In an age of endless distractions and ever-changing news, it’s imperative to possess good advertising that immediately attracts and keeps people’s attention. Using celebrity endorsements can quickly boost popularity and make anything seem trendy and admirable.
Like any great power, the words and actions of celebrities can be used for good or evil. Mayim Bialik has chosen to invest her fame in the latter category.
Just as yet another epidemic of an infectious disease—this time, measles—broke out in New York City, the actress from The Big Bang Theory is slated to be a guest speaker at the annual convention for the National Science Teachers Association. A cursory examination of Bialik’s life and career initially makes her seem like an ideal choice for the conference. She holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA and was accepted to Ivy League universities, she is a brand ambassador for Texas Instruments, she is best known for playing a scientist and girlfriend of the inhumanly cerebral Sheldon Cooper on the show, and she spoke last year at the conference for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
In most respects, Bialik deserves praise. She is a role model for encouraging more women to pursue science and has impressive intellectual achievements beyond the low standards expected of most celebrities. Her decisions regarding medicine and raising children, unfortunately, leave something to be desired.
Bialik stated in a People Magazine interview that she lives in a “non-vaccinating family…obviously there’s a lot of controversy about it,” and she is a practitioner of attachment parenting. This is a controversial method of maintaining close links to children whose efficacy continues to be widely debated. It is criticized by some psychologists as useless and lacks scientific evidence to back it up.
Bialik doesn’t just talk about avoiding vaccination. She also is a spokeswoman of the Holistic Moms Network, a pseudo-scientific nonprofit whose mission statement mentions advocacy of “holistic parenting and green living”—common code words for new-age fraud and miracle cures.
The organization encourages parents to “trust their instincts, parent from the heart.” Its advisory board is staffed by physicians and activists fighting for the “right to refuse vaccination,” promote quack treatments such as homeopathy and support natural births instead of hospital births. The group receives funding from homeopathic medicine manufacturers and frequently champions Andrew Wakefield, the leading instigator of the anti-vaccine studies and movement, while cloaking itself in the superiority and virtue of “natural” medicine and living.
Bialik’s beliefs in pseudoscience unfortunately do not know any limits. She is a supporter of circumcision, a practice riddled with controversy over whether severing the foreskin of the penis really protects against sexually transmitted diseases or is morally justified. She also is fiercely devoted to every tenet of attachment parenting, which includes refusing to teach her kids to say “please” or “thank you.” She declares that giving birth must be painful, drug-free and natural, and she insists that controversy still exists about the benefits and dangers of vaccines.
With her degrees and accomplishments, it may be incomprehensible to most why Bialik indulges in so many falsehoods. But Bialik demonstrates that there are few, if any, ways of guaranteeing that someone does not accept pseudoscience. Intelligence and perseverance are useful, but Bialik also possesses stubbornness and denial in spades, which are highly effective in preventing people from changing their beliefs, no matter how obviously erroneous those beliefs are.
It may appear that Bialik speaking at a science conference would not be such a disaster, since she is not explicitly advocating abstaining from vaccination. Unlike Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, Bialik is more capable of beguiling people with her Ph.D., and some may argue that as long as Bialik stays quiet about her health choices, she is not damaging anyone’s perception of science.
It is Bialik’s role on a science-oriented show and her education, however, that generate conflicts and encourage more people to avoid vaccinations. By featuring Bialik as a guest speaker, the NSTA is tacitly acknowledging that they have no quarrel with her belief in homeopathy, the so-called downsides of vaccination and her depictions of scientists as antisocial and ignorant. The anti-vaccination cause makes more gains and represents science as something controlled by celebrities and fads.
The Big Bang Theory occasionally features tidbits of nerd trivia, jokes and guest stars to appeal to scientists, and is now viewed as a triumph of nerd culture. It offers a generally superficial and dim view of people who work in science. Main characters are incapable of speaking to women and are more cerebral and humorless than Spock. They are praised as promoting nerdiness and science just because they work at Caltech and sometimes enjoy superheroes and science projects.
The show encourages audiences not to admire or respect the characters, but to point and laugh at how inept they are. We, the audience, are not inspired to be more like the characters, but to realize that a high IQ isn’t all that matters in life, and we receive the message that scientists are caricatures deserving of pity and laughter. The massive popularity of this program around the world, and how enthusiastically it is favored by intellectuals such as Steve Wozniak and Buzz Aldrin, suggests that we still have too few examples of pop culture truly appreciating science on a less superficial level. It is disheartening that we have to be satisfied with a dull and unoriginal sitcom.
Bialik is a sad reminder that intelligent people can fall for ludicrous ideas. Eminent and Nobel-winning scientists such as Linus Pauling, Kary Mullis and Barbara McClintock dove into subjects like questionable health fads, UFOs, AIDS denial and seances when they were not working on genuine scientific discoveries. It would be beneficial for us to examine people’s words and actions more carefully, as anyone generally considered sensible and intelligent can hold completely nonsensical beliefs.
Bialik may not inflict apparent damage as a guest speaker, but she will continue to be wrong in many areas of science, and thus is in no way an appropriate spokeswoman for those interested in a life of the mind.