Science adds nothing to science, he made a serious error. If Stephen Hawking said that all of Philosophy has no value, then he made a tremendous and really ridiculous error. Philosophy comprises the intellectual origin of all reason.

Confusing art with science certainly seems foolish.
February 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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