About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Podcast teaser: “Celebrities” and the damage they can do

by Massimo Pigliucci
If the recent hoopla about the royal wedding wasn’t enough to remind you, we do live in a culture of celebrity, one where famous people (pretty much regardless of why they are famous) command our attention and often pontificate on things they know nothing about.
Obvious examples include the British crown itself, for instance with the nonsense spewed out by Prince Charles about “alternative” (i.e., not evidence based) medicine. And then there is former model and one-woman new-science practitioner 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 genius-turned-crank 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) on the grounds that they haven’t helped their own research of late (thereby committing the elementary philosophical fallacy of category mistake).
What is going on here? I mean, we all make mistakes and say stupid things once in a while (I’ve done it at least twice in my life, back in 1973...). But 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? Join the discussion here before Julia and I tape the next episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast.


  1. I'm not sure how much celebrities really convince people to believe in anything. I think their main function in promoting ridiculous ideas is just increased exposure. For example, I doubt anyone thinks, even unconsciously "Jenny McCarthy believes vaccines cause autism, so it's probably true." Celebrities just happen to be in a beneficial position of having media attention, so they can talk about whatever they want, and there's a certain segment of the population that's receptive to the ideas. They're just increasing the overall number of people that get exposed to the idea.

  2. Well, nobody is in the mind of the others, so I guess it is quite difficult to attack this problem. Probably the best we can do, appart from discuss about it, it's to become more critic, and promote a critic approach to the others.

    On the other hand, I agree that all opinions are not equally valid, but we should not ban non-specialists to have an opinion. Otherwise, it could happen that as only the experts can give an opinion, they will give always an opinion in favour of themselves. For instance, take nuclear energy.

    If only the experts can give a valid opinion, so, only theirs should be taken into account, and at the same time, they work in/for the sector, then most likely, they will not take into account more aspects than their own. And this is not good neither.

    Even in the entry, there are obvious examples in the beginning, but we end with more difficult ones.

  3. I think that a lot of celebrities, including scientists, want to be edgy or innovative. They want to show that they are even smarter than what we perceive them to be. They are ego driven and sometimes just get tired of working withing their own discipline (if you are a scientist) or become irrelevant (in the case of Jenny Mccarthy) and need more public attention.

    I think that people need to realize that just because someone is famous or smart in one field, does not make himor her an authority on another field.

    I also wonder what do you think about Noam Chomsky. He gained fame and credit in one field, but also write in other fields, namely politics. You can agree or disagree with his political views but at least they are well thought and articulate. Nonetheless, would we pay attention to what he has to say if he wasn't a famous linguistic? Should we listen to what he has to say more than others because of it?

  4. Oscar,

    Massimo has not counseled that we censor speech. Rather, among other things, he counsels that one ought not to grant much epitemic weight (credence) to non-experts or the uninformed.

    Re: Nuclear energy.

    Many, indeed most, of the relevant experts in the field are neither affiliated with nor financially invested in the commercial nuclear power industry. However, even if they were, that alone ought not to give one cause to doubt seriously their research and findings.

    Having said that, as an exercise, apply your comment to the medical research field, observe the similarity your comment shares with comments made by, e.g., homepaths, and then ask yourself if you wish to proceed.

  5. I agree with Stephen Hawking about Philosophy. Unless you're going to do your own colonoscopies, it's best to take your head out of your arse.

  6. This topic is related to the reason why I had the cable disconnected from our house. It was primarily an effort to control the the flow of [what I perceive to be] sewage into the heads of my children, forcing them to seek more productive means of entertainment (i.e. reading).

    The Bureau of Labor's statistics show that the average working parent spends approximately 1 hour each day commuting to and from work, 8.7 hours a day at work, 2.6 hours a day watching TV (or performing other leisure activities), 1.1 hours a day eating, 1.2 hours a day caring for their children, and 1.1 hours a day performing various household duties. This leaves them with only 18 minutes a day for everything else. Perhaps this further explains the "Bayesian" problem discussed in a previous post.

    It disturbs me that we spend more hours a day consuming "intellectual junk food" than we spend developing our children. From my perspective, the best advise we could give, to ourselves and the public, would be to stop spending 1000+ hours a year essentially asleep in front of TV sets.

    SOURCE: http://alturl.com/haetq

  7. There may be a connection between a fans desire to emulate a famous figure, and believing the best or the quickest way to do so is through indiscriminate imitation of their thoughts and ideas.

  8. Subject all those to the lash of public calumny who propose that there's some certainty of wisdom gained from the experience of being celebrated.
    Or not.

  9. Just twice, huh? Such humility!

    I'm looking forward to this one. I hope you also discuss celebrities who do good, or at least try to do good, with their celebrity - Bono, Matt Damon, George Clooney.

    As for celebrities who do (some) good, Bill Maher is especially disappointing, because apart from his medical woo, he's right on about many things.

