Celebrities impact public view of animal research

19 June 2019

Posted by: UAR news team

Category: Communications & media

The impact of celebrities on public perceptions of animal research

Twitter is bringing us closer to celebrities. Who would have thought two decades ago that you could follow the life of your favourite celeb on a day-to-day basis through a constant stream of updates in the form of just a few sentences or short videos? Celebrities post everything from intimate family pictures, political views, environmental concerns as well as plastering their personal disputes all over social media for people to follow, comment and share, all in real-time. 

With the rising popularity of social platforms like Twitter and Instagram and their large celebrity engagement, modern celebrities have an increased presence in the public sphere where they can freely share their ideas and motivations and reach millions of people within the matter of a few short minutes. On the one hand this is received positively: it is a form of entertainment for many people, and it’s an efficient way for celebrities to promote themselves and their work. On the other hand, it can be quite dangerous considering the large following that most celebrities boast.

A recent trend amongst some well-known celebrities has been the spread of pseudoscience and anti-animal research sentiments. According to Timothy Caulfield, a Canadian professor of health law, pseudoscience is on the rise. He blames the rise of pseudoscience partly on the booming wellness industry, and he says that celebrity pseudoscience plays a big part as it adds to public confusion and shows a lack of confidence in public institutions. The World Health Organisation has recently noted that the anti-vax movement is one of the top 10 public health risks in the world.

The latest celebrity to get caught up in the anti-vax phenomenon is American actress Jessica Biel who was seen posing in a picture with Robert F. Kennedy JR., a well-known promoter of the link between vaccines and autism. Biel later clarified through Instagram that she is not an anti-vaxer, but that she was lobbying against a bill related to them which determines how parents request their children to be exempt from mandatory vaccinations: a bill that requires children to be vaccinated in order to attend public schools.

To bring the subject closer to home, there is a strong historical link between anti-vaxxers and anti-vivisectionists to the extent they can be seen as sister movements. Dr Walter Hadwen, for instance, was both president of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), and a spokesman for the National Anti-Vaccination League. Now, as with the anti-vaccine movement, we have seen pseudoscience proliferate amongst those opposed to using animals in research. 

For example, earlier in January 2019, Ricky Gervais tweeted “This is the year I try to prove to you that testing on animals is both cruel and pointless. Please keep an open mind. And be patient. It may take some time. Thank you.” In December, he welcomed in the New Year by letting everyone know that he would like 2019 to be “the year we end cruel and pointless testing on animals.” The word ‘cruel’ might be explained away as one man’s opinion, albeit poorly informed. The inclusion of the word ‘pointless’ is, by contrast, to make a claim that science has got it wrong.

Similarly, Downtown Abbey star Peter Egan has expressed his erroneous belief that “Animals can’t be used to predict human response”. In a television appearance on Good Morning Britain, he shared his belief that the development of penicillin was delayed by a decade due to animal experiments, rather than the delay being due to multiple failed attempts to purify it, a hurdle finally overcome in 1940. He has also previously stated that he is “completely opposed to vivisection on dogs and other animals on science and welfare grounds. Strapping dogs into harnesses and pumping them full of chemicals is poor science and a terrible reflection of a nation which likes to think of itself full of animal lovers”

In other efforts, Simon Cowell collaborated with Cruelty Free International in a campaign to get dogs out of laboratories globally. Cruelty Free International claimed that a ground-breaking scientific study  had shown that using dogs to predict how humans will respond to drugs is not scientifically justifiable. Likewise, Beatles star Sir Paul McCartney actively supports PETA's fight against experiments on animals and has called animal tests “unreliable and cruel". Other anti-animal research advocates include BBC radio presenter Mark Radcliffe and The Smiths’ singer Morrissey.

Claims like these from the likes of Egan and Gervais are untrue and are not based on scientific fact; rather they are based on personal motivations and philosophies and the pseudoscientists, such as Dr Ray Greek, who serve as their inspiration. In other words, they are pseudoscientific. Well so what? You may say. Why is it such a big deal? Celebrities are, after all, entitled to freedom of speech and freedom of thought just like the rest of us. Whilst this is certainly true, it is also true that with fame comes responsibility. This responsibility is pretty simple: to not misinform the public in a way that may harm them through mistruths, and in doing so, not to voice opinions in a way that are dangerous and misleading. The problem with celebrities voicing opinions such as those on animal research and vaccinations is that they reach a significant number of people, are untrue and consequently, put the public health at risk. 

Take Gervais’s tweet for instance. At the time of the publication of this article, it had been retweeted 2380 times and liked 13,416 times. The overall reach of this tweet would have been in the millions. Of course not everybody will want to end animal research just because Ricky Gervais tweeted about it a few times. However, unfortunately some will, and this small percentage is enough in itself to jeopardise medical research and sway public opinion. In this sense, celebrities like Gervais, McCartney and Egan pose a public health risk and could potentially act as a drag on the quality and speed of research, which has the potential to slow down the development of medicines to the detriment of the people and animals that need them.

As scientists and science advocates, we must speak up and rebut these claims. We must also show that you can be pro animal welfare and also pro animal research; the two are not mutually exclusive as some celebrities seem to think. Indeed, animal research itself is not what celebrities seem to think it is which flips the moral position 180 degrees in favour of careful animal use. Pouring scorn on animal research is easy, what is not easy is taking the time to consider why animal research is still necessary.