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When Non-Fiction is Fun Part II: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

When you were a kid, do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up? I remember thinking I wanted to be a lawyer, because I liked to read and someone told me that lawyers do a lot of reading. Later I figured out lawyers don’t spend all day reading gripping novels which dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Anyway: in my day, people wanted to be doctors, vets (this was a big one), teachers and scientists. I remember one friend aspiring to be either a judge or a prison warden which no doubt betrays some kind of dysfunction that I’m not qualified to diagnose but I’ll do it anyway. Control freak! Megalomaniac! Actually, she was the youngest sibling so I’m guessing it was connected with having older siblings bossing her around all the time.

However, nowadays, according to numerous studies, mostly in the UK, kids aspire to celebrity. It doesn’t seem to matter what field of study will lead to celebrity; the end goal isn’t to be the best singer, actor, etc. but to achieve celebrity by any means possible. Skill and talent are not the point, it’s all about the fame. This is the actual career goal of the majority of kids out there. Of course the commonly perceived main routes to celebrity are sports, music, acting…and nothing (reality TV). Through studies and statistics and interviews, Caulfield shows how tiny the chances of success are in these fields. Not only that, but the definition of “success” is the brand-name, super-rich celebrity kind, not the kind that just makes a living, which in these fields, is difficult enough.

For example, in the music industry, according to industry experts, the chances of a musician making a stable career are .047%. That’s just a making-a-living level of success. There are many musicians and singers working in the industry, but their ability to make a living and their enjoyment of their profession are not the sort of success that people envision when they go this route. American Idol chances of fame? .036%.

Acting? Making-a-steady-living actors only make up about 8% of the acting population. The chances of becoming a “big-name studio movie actor is 1 in 1,505,000.” You have a better chance of being hit by an asteroid (1 in 700,000). This is what kills me. If you said to a fame-seeking teen, What do you think the chances are of you being struck by lightning? he’d say, “Not gonna happen!” but if you said, Your chance of being the next Tom Cruise is 1 in 1.5 million he’d say, “I’ve got a shot!”

Sports? Out of 317,000 high school football players, only 250 are drafted. And “drafted” does not mean having a lasting or successful career. In a 1999 analysis it was estimated that 30,000 kids were playing minor hockey in southern Ontario:

Of that number, 235 were drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (the minor league), but only 110 of those got to play and even fewer, 90, played for more than three years. Of course, the number for those who made it to the NHL – a step necessary in order to have a sports career that would confer “celebrity” status – was even smaller. Fifty of the 30,000 were drafted, but only 25 played a game (as it happens, even this number was unusually high – it was a good year.) If you look at the number of players who had something close to what could be called a “career” – which, in this study, meant players still in the league at age twenty-four – the number drops to just 11. Bottom line: only 11 out of 30,000 ended up with a solid NHL career. And that was in 1999. Because more professional players are now coming from countries other than Canada, it is even more difficult to break in. (p. 217)

I’d heard some of these statistics when I read Selling the Dream by Ken Campbell and Jim Parcels. I didn’t post a review of this book because the many hockey parents around us might issue a fatwa against me. Although I don’t actually think they’re reading much, they’re too tired from driving their kids round to hockey practice at 6am.

Why do people continue in their pursuit of celebrity in the face of such odds? Well, for one, people never seem to believe statistical evidence over anecdotal evidence. That’s a given. I see it all the time! Also, people – and their parents – tend to radically overestimate their own talents. When these talents are questioned, they become even more entrenched in their high rating of themselves. This is apparently an evolutionary thing that is hardwired into us, so that we take risks that will result in benefits, even when the chance of success isn’t optimal. There’s also confirmation bias, which is when you seek out information that confirms opinions you already hold, no matter how nutty they are. This is real easy nowadays with the Internet! And there is the previous investment thing that Ken Campbell mentions in the hockey book. The longer you pursue a particular goal, the more resources you put into the pursuit, the harder it is to stop, even when success isn’t likely. This explains why gamblers can’t seem to stop gambling even when they’re deep in the hole. Hockey- and to be fair, other sports-oriented-for-celebrity-goals parents are similar! Not only is there the previous investment (although it’s not an investment really) but if a parent stops the funnelling of resources into the activity, then there is the fear that the child might think the parent doesn’t believe in them anymore. And if the money stops, then maybe that will be the reason that the child doesn’t succeed. It’s a real trap.

