The other day I saw an article entitled, “Dr. Christian Jessen: Clean eating websites like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop ‘indistinguishable from pro-anorexia websites.’” Dr. Christian Jessen is a British TV doctor, much like our Dr. Oz (I’m guessing). He presented a popular UK show called Embarrassing Bodies, which is apparently a show where people with “embarrassing bodies” (with ailments usually thought to be taboo) can get help:
Throughout its numerous series, Embarrassing Bodies has set out to aid people who have a variety of medical issues. These issues tend to be taboo or misunderstood. With the help of its patients and the diagnoses of its doctors, the show tries to make common medical issues, especially those that are “embarrassing” or sexual, understood and to debunk myths surrounding them. The programme’s method of tackling these issues has caused great success and has attracted large numbers of people to its website.
I can’t vouch for the show and I can think of a zillion ways in which it could go horribly wrong and involve all sorts of body shaming (just the name for example suggests an uncritical view of what counts as an “embarrassing” body). So don’t come away thinking I’m all for Dr. Jessen either.
But, I’m less concerned about Dr. Jessen or even about whether what he says about Goop is true, close to true, exaggerated, or false (I doubt it’s totally false since the site does promote “clean eating,” about which I have expressed a great deal of skepticism). What I’m mostly concerned about, actually, is “why does someone like Gwyneth Paltrow have so much influence when it comes to health and wellness?”
In a word: celebrity. Gwyneth Paltrow is a beautiful and even likeable celebrity. She’s a thin, glamorous, academy-award winning actor and style icon. This we know to be true. And for all that, she has gained a great deal of unearned credibility and influence over people’s health choices.
“When you look at the actual medical side, the health side, they so rarely are promoting anything that is even vaguely healthy.
“Look at Gwyneth: You know, the crap that she writes, it’s just overwhelmingly mind boggling for a doctor to see that – the number of people following it and going along (with it) is just terrifying.”
The “extreme diets” hailed by celebrities, which often exclude entire food groups such as wheat and gluten, are are being falsely presented as healthy, he added, and can become a guise for teenage addiction and eating disorders.
Jessen is critical, as am I, of “fitspiration” or “fitspo.” A lot of it is thinly-cloaked “thinspo,” which is itself thinly veiled pro-ana or pro-mia (pro anorexia and pro bulimia) in its messaging.
Okay, so let’s get back to the point about celebrity. In philosophy there is a fallacy called “the appeal to authority.” way back in the early days of the blog, I wrote about this in relation to Dr. Oz. You appeal to authority when you accept something as true because “so and so said it.” Now at least Oz and Jessen are doctors.
In Gwyneth’s case, her “authority” rests on even thinner ice, namely, her fame. So whatever the status of anything that appears on Gwyneth’s Goop, it doesn’t get a speck of actual credibility from the fact of Gwyneth saying it.
Now I understand that it’s a celebrity game. Oprah plays it well and has used it to her advantage as a major shareholder in Weight Watchers. Celebrity diets are big money. And they don’t work (see here for my thoughts on celebrity diets not working). And that’s why Sam wants to hug Oprah.
So appealing to authority is a fallacy. And appealing to celebrity? Well fallacies don’t really come in degrees, but if they did I would venture to say it’s even more of a fallacy.
I asked this before and I’ll ask it again: does a celebrity endorsement make you more or less likely to take a health claim seriously?