All-singing and all-dancing but maybe not all-knowing
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The ‘Kylie effect’ – when women rushed to get checked for breast cancer after Ms Minogue was diagnosed with it in 2005 – was a perfect example of that.
Here’s how it goes: Young Kylie talks about her cancer. Women everywhere rush to get tested thanks to the hyperawareness created and some lives are saved. Kylie gets awarded a doctorate for her work promoting breast cancer awareness
But other women are unnecessarily exposed to radiation or given invasive treatment because of ‘false positives’ – an imperfect system accidentally finds they have cancer, but they don’t. Younger women flock to get tested, although age is the biggest risk factor.
One study found “over-diagnosis” of breast cancer meant one in three women ‘diagnosed’ had treatments - such as mastectomies and radiation – that they didn’t need (there are similar issues around prostate cancer checks).
Then there were the thermal imaging clinics that cropped up, which marketed themselves to younger women suffering the Kylie effect, offering ‘early detection’, when in fact – according to the NHMRC’s draft report – “there is no compelling evidence to demonstrate that it is effective for early detection or screening.”
So women got unnecessarily fearful, had a dodgy check, and maybe got a false all clear.
Good intentions, imperfect outcome. In today’s British Medical Journal two experts go head to head on the Kylie factor. The University of Sydney’s Simon Chapman says celebrities can bring a personal authenticity to the debate and just because sometimes it goes wrong doesn’t mean it always will. City University London honorary research fellow Geof Rayner says the fleeting spotlight isn’t worth it.
He points out, rightly, that celebrities are far more often pushing rubbish diets, wacky beauty techniques, and a consumerist lifestyle that is at odds with public health goals.
I’ll leave the Kylie effect here, because I just remembered I already had a crack at her here.
Let’s get back to a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. Messages now often come to us from celebrities and we lap it up as part of our vacuous worship of all things famous.
The PR companies know that we’re suckers for it; that we somehow connect fame to truthiness, or we’re so befuddled by our aspirations that we forget how to think rationally and before you know it we’re forking out gazillions for moisturiser made from frog sperm because someone from the movies said it was good.
As Professor Rayner points out, Gwyneth Paltrow successfully sells her fans all manner of healthy sounding woo woo, including her “widely promoted colon cleansing routines”.
Celebrities are brands; not experts. They can use their power for good or for evil. They are, often, paid to spruik a certain message. Other times they nobly use personal experience to throw their clear-skinned weight behind a cause.
Some famous people are super smart, and many have important and valid ways in which they can add to the national debate. Others are not so bright, and can be seriously misled on how the world works.
We need to bear in mind that just because they rock a perfectly cut suit, mesmerise us on the big screen, or have seemingly miraculous hair, the famous people don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about. We need to remember that experts are called that for a reason; because a working knowledge of Wikipedia does equate to years of study.
If an actor is telling you something is true, just find out whether they actually know what they are talking about or have a bloody good director.
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