There’s also something called “denominator neglect” in which people will ignore the many trying to break into a certain field – the denominator – and focus on the numerator – the number of people who succeed. So they’re not seeing the 30,000 trying to get into the NHL, they only see the 11 who do. And think those are pretty good odds! A parent quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press said this:

I’ll guarantee you one thing,” the hockey dad said, “If you don’t buy a lottery ticket you can’t win. That’s why if parents can afford it, they will pay. It’s an endless, hour-less [sic] debate but at the end of the day in order to keep up with the competition level, you have to train year-round…Everybody says only one player will make it out of a million. Why can’t it be yours?” (p. 235)

Except that a lottery ticket only costs a few bucks, not the $300,000 that many hockey parents sink into their kids’ training. And it’s not only the money, but all the time, energy and family resources that have gone into this ephemeral dream, and all the activities and education that the children lose out on and that could, ironically, actually furnish them with a successful and happy life. It’s devastating to think about all the kids who are spending nearly every waking moment not in school in pursuit of athletic achievement – at the expense of reading, or learning to play an instrument, or learning some other art form, or any of the immensely rewarding and enriching activities available to kids today. Or even just playing for the sake of playing. After all, these are games, and they’re supposed to be fun, not a hothouse for forcing professional athletes. I shudder to think what will happen to these kids who have been raised to believe that they will undoubtedly have a celebrity-level career in sports when they reach their own ceiling, so to speak. They have nothing else to fall back on, either professionally, because they’ve had no time to develop other marketable skills, or personally, because they also haven’t explored other pursuits that might give them a sense of joyous accomplishment.

There are other components of this phenomenon that Caulfield touches on, such as the social pressure to pursue unrealistic goals: “Never give up!” “Follow your dream!”, the role of media in promoting fame-seeking, and all the industries that exploit people’s willingness to shell out big bucks in their pursuit of celebrity. One of Caulfield’s interviewees points out that if you are have a good career in IT, people don’t say things like, “Keep at it! Don’t give up your dream!” if you’re not Steve Jobs. But they do in these celebrity fields!

Luck is also considered. Caulfield references Tom Brady, but we had an example here recently also. Alex Biega, who was drafted 9 years ago, finally got to play an NHL game with the Canucks last week. He scored the winning goal! Yay Alex. Clearly a talented player. But the reason he got his chance is because four players were injured and he got called up from the farm team to fill in. And even though he performed well, even this may not translate to a good career in the NHL. (Thanks to Justin for providing this relevant anecdote because I didn’t notice myself, not being a hockey fan.)

Success in these fields can’t be predicted. That’s another thesis point. Both the Beatles and Elvis were initially rejected by industry experts and music labels. Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours theory really has a lot to answer for, because this idea has given people the illusion that they have some control over these endeavours. Paul McCartney points out that many bands were playing at least as much as the Beatles when they were in Hamburg, but they didn’t all become successful. Ten thousand hours is not enough, people!

There’s also a section about the actual value of celebrity. In these chapters, Caulfield considers high divorce rates, higher than average mortality rates, and the high rates of bankruptcy and financial distress amongst celebrities. The suicide rate is higher than that in the general populace as well. There is a lot of stress involved in attaining celebrity and also maintaining it because I guess being a former celebrity kind of sucks. Celebrity also seems to exacerbate psychological issues because of the stress and pressure, also the isolation and lack of privacy. God, it’s depressing.

