Evolution is the best explanation for how the endless forms of life got to be where they are. Despite this, a disturbingly high proportion of people deny the theory. Why so many don’t believe has been the subject of much research; often with annoyingly ambiguous results1. Could celebrities be the missing piece of the puzzle?

This was the speculation of Dr Steven Arnocky and colleagues from the human evolution lab at Nipissing University in Canada. They noticed a growing trend of science-denying celebrities and wondered if that might be why so many people are disagreeing with reality2.

So Arnocky et al. devised a series of experiments testing the impact of celebrity versus expert endorsement of science (or denial of science). And, in a scathing indictment of our society, their initial suspicions were right. Celebrities were having a far stronger impact on the beliefs of undergraduates than experts2.

Foolishly, they then published these results in a journal; rather than getting a celebrity to proclaim it so we’d all believe them.

Celebrities in experiments

Arnocky et al. went about testing their hypothesis in the way you might expect: by gathering up a gaggle of undergraduates. Experiments sure are easy to do when you have a captive audience of potential volunteers!

These participants were broken up into several groups. Each was given a book review, allegedly written by either the celebrity George Clooney, or the “expert” Professor George. .¬†. Rooney2.

As I keep saying, scientists aren’t great at naming things. Even fake names for experiments.

Participants would get one of three book reviews from their group’s George. One was endorsing a pro-evolution book whilst the second was supporting a creationist book. Finally, there was also a control condition, in which George just talked about how great a random fiction book was2.

After learning about a George’s pro-creationist or pro-evolution views, the undergraduates were asked about their own acceptance of evolution. Despite being university students who should know better, the results showed a clear impact from hearing the celebrity opinion2.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing is that even when the experiment wasn’t messing with them, only 75-80% of university¬†students accepted evolution 2.

Follow-up experiments on the general public also made the same discovery. Hearing a celebrity endorsing either view had a significant impact on participant’s acceptance of science2.

This follow-up research also uncovered a bit of bonus sexism. When George Clooney was replaced by Emma Watson, people were less likely to be swayed by her comments on science. Sadly, the solution to this problem is not to shoot all male celebrities. Emma Watson still influenced peoples’ scientific thinking, just not as much as when the men were talking2.

Are we doomed?

So, it seems society values the scientific thoughts of celebrities over actual scientists. It’s also kind of sexist. Is there any hope for humanity?

Well, it is worth remembering that we’ve found there are many reasons people reject evolution. These range from education, understanding of science, religious belief, and more. Arnocky et al’s work simply adds “celebrities” to the pile. It doesn’t even show it’s the strongest influencer.

More research is needed to see how this newly discovered variable fits in. Maybe there are underlying causes for peoples’ belief in celebrities that could be addressed. Like, improving education could prompt people to question their sources.

But even if there isn’t and it turns out society just likes listening to celebrities, there is still hope. Remember, the effect worked both ways. Pro-science celebrities can help undo the damage of some of their sillier counterparts.

So if anyone knows George Clooney’s number, put him in touch with George Rooney.

References

  1. Dunk, R.D., Petto, A.J., Wiles, J.R. and Campbell, B.C., 2017. A multifactorial analysis of acceptance of evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach10(1), p.4.
  2. Arnocky, S., Bozek, E., Dufort, C., Rybka, S. and Hebert, R., 2018. Celebrity Opinion Influences Public Acceptance of Human Evolution. Evolutionary Psychology16(3), p.1474704918800656.

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4 thoughts on “Celebrities influence evolution belief more than experts”

    1. There’s some major cognitive dissonance going on there. Like talking about how those evil evolutionists might use celebrities to promote their beliefs, whilst ignoring the fact the same effect takes place going the other way. Creationist celebrities drive creationist belief, but that’s not ever mentioned.

  1. That quote from Bieber doesn’t seem too unreasonable, from a layman’s point of view, because that whole Big Bang thing is so hard to really comprehend. But evolution is as real as the concrete of the sidewalk outside your house, it doesn’t need belief or faith to work. It just is. That people are more influenced by celebrities views than experts is part of evolution, too. Because of our having evolved into a civilization, we now have a huge amount of people alive who, anywhere from 12 to 200 thousand years ago, would never have survived. In other words, there’s a whole lot of idiots in the world.

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