When the Canadian Celbritocracy meets Medicine

The H1N1 (or ‘swine’) flu is one of the top news stories today, and in the age of internet-educations, it seems like just about everyone has both a)expertise, and b) helpful advice.  Getting an internet-education  about H1N1 can be an exercise in temporary schizophrenia:  conflicting opinions and ‘evidence’ proffered by ‘experts’ can make it needlessly difficult for a person to decide the best course of action.  Add to this cornucopia of confusion a healthy dose of fear and hysteria, the average person can learn about as much from ‘The Internet’ as they could from “teh internetz’.

Which is it?  Dr. LOLZ or Dr. LULZ?  This is confusing and not helpful

It seems that with all the H1N1 hysteria out there, people will look to just about anyone for an insight.  Since the internet has proven to be a tangled web of confusion, kitty-cats and caps-lock, Canadians have apparently turned to the most trumpeted standard of medical advice of the last generation. Medical science?  No, that would be silly.  We’re Canadians, so we want the media to tell us what Canadian celebrities think about one of the most urgent health threats in decades.  I mean, sure, doctors are smart and all, but….if Rick Mercer can’t distill this medical issue with lives at stake into a pithy comment, is it really news-worthy?

The Globe and Mail recently took time out of its busy schedule to ask 29 Canadian celebrities (at current conversion rates, that’s 17 American celebrities) whether or not they were going to get the H1N1 vaccine.  The first page of the feature had a sensible comment by one of Canada’s science heroes, David Suzuki,

I will when my turn comes up. I’m just astounded at people. Do they think doctors, scientists and government are out to poison them or something? I just don’t get what the objections are to this. What does that imply they think about the health experts?

Bravo, Dr. Suzuki.  A sensible approach, as well as an insightful take on anti-vaccinationists.  But David Suzuki has his PhD and an extensive career in science journalism.  No need to appeal to just his celebrity status, when his academic and professional credentials could speak volumes.  Can’t the Globe just stay with Suzuki and  let him use his respected voice to speak up for science?  No?  Okay, who is next?

Oh, it’s Margaret Atwood, the Great Canadian Novelist.  Ummm, okay.  Mrs. Atwood, are you going to get the vaccine?

The jury is out. I’m waiting for more information. I was told (by a talk-show host in New York) that as I am over 65 I may have some immunity, as my parents had the 1919 flu, it’s said to be related.

Well, The ‘jury’ (a.k.a. scientific consensus from around the world) is back in, and they’ve come back with their recommendation: get the vaccine. Nice to see Atwood admitting that she’s accepting her medical advice from a talk-show host.  But, I suppose she may get a pass here, because her age does indeed make her more immune than most of us, so no point in going after her for taking this lightly.  Next?

Oh!  It’s Oh!  Sandra Oh!  Well, pretend-doctor on television, what say you?  Going to get the vaccine?

We work in a terrible incubator. Definitely people are down with it. This is a perfect opportunity to get in touch with our health. I just went to Whole Foods and got $200 worth of vitamins.

I confess, I barely have any idea what she’s talking about at the best of times. Is she getting it or not?  Still, it must be nice to have $200 to drop on vitamins though….I bet I could re-market and sell her expensive urine as “enriched”, since that’s about all those extra vitamins are good for.  So far, we’ve gone from legitimate scientist, to novelist, to fake-doctor.  Who’s next?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper!  What do you have to say? Will you and your family be getting the shot?

“They will not be jumping any queues and will be using the public health system, lining up for their shots like everyone else, a spokesman said.

Sounds good. Mind you, I would have liked to hear from the PM himself, but I guess he’s too busy to communicate to the general public.  At least we got to hear from Sandra Oh.

Anne Murray doesn’t say if she’ll get the shot or not, but her aide said that they’re carrying lots of Purell on tour….so that’s…..helpful…?  No, wait.  Not helpful, the other thing: ‘meaningless’.

Jan Arden: Please don’t be insensitive (see what I did there?).  Are YOU listening to scientific consensus, or do you have some ridiculous idea that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about?

I’m not [getting the shot, because] of all the reading and stuff that I’ve done. I’m coming into a period of time where I meet probably 100 people every night and shake their hands and have a picture taken with them. But having said that, I’m a chronic hand washer. I don’t think I’d be kissing strangers on the cheek or anything of the sort … I’m not in that really touchy age group which is teenagers kind of up to 35, 38 and then the elderly, so I don’t really fit the profile. I’m 47 and I’m just not afraid of that. Am I crazy?

I’m not certain that the 95 Canadians that have so far died from H1N1 were going around kissing strangers.  And I am fairly certain that the highest risk group, after pregnant women, are those aged 64 and under (Margaret Atwood has it on very good authority, but if Jimmy Fallon isn’t good enough for you, the CDC is pretty clear), not “…teenagers kind of up to 35, 38 and the elderly”, or whatever she was trying to stammer-out.  Also, being unafraid of a virus doesn’t make you insensitive (see what I did there, again?) to what it can do, it makes you a health-hazard.

Next?

Rick Mercer:  You are a highly-trusted commentator (for some reason) in Canada.  People think you have a natural talent for cutting through the BS and media-hype, and get right to the truth.  Can you please tell us if you’re getting the vaccine, and if at all possible, can you do it while being photographed at an unusual angle which emphasizes the size of your head, making it look like you have a huge brain, and thereby are far more intelligent than the other rubes in Canadian media?

Thank you.

“Absolutely. I always get a flu shot, and seeing as how this is H1N1, why would I not get it? Every doctor I know tells me I should get it. Plus I do everything that my government tells me to do.”

*sigh* That was almost a responsible comment.  For no reason whatsoever, it also was dripping with back-handed sarcasm.  Mercer is a smart enough guy….if he wanted to be funny, he could have easily worded it in such a way as to not make the entire comment appear to be sarcastic.  He has now successfully and needlessly added to the confusion.  Can someone please remind me why people see this guy as the Canadian Jon Stewart?

This is getting tedious.  The rest of the list can be distilled as so: Canadian pseudo-celebrities, public figures and business executives (wait, what?) being largely on the side of science, but some with needlessly vague answers, others with outright anti-vaccinationist exclamations.   Also, I have yet another reason to loathe Jian Ghomeshi.

There are a handfull of Canadian celebrities with scientific credentials, and it was great of the Globe to kick off the the segment with David Suzuki.  They could have stayed with Suzuki, or gone to another science-based celeb like Jay Ingram.  Sadly, the list covered the entire spread from fake-doctor Sandra Oh, to a professional Snowboarder.

The ‘Globe’ isn’t to blame here (except for spreading more confusion) for buying into celebrity-worship.  Canada has a rampant culture of celebritocracy, and celebrities are no more useful than Dr. LOLcat.  I’m no healthcare professional, but I do have certain level of scientific literacy, and I have a great deal of respect for the healthcare profession which has kept me healthy all these years, and saved my life on more than one occasion.  I can defer readers to read what the scientific consensus is, and unlike teh-internetz or artist Max Dean (who helpfully offered “..I think we’re also supposed to nose gargle if we can — whatever that is. Also, hot fluids are good, so it’s an excuse for more coffee.”), the science is very clear: Get the vaccine.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.