What is the upshot of all this? Socially it’s a pretty pernicious cycle. Studies have shown an inverse relationship between the happiness levels in countries and the obsession with celebrities in those countries. When you spend a lot of time examining the lives of the rich and famous, your own life doesn’t seem so hot. Not only that but social mobility, one of the key tenets of the American Dream, is also lowest in those countries most obsessed with celebrity (United States, United Kingdom and South Korea). Highest social mobility and also happiness? Denmark! Caulfield posits that barriers to social mobility limit options to the point where people start to see celebrity as the only attainable option. After all, look at all the famous dum-dums! Because it seems like a lot when all you read is People magazine. Can’t be that hard, right? And there just don’t seem like many other options when your worldview is so limited.

So, instead of doing something constructive like get an education, or get involved in politics in an attempt to effect social change, time is given to empty dreaming and resources are squandered in the pursuit of something unattainable. Even if the goal were somehow attained, the rewards are largely extrinsic, because a lust for celebrity is not about intrinsic goals. It’s not the activity itself, it’s the material rewards that count.

I remember watching Chris Rock do standup a few years ago and he made a point about how he is rich and famous and lives in a neighbourhood of nice houses. For him, it said something about race relations in the US that his neighbour was a dentist. But I would observe also that there are too many kids who think that the road to success looks like Rock’s, as opposed to the more attainable and reasonable goal of dentistry. Isn’t it amazing that there are a lot – a LOT – of kids out there who think that they will be celebrities, so they don’t need school? They’d rather pursue these incredibly shallow goals with little to no chance of success, and waste opportunities to do something more meaningful that would provide them greater happiness and more benefits. Whoops, I’m ranting. Last quote!

Filmmaker and comedian Bobcat Goldthwait….provided this advice during a commencement speech he delivered for his daughter’s graduation from college. “I truly believe that success is for creeps. We already reward narcissism way too much in our culture,” he said. “Do what makes you happy, and be nice.” (p. 306)

I lied. One more!

“Hey, I still buy lottery tickets, but I don’t spend the rent,” [Allison] Arngrim* says. “If people gambled with this kind of money in Vegas, everyone would say they had a gambling problem. But when people do it for fame and celebrity, for some bizarre reason our society says it is okay.” (p. 302)

Enough said. These posts have been hard to write because I felt compelled to do more than cheer for the book. I think these are important issues in contemporary culture, so I wanted to convey as much information as I could without actually mailing everybody a copy of the book. Thanks for reading to the end!

* Allison Arngrim played Nellie Oleson in the Little House on the Prairie TV series.

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When Non-Fiction is Fun: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? by Timothy Caulfield (Part I of II)

The subtitle of this book is When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. I’m not a big follower of celebrity culture and would generally avoid something with Gwyneth Paltrow’s name on it, but this book by Timothy Caulfield is a critique of the power that celebrity has on our collective psyche. The author, who is a professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health and Science Policy Group at the University of Alberta, examines this phenomenon from a number of angles – from auditioning for American Idol (didn’t get far) to visiting Dhru Purohit, the founder of the Clean Cleanse program endorsed by Gwyneth. His conclusions are fairly predictable – it’s all nonsense – but it’s fun to read. He also examines the trend towards believing that the celebrity life is accessible to the average person, if the person only works hard enough and “reaches for the stars.” This belief is countered by the very real statistics of success in such fields as acting, music and sports. (I’ll cover this in Part II.)

