When during a pre-election debate Barack Obama and John McCain both said that an apparent rise in autism cases might be connected to vaccines, those who knew better squirmed at the lack of scientific knowledge of the two remaining presidential candidates on this topic.
In fact, studies have found no link between autism and vaccines. But televised statements by such high-profile people have a way of perpetuating myths.
In it's third annual report, the UK group Sense about Science calls the two candidates out on the inaccurate statements, along with a long list of celebrities' scientifically inaccurate claims.
"We don't expect people to know everything about science; the problem comes when they don't consider checking it or asking a few questions before they speak out," said Ellen Raphael, UK director of Sense About Science. "With the Internet, and 24-hour news media, celebrities' misleading claims travel widely. They add disproportionately to the stock of misinformation that we all then have to wade through to make sense of a subject. A little checking goes a long way."
Myth: Natural is good
In the past two years, comments about products or food being "chemical free" were the most common misconceptions stated by celebrities and revealed by the group; chemicals are in fact in everything we eat. That fact now seems better understood, the group states.
But a related myth remains popular and frequently espoused by celebs: that "natural chemicals"— popular with the detox diet crowd — are better for us. Oprah Winfrey and Kate Moss are just two of many celebrities that promote the detox diets, "despite a lack of evidence that they work," the new report states.
"'Natural' chemicals aren't automatically safer than man-made ones," chemist John Emsley writes in the Sense about Science report. "In fact, man-made chemicals used in consumer products are often much safer because they have been thoroughly tested."
Around the same time Obama and McCain blew it, Sarah Palin tossed out a doozie of her own when she explained how tax dollars "go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good — things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." The research in question in fact was very much for the public good: The scientists were studying an olive fruit fly that is a costly pest in the olive-growing regions of the Mediterranean and in California. The USDA put about $211,000 into the French study.
Finally, for the record, the presidential candidates misleading statements about autism:
Obama: Some people are suspicious that it's connected to vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."
McCain: There's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."
Interestingly, the actress Amanda Peet made a statement during the year that corrects the autism-vaccine myth put forth by Obama and McCain: "Fourteen studies have been conducted (both here in the U.S. and abroad), and those tests are reproducible; no matter where they are administered, or who is funding them, the conclusion is the same: there is no association between autism and vaccines," Peet said.
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Robert Roy Britt is the Editorial Director of Imaginova. In this column, The Water Cooler, he takes a daily look at what people are talking about in the world of science and beyond.