Friday, 28 December 2012 21:14

Just because you're famous, doesn't mean you're smart!


A long line of celebrities seem to jump out of their skins promoting all kinds of weird ' Science.'

And 'skins' is the operative word. At the end of each year, the people over at "sense about science" take a long hard look at the supposedly scientific assertions made by those people famous enough to be listened to and silly enough to NOT know any better.

This year's Sense About Science "Celebrities and Science 2012" celebration (if we can call it that) states:

Once again we have been charting the rise and fall of celebrity fads, endorsements and claims about science and evidence. We've asked scientists to review a selection of the dubious claims sent to us throughout the year. This is not just an opportunity to talk science to the latest fads - celebrity comments travel far and fast, so it's important that they talk sense about issues like dangerous dieting and medical treatments.

This year, specialists put people right on sports psychology, energy flow and dietary supplements. It's an invitation for famous figures to correct their reported comments. But really we'd rather they didn't get it wrong in the first place. We have over 5,000 specialists and hundreds of research organisations offering help to anyone in the public eye who wants to distinguish sound science and evidence from nonsense. It's just a phone call away.

They report that in 2011, Simon Cowell was promoting an intravenous vitamin craze, that this year Cheryl Cole and Rhianna were following; only that now Simon has moved on to pocket-sized oxygen shots.

Further, they note, "Meanwhile reports had January Jones taking dried placenta pills and Patsy Palmer rubbing coffee granules on her skin.

In this year's review we couldn't avoid the Olympics, inspiring everyone to be 'faster, higher, stronger'. If you, like us, wondered why so many sporting heroes were flaunting brightly coloured tape, read on for the science verdict.

And celebrities have taken us back to fundamental scientific principles in biochemistry, physics, geology and medicine in their comments on monkeys, aeroplanes, homeopathy and peeing in the pool.

But there is progress… For years we've challenged celebrity promotion of detox diets and immune 'boosting' products. This year, these long-time serial offenders have almost disappeared. Better still, in this review we are able to include celebrities - from actress Jennifer Aniston to comedian Al Murray - talking sense on food fads, vitamin supplements and alternative medicine. Gwyneth Paltrow has given up odd diets after suffering from malnutrition and others in the public eye have sought advice from Sense About Science and medical charities. Could it be that perhaps we are turning a corner?

To address a few of these weird claims, we'll permit a couple of scientists to speak.

According to Catherine Collins,Principal dietician at St. George's Hospital, "Nutritionally there's little to be gained from eating your placenta - raw, cooked or dried. Apart from iron (which can be easily found in other dietary choices or supplements) your placenta will provide toxins and other unsavoury substances it had successfully prevented from reaching your baby in utero."

Or, what about Professor Greg Whyte, sports scientist; "The manufacturers of Kinesio claim placement of the tape on the skin reduces pain and swelling in injured muscles. It's unclear how this can positively affect inflammation deep within the muscle. There is insufficient evidence to support its use over other more traditional treatments such as taping or strapping.

That said, this tape could have added placebo effect. In sport, anything that enhances performance, whether real or imagined, has its place. Any additional benefits that enhance performance may be psychological and these could be profound."

What about Patsy Palmer's favourite treatment: rubbing coffee granules into her skin to combat cellulite? Dr Gary Moss, pharmaceutical scientist tells us, "Caffeine may have an effect, but the coffee granules won't. It depends how you apply caffeine to the skin: there's a perception that coffee might tackle cellulite because caffeine, in an aqueous solution, can penetrate the skin. However, as coffee granules won't allow the caffeine to penetrate the skin barrier, the only unintended effect is perhaps exfoliation. It also depends on how long the caffeine is in contact with the skin: for any chance of seeing an effect from such a small amount of caffeine you would need to be rubbing coffee into your skin all day!"

However we should probably also point out to Ms Palmer that any coffee granules she acquires from a barista won't have any useful caffeine in them anyway - it was all forced out into someone's double-shot-latte at 15 bars of pressure.

Of course, we should move on from the merely laughable to the downright dangerous comments made by celebrities, especially those who seem like they ought to know better.

Professor David Bellamy, broadcaster and botanist (and someone who is certainly an expert in their own field) said "I support homeopathy as it's safe and cheap. Compared to the usual drugs, it can be effective."

Edzard Ernst, Emeritus Professor of Complementary Medicine counters, "Homeopathy may be cheap, David, even safe, but as it contains no active molecules, it is certainly not effective. The notion that it is as good or better than usual drugs is not just misleading, it is dangerously wrong and could cost many lives."

Finally, this writer's personal favourite comes from a man who came second in the race to become the so-called "leader of the free world." I offer you Mitt Romney speaking about the emergency landing of a plane carrying his wife. "When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go… and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem. So it's very dangerous."

It's also just as dangerous allowing someone as stupid as this in charge of anything more important than a knife and fork (both made of plastic and well blunted, of course). As Dr Jakob Whitfield, aeronautical engineer explains, "Unfortunately, Mitt, opening a window at height wouldn't do much good. At a jet aeroplane's normal flight altitude, the outside air does not contain enough oxygen to allow normal breathing (it's about 40% of the levels on the ground); this is why an airliner's cabin is pressurised. In fact, if you could open a window whilst in flight, the air would rush out of the aircraft cabin because air moves from the high pressure cabin to the lower pressure outside, probably causing further injury and damage."

Of course, what this really tells us is that we shouldn't take seriously what celebrities tell us when operating well outside of their sensibility zones. The problem of course is in identifying just which orifice they're speaking out of at any particular point in time.

Anyone wishing to support the Sense about Science charity may do so via these details; of course they also welcome contributions of any instances of celebrities with a poor grasp of science.

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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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