The world could use a few more celebrities like Angelina Jolie. This is, after all, a woman who campaigns against sexual violence and also allows her children to write "buttock futtock" on her wedding veil. That's a hell of a dame, as Jimmy Cagney might have said.
Her ability to focus attention on obscure foreign issues is so great that journalist Paul Salopek has invented a measurement called the "Jolie" to quantify her influence. And Canadian research presented at the Breast Cancer Symposium in San Francisco revealed that Ms. Jolie's revelation about her preventative double mastectomy had an enormous positive impact on women with the same problematic mutation of the BRCA1 gene.
"The Angelina effect seemed to increase the awareness and the referral for women who were truly at high risk for hereditary breast cancer," said Dr. Andrea Eisen of Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital, co-author of the paper.
The reason women took notice of Ms. Jolie's 2013 article in The New York Times is not because she's a smart cookie or a decent person, both of which are true of many people at risk of developing cancer, but because she's a Hollywood deity, half of the glossy-maned, many-offspringed mythical creature called Brangelina.
This is an unprecedented age of celebrity influence. You find them on every social media platform, advising and chastising. Of course, people have always cared about what stars wore and who they dated, but there was perhaps a recognition that zones of influence stopped somewhere around Sunset Boulevard. Clark Gable may have crashed the market for men's undershirts when he failed to wear one in It Happened One Night, but I'm pretty sure nobody looked to him for advice about the New Deal or diaper rash.
It's entirely unlikely that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge would have become the extraordinary success it did without footage of various celebrities having freezing water dumped over their heads and challenging equally famous figures to do the same: "I nominate the Queen, Pope Francis and Vishnu. Awesome!" Did Leonardo DiCaprio's experience at the prow of a big ship give him some special insight into the Alberta tar sands, which he recently railed against?
So what if people listen to celebrity opinion? What harm can come of it? Is it not outweighed by the positive influence of people like Ms. Jolie, or Michael J. Fox spreading awareness of Parkinson's disease? That's the very question Timothy Caulfield examines in his upcoming book, which has possibly the greatest title ever: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (It's being released in January.)
"Celebrity culture has become such a huge part of our universe, and it has a great impact on us, whether we think it does or not," Prof. Caulfield, director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, told me in an interview. "That culture isn't going anywhere, and social media isn't going anywhere, so we need to look at how these things affect our decision-making."
One of the problems with celebrity-dominated media coverage, he says, is that the story becomes about the star – at the expense of nuance and complexity. He and his colleagues conducted an analysis of the news stories after Ms. Jolie's mastectomy announcement, and found that most articles ignored salient points, such as the rarity of the risk she faced. As well, he points to another study conducted on the "Angelina Jolie effect," which surveyed 2,572 people about the knowledge they'd gathered after all the publicity. It concluded that "fewer than 10 per cent of respondents had the information necessary to accurately interpret Ms. Jolie's risk of developing cancer relative to a woman unaffected by the BRCA gene mutation. Awareness of the Angelina Jolie story was not associated with improved understanding."
The other problem is that if celebrities are given a platform by virtue of their prominence, every fruitcake idea gains credibility because it's issued from famous lips. Do you believe Jenny McCarthy's pernicious untruths about the safety of childhood vaccines, or Alicia Silverstone's notions that diapers are evil and diet causes postpartum depression?
Or, if we take the title of Prof. Caulfield's book at face value, and not as a rhetorical question (because then it would be one page long), just how much of a medical expert is Gwyneth Paltrow, anyway? Should her lifestyle newsletter Goop be considered a valuable educational reference? Is the human body really in need of artificial "cleanses"? Is wheat the grain of Satan? Is the colon really a haunted house with gristle-monsters hiding around every corner, or is it, in fact, a nicely self-cleaning bit of machinery? (Spoiler alert: "There's no science behind any of it," said Prof. Caulfield.)
Because we are inherently biased toward people whose values reflect our own, I'm inclined to trust Ms. Jolie's judgment, whereas I wouldn't trust Ms. McCarthy to throw me a lifesaver if I were drowning. This is not a rational way to make a decision, however – and that's precisely Prof. Caulfield's point. Dig deep, beyond the celebrity headlines and YouTube videos. Seek out other information. Don't trust your own biases – and for God's sake, don't trust theirs.