  10. Considering that you are something of a celebrity among skeptics (getting invited to speak at TAM and whatnot) I can't see that you'd be complaining about the phenomenon of celebrity in general, especially since it might help you sell books which I believe is a goal of yours yes?

    So celebrities talking out of their fields is the problem then? Well according to your wikipedia page you would then be well qualified to speak about genetics, botany, and the philosophy of science and that's about it unless there are other relevant undergraduate degrees which are not listed there (in which case you might want to have someone list them so you can get cred). I am not seeing any degrees in cultural studies or political science there and I have noted the presence of those subject here.

    Personally I think celebrities get drunk on the attention and come to believe that whatever they say is both insightful and important. I don't think this is likely to change any time in the near future though. As someone who does not venerate any celebrities I have come to understand just how alone I am in that among others of my species.

    Sounds like you were taking Hawking's statement personally Massimo. If it is any consolation I have a degree in physics and follow it as a hobby, but I really don't know what Hawking has actually done aside from write a couple of books. Certainly the Standard Model is still king just like it was when I got my degree in the late eighties. Still no anti-gravity, hyperspacial travel or even fusion for that matter. Obviously he hasn't brought on any revolutions in physics ala Einstein.

  11. I believe it is because people have not been taught how to think critically. Instead, they go by rote, which makes them no better than sheep--which is why it is easy for them to follow nonsense blindly.

    If it was up to me, philosophy and logic would be taught in elementary school.

  12. Yes, all too true and to the great unwashed, very dangerous. I myself was shocked at Hawking's comments about philosophy and his fallacious reasoning. Science and philosophy are close bedfellows and I believe the two should always be in close proximity to each other.

  13. Gil, I think Chomsky has gained credit in political science by way of his scholarship, one certainly doesn't have to have a degree in everything one writes about (or, in fact, any degree at all) so long as one doesn't endorse nonsense.

    LadyAtheists, I'm always surprised at that kind of comment. First off, by that reasoning, we shouldn't be doing music, painting, or just about anything that doesn't lead to practical outcomes like colonoscopies. Second, Hawking's own research is utterly useless if judged by that standard, and yet we (rightly) value it.

    Camus, I sincerely hope you got that my comment about having being wrong twice in my life was a joke ;-) The actual number is too high to count.

    Thameron, again my argument is certainly not that one should write only about his/her own technical field. It is that one should not exploit a celebrity status to talk nonsense. Besides, it is well known that philosophers are experts at everything... (joke!)

    Baron, once again, I don't filter anything unless it contains death threats or gratuitous insults. If the post didn't go through there must have been something wrong on yours or Blogger's side.

  14. The first thingy that comes to my mind is Sacramento's newly named Power Balance Pavilion. Shaq and other notable athletes wear their magic bracelet that helps them play sports better and that deff enters the minds of other athletes who copy them. So much so, Suckramento accepted Power Balance's money and gave them naming rights to what was our woo free stadium. What can we do...keep blogging and informing the peeps. Awesomeness.


  15. "But why do so many people listen to Jenny McCarthy?"

    Celebrity breeds false familiarity and authority so the famous have our intimate attention by default. The only other people in our lives with this type of power are parental figures and close friends. That being said, I would wager that those who listen to Jenny McCarthy, either are, or have a predilection for, semi-articulate bimbos.

  16. Well for what its worth I agree they shouldn't, but how would you stop them? The press hangs on every word, gesture and wardrobe choice that celebrities make so you can't realistically expect them to be a filter. And it isn't like there is a basic logic and reasoning test that is required to become a celebrity. Far from it.

    I see the problem pretty clearly, but the solution is a bit less visible, perhaps we should have rationality police like Saudi Arabia has religious police. That would certainly change our culture a bit. Imagine getting fines for logic infractions.

    "Sorry ma'am that was an illegal use of an ad hominem attack within city limits that will be a $50 fine."

  17. I also think that there is something of a reinforcement issue with celebrities. The fact that they are "celebrities" implicitly signifies that they are better at something than you (even if it's not true, that is not relevant. What is perceived is what is important).
    Then they have a certain position about something. Whatever. Just like any of us. But if you are looking for something to reinforce your conviction, well, there you have somebody that shares your conviction and he/she is also famous. Therefore you are "right".
    Then you give feedback to that famous person (probably not as an individual, but as a group, think the antivacs and Jenny), telling that famous person "hey, we agree with you, you are right, and also awesome". Therefore the famous person is reinforced in their position.
    And there you have it, a mutually assured reinforcement that uses cognitive dissonance to resonate even stronger, to the point that the famous person or his/her fans can't really come back from what they said (I always wondered how many famous people really think what they are supposed to support, and how many have to pretend just because it's convenient to do it or too humiliating/harmful not to.
    One of the implicit premises of this teaser is that the celebrities should behave differently. Why is that? Aren't they exactly as human as we are? The difference is that when I say something stupid, there are only 2-3 friends of mine around, so I can always go back on my words. When a celebrity does that, they have millions and millions listening.
    We should put much more responsibility on our shoulders and not on theirs. Saying that they have extra power because they have a popular position and we are susceptible to that may be like saying that you killed somebody because you heard the Beatles records in reverse (j/k) or that you voted for Bush because the homeless person in your neighborhood was shouting slogans for Obama.