I live in Vancouver, Canada, a very expensive city in which to live. The climate is the mildest in Canada – it’s sunny and about 10 degrees here, while it’s -11 in Toronto. It’s February, but it’s been so mild that all the spring flowers are poking their heads up to see if it’s April and they missed something. The climate and the whole you-can-ski-you-can-swim appeal of this coastal city attracts a lot of wealthy people. I have a theory that wealthy people are into every health fad there is because they want to live as long as possible in order to enjoy their money to the full. Why not? Well, the amount of silly nonsense that I’ve heard spouted by people who are in search of ways to be healthier and live longer would roll anybody’s eyeballs up into their heads. At the restaurants, we have a gluten-free menu to cater to people who fancy themselves sensitive to gluten, even though there is no scientific evidence that supports these notions. I know people who are into “juicing,” even though it’s not a logical way to consume fruits and vegetables. You don’t get any fibre, and you consume a large amount of sugar – naturally occurring, but still sugar – and it’s ridiculously expensive. I’ve explained the sugar thing to someone and they were surprised, but it’s true. Think about it: richly nutritious vegetables like kale and broccoli do not contain a lot of water, plus the juice they produce does not taste great (I’m making a massive understatement there). In order to pad out these healthy-sounding but nonprofitable vegetables, juice retailers add large quantities of vegetables and fruits such as celery and cucumber, while adding sweetness with apples, carrots and beets. Each beet or carrot only produces a tiny amount of juice, so you need a lot in order to make up a cup of juice. Beets and apples are high in sugar. And even though they’re relatively cheap, you need a massive amount of produce in order to produce a relatively small amount of juice. It’s an incredibly wasteful process, but the notion of this pure nectar being squeezed from fresh fruits and veggies is very attractive. It’s certainly easier than just eating fruit and vegetables because you don’t even have to chew, but it’s definitely not a good way to go, and not really sustainable either.

A 2013 investigation by the Harvard School of Public Health confirmed the tremendous benefits of eating an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, but, once again, found juice to be problematic. The research looked at data from almost 190,000 participants and found that individuals who ate whole fruits – especially blueberries, grapes and apples – reduced their risk for type 2 diabetes by 23 percent. But individuals who drank one or two servings of fruit juice actually increased their risk. So, put down that expensive, trendy, kale-infused liquid and pick up a real apple.  (p. 52)

I use the term “notions” about a lot of health fads because that’s what they are – notions. Completely unsupported by scientific evidence, but they are ideas that feel good in some people’s brains. These ideas “make sense” to people. Some ideas, like juicing, are relatively harmless. However, some are not so benign. Take colonic irrigation – which Caulfield touches on, as there are lots of celebrities who subscribe to this silly and disgusting practice. I think people picture their digestive systems as some kind of simple drainage system. They see their bathroom drain clog up and imagine that their digestive system is somehow similar and should be cleaned out, with Drano and a snake. Colonic irrigation is more than disgusting, however; it’s potentially very dangerous. It can cause “nausea, vomiting, infection, and in rare circumstances, perforation of the bowel.” This can kill you. “It can also adversely impact your electrolytes and your gut’s natural bacteria.”

The other celebrity-endorsed and dangerous “health” advice is that which discourages people from vaccinating their kids against disease. This is so incredibly stupid and dangerous that I don’t even want to talk about it here. Plus, I’ve already posted on this topic.

Caulfield examines many celebrity-endorsed fads, such as cleanses, the idea of “toxins”, the imaginary benefits of organic foods, cosmetic acupuncture, coffee as a treatment for cellulite, and others. I was actually kind of surprised myself about the organic thing. I’ve heard so many times about the benefits of organic produce that while I’m not a slavish consumer of organics (I’m skeptical, plus, too expensive!) I’ve accorded this idea some validity. Apparently not! Caulfield says that he’s treading carefully or “the hate mail will flow” and I can understand. However, he quotes several studies that show “no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs” (UK Food Standards Agency, 2009), “no strong evidence indicates that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods,” (Stanford University, 2012) and “no good studies have directly demonstrated health benefits or disease protection as a result of consuming an organic diet.” (Pediatrics journal, 2012). What about the idea of organic pesticides being less harmful to the environment? Not! “There is little or no evidence that these organic pesticides are less harmful for consumers or the environment. It is just assumed that they are based upon the naturalistic fallacy.” (Steven Novella, Evidence-Based Medicine). Caulfield also quotes another example from a University of Guelph study in 2010: “organic approved insecticides had a similar or even greater negative impact on several natural enemy species in lab studies, were more detrimental to biological control organisms in field experiments, and had higher [environmental impact] at field use rates.” So much for that! Another reason for purchasing organic produce, the “alternativism” of it, the rejection of so-called “Big Food”, the embrace of an anti-corporate choice – we’re all just fooling ourselves. Apparently many organic food brands are now owned by Kellogg’s and PepsiCo!

