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Celebrities have become a part of daily American life. Stories about celebrities are considered fit to serve as lead stories on CNN's Headline News, and celebrity events are often the most talked-about items on the social calendar, even when no one in the conversation is even remotely connected to the celebrity or the event. Although many have ranted about America's obsession with celebrities and their place in our lives, it doesn't bother me that we lavish so much attention on these folks. After all, some of us might like to be celebrities some day.

What I don't understand, however, is the near-universal acceptance of celebrities as experts on anything, let alone everything. Yet we often see celebrities espousing their favorite causes and political views, even while they are simultaneously complaining about public intrusion into their lives. This phenomenon reaches its peculiarly American apotheosis when celebrities testify before Congress or fact-finding panels on a subject for which they have no qualifications other than having played a well-known role related to that subject. For example, in September, Mary Tyler Moore testified before Congress on stem cell research. Now, I'm not weighing in on that issue, but why couldn't they have heard from a research biologist or doctor? Ms. Moore may be the chair of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, but nowhere do I see a Ph.D. in a relevant field amongst her credentials, and it can hardly be argued that the JDF is a disinterested entity. Michael J. Fox also testified on this issue, on behalf of Parkinson's patients, although he too has no scientific qualifications in the matter he was testifying on.

Similarly, we get exposed to the political views of stars on various opinion shows, such as Politically Incorrect. There is just something fundamentally wrong about watching an actor, a rapper, a writer, and a basketball player debate the best way the president could run the country in the area of, say, education. What do any of these folks know? Just because someone is an incredible actor doesn't mean that they know any more about a given issue than the average person in the street. In most cases, they make statements that no credible advocate for their cause would make, creating disinformation and confusion. For example, a few months ago, Martin Sheen was on David Letterman, and his arrest at a protest outside a military base came up. Letterman asked Mr. Sheen what it was all about. Sheen replied that he and the others were protesting the space-based nuclear defense program that the military is currently exploring, because "I don't believe we should have nukes in space," at which point the audience cheered and applauded. The only problem with all of this is that the program he was protesting wasn't trying to put nuclear weapons in space 1, but rather a method of shooting them down should they ever (God forbid) be launched. In that segment, he revealed how ignorant he (and the audience) was about his cause.

This all has its roots in that most pernicious of evils, television advertising. This reliance on unqualified celebrity political opinions can be traced back to the concept of "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television. . . ." If you're not a doctor, don't give me or the government advice about medicine. The only time a celebrity should be testifying before Congress is when it is about the subject they are qualified on: Hollywood.

The tendency of most people to rely on celebrity opinion comes from just that: fame. A celebrity, by definition, is well known. Therefore, when some research scientist says that cloning is dangerous, people take little notice; but if, say, Mel Gibson 2 were to say the same thing people would take note, because they know who he is, and in many cases respect his opinions, simply because he's famous. I'm not knocking Mr. Gibson, or any of the other celebrities I've mentioned, but personally, I'd rather hear it from an expert on the issue, not a star who's adopted the cause.

Unfortunately, because of our tendency to respect the opinions of those who are famous, many wind up as spokespeople for causes, because it is more likely that the average person will listen to them, instead of an unknown scientist. As a result, we have people representing causes they don't understand, or are not experts on, and problems can occur.

In some cases, a celebrity promoting a cause is fine, because they are speaking about an area of which they have some knowledge. For example, Oprah Winfrey maintains a book club, for which she makes recommendations. If people want to read the books that she recommends, I have no problem with that. But if people vote against a path of scientific investigation because some uninformed, non-expert star told them that it was evil, I think that things have gone too far.

As readers of speculative fiction, one of the tropes we are all familiar with is what happens to a society that makes choices out of fear or ignorance, especially if those choices are to avoid scientific discovery and innovation. We can't let our societal path be determined by people whose merits are in their acting or athletic ability rather than their scientific qualifications. I'd rather not have my neighbors getting their thinking from (and voting based on) an uninformed luminary on their television or movie screen who doesn't understand the issue any better than they do.

If this trend continues, we will find our society going backwards; we'll head back to a society where decisions are made not by those who know best, but by those who appear authoritative based on something other than merit. In the past, you could have power or authority because of who your parents were. In the future, apparently, it will be what your last movie grossed.

Now, all of this is not to say that a celebrity spokesperson couldn't be an expert in the appropriate field for their cause. And if that is the case, so much the better. But in general, we see people championing causes that they emotionally identify with, where someone else has impressed upon them beliefs for which they have no scientific justification, or where they simply do not understand the arguments for their cause.

 

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Paul Schumacher is Treasurer and a Copy Editor for Strange Horizons.

Notes:

1. Several of the concepts proposed originally used nuclear power plants to power them, but these had all been discarded by the time in question, and could in no way have been considered "nukes in space."

2. To my knowledge, this has never happened. I'm just picking a star and an issue at random.



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