  18. @Dan, What is your problem with what Hawking said?

  19. The reason I think Stephen Hawking is making a fair statement is that most philosophers STILL talk about objective existence as if there is a single reality, determinism as if A causing B may not imply that B causes A, and other goodies. Heck, we can even revisit Zeno's paradox and say this proves that movement of any kind is an illusion. I have not read his exact words, but I hope it was a gentle chiding, cause do philosophers do really get a bum rap.

  20. A bit of an aside perhaps, but Zeno's paradox is more a paradox of our mathematics than of our philosophy. The pragmatists among us watch us move with deliberate speed and purpose, present point to chosen future point, and know intuitively that if in the process we could pass no slower objects, there'd be no objects passing us as well.
    The mathematical assumption/premise more common to physicists is the traditional and virtually unquestioned acceptance that all nature is a mathematical construct, necessarily divisible into increments, and thus if one must pass from increment to increment to move forward, there's always one increment that's left ahead to pass by this measure.
    But since the assumption is factually incorrect in that increments are a fictional concept, we in our guise as philosophers pass each other physically and move from point to point with (often misdirected) ease in our present state of philosophically enhanced reality.

  21. Dave,

    I don't know which philosophical literature you read, but I assure you that no professional philosopher is discussing Zeno's paradox as a current problem. And Hawking dismissed the entire field of philosophy on the grounds that hasn't contribute to science of late, which makes just as much sense as dismissing literature or music for the same reasons. It was a and example of anti-intellectualism by someone who ought to have known much better.

  22. Well other than the work of Dennett, Chalmers, Kripke and a few others, what HAS modern philosophy done lately? I do not know what Hawking's particular beef was, but I sort of feel that philosophy should precede science. Maybe it is the other way around. New findings sometimes force a change to our philosophies, and THAT certainly is the case today. Maybe Hawking is lamenting lack of the current pool of leading thinkers to speak more strongly with a clear voice.

    Zeno's paradox is most certainly a new problem for anyone who thinks movement, like time, is tangible. Both the calculus and findings in quantum science tell us that nothing is smooth. Smooth stuff is simply a series of like discontinuities, film images etc. I do agree with you and Baron that this one is not so much about philosophy, but my earlier point was - someone somewhere better start talking about existence. And publish.

  23. Dave,

    c'mon man. That's like saying that science hasn't done anything lately other than the work of Hawking, Dawkins and Greene. Because that's all one has heard in the press. And Dawkins hasn't been a practicing biologist for decades. (Just like Chalmers I think of more as a buffoon than a serious philosopher.)

    And by "what has it done?" what do you mean? Empirical discoveries? That would commit the same fallacy as Hawking. By the way, what has Shakespearian scholarship done recently, or history? Why don't we close those department in shame as well?

  24. No I did not think philosophy was too concerned with empirical discoveries.

    One philosophical accomplishment would be the a reconstruction of the world in monistic terms, putting both physicalism and dualism in the rear-view mirror. Right now it is being passed. Still, am sympathetic to those who say we need dualism to account for the unknown things. But my claim is that its a matter of shared knowledge vs. private knowledge.

  25. I wanted to throw out a comment in regards to the has philosophy contributed to science discussion. In the podcast Massimo pointed out that philosophical theories are often grounded in science, and then responded to Julia's criticism that they take and don't give by discussing philosophical and scientific collaboration. I think this point should be emphasized; an example outside the field of metaphysics that comes to mind is O'Regan and Noe's BBS article on perception and consciousness. Scientists often need the help of philosophers to think through ideas, especially when dealing with issues that span multiple disciplines.

    But I also want to mention a more broad way in which philosophers influence or contribute to science. Simply, scientists read books. They read philosophy. They are influenced by ideas that effect their world view in a broad sense, and even their thoughts on particular subject matter. A physicist may then go and follow a certain line of research, explore a certain hypothesis, that leads to a breakthrough, and they were very much influenced by the philosophy that shaped their ideas.

    Science is not this completely objective thing carried about by computers, if it was, we wouldn't need scientists anymore. And scientists don't make breakthroughs because they follow some simple closed system cause and effect process. They are embedded in a much larger system, of which philosophy is an integral part.

  26. http://www.philosophynow.org/issue82/Hawking_contra_Philosophy

    A philosopher trying to understand Hawking's criticism and chiding his fellow philosophers to "think before you speak".

  27. @scadza
    This article is available to subscribers only.
    Perhaps you could give an excerpt or two here as to what has been unthinkingly spoken.


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