Celebrity or scientist: Who do you believe?

Some celebrities are famous for having kooky ideas – think no further than Gwyneth Paltrow. But when these ideas potentially threaten the health of thousands of citizens, it can be a real challenge for issue managers and risk communicators.

Television chef Pete Evans seems to be emerging as the latest example of that age-old conflict between opinionated celebrities and experts who actually know the facts.

As one of the stars of Australia’s top rating My Kitchen Rules, Evans has long courted controversy with his promotion of the Paleo Diet. And that came to a head when a publisher had to withdraw and pulp a book he co-authored which suggested bone broth and chicken liver pate as superfoods for young babies.

But his continued claims that dairy strips calcium from your bones, that fluoride does not prevent cavities and that sunscreen is toxic, have now prompted the Australian Medical Association to issue a warning that his “extreme advice” endangers lives. “Celebrity chefs shouldn’t dabble in medicine.”

Managing Outcomes has no particular opinion about the veracity of his claims. But what makes this of special interest here is Evans’ stout defence of what has been called “celebration of ignorance.”

In an extraordinary TV interview, Evans was asked why he gave medical advice when he had no qualifications. “What do you need a qualification for to talk common sense? Why do you have to study something that is outdated, that is industry-backed, that is biased, that is not getting the results? That would be insane to study something that you’re gonna waste your time with? That’s just crazy.”

Evans is certainly not the first to take such a bold stance, and it’s ground which has been well travelled. However, as with anti-vaccine activists, anti-windfarm campaigners and others, such open antagonism towards science creates a major hurdle for issue managers and policy makers.

In an insightful essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs,* Tom Nichols wrote that people have reached the point where ignorance – at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge – is seen as an actual virtue.  “To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for people to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites – and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they are wrong,” he says.

“I fear we are moving beyond natural scepticism regarding expert claims, to the death of the ideal of expertise itself: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, teachers and students, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those with achievement in an area and those with none.”

The reality is that managing issues is hard enough at the best of times, and legitimate scientific disagreement makes it even more difficult.  But celebrity intervention in the face of scientific orthodoxy can make it virtually impossible.  And what’s the answer? While recognising that issues are by definition contentious and often revolve around emotion and unfounded opinion, never stray from the known facts and the testimony of genuine experts.

As Nichols concluded: “Experts are the people who know considerably more about a given topic than the rest of us. They don’t know everything, and they’re not always right, but they constitute a minority whose views on a topic are more likely to be right than the public at large.”

*”How America lost faith in expertise.” Tom Nichols, Foreign Affairs, 92 (2), March-April 2017.

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About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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