Want more?

Second, an interesting, and, to be honest, kind of funny study explored the degree to which purchasing organic food impacted moral attitudes and altruistic behaviour. Given the degree to which organic food is marketed with moral overtones – organic brands have names such as Honest Team, Purity Life, Seeds of Change, Living Tree Community – the author was curious about whether organic food had an impact on how people behaved. The study came to the paradoxical conclusion that being exposed to organic food does not make individuals into caring, open-minded hippies. It makes people more self-righteous, judgmental and less altruistic. (pp. 55-56)

Oh my God! We use a lot of organic produce at our restaurants – our chefs like the idea and our clientele certainly do – so that means we’re responsible for people becoming less nice and open-minded! Gah! But I told a few people about organic food not providing health benefits and someone said, “No. I can’t believe that.” I think that is a very telling choice of words. Belief and faith vs. fact and evidence. Even provided with evidence, people will believe what they want!

Caulfield approaches every topic with curiosity and even tries Gwyneth’s cleanse. He concludes that most of the health-oriented activities celebrities practice, whether they claim it’s to purify themselves of toxins (nonsense), or to revitalize their adrenals (also nonsense), what it’s really all about is weight loss, because the pressure to be thin and to look young is unrelenting in their industry. So even while spouting about how healthy (read: thin and young) they strive to be, many celebrities participate in two behaviours that are scientifically proven to be both aging and disease causing: smoking and tanning. An astonishing number of celebrities smoke! Their publicists work hard to keep pictures of their clients smoking out of the media, but they do it, mostly to stay thin. Amazing. So they’re drinking water like crazy (this isn’t necessary), rinsing out their colons, consuming enormous quantities of supplements (actually this is dangerous too), eating organic produce, “juicing”, doing cleansing diets, all of which has no scientific support, but they’re smoking, of which the World Health Organization says, “Tobacco kills up to half its users.” It’s particularly rich that Gwyneth Paltrow, who has established herself as a proponent of and adjudicator of the healthy lifestyle, smokes and admits it. She’s quoted as referring to smoking as “just the right amount of naughty”. Good quality health advice! I love the idea of people who make extravagant claims about “toxins” actively ingesting cigarette smoke.

How about tanning? Caulfield has another Gwyneth quote, almost as silly as the smoking one: “We’re human beings and the sun is the sun – how can it be bad for you? I think we should all get sun and fresh air… I don’t think anything that is natural can be bad for you.” If I didn’t know better, I’d love this, because I love getting a tan. But I know it’s bad for me and I’m trying to avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. And I certainly don’t tell people that it’s a good thing to do! It’s also incredibly silly to opine that anything natural can’t hurt you. Belladonna, arsenic, cyanide – all deadly poisons, all natural! Tsunami are natural too! Want to go hang out and experience one?

Sorry! The Rise of Naturalism really gets me going sometimes. Rousseau and Thoreau and millions of hippies have a lot to answer for. That’s another post.

Something that surprised me was the news that taking vitamins and supplements is futile. Caulfield quotes research that shows that there is no benefit to taking supplements, that Vitamin C doesn’t prevent colds, that supplementing some vitamins such as A and E “may actually increase the risk of certain cancers.” When I feel a cold coming on I start taking Emergen-C and I imagine it helps. But it could be the placebo effect. I do know that too much Vitamin C isn’t good for you as it can cause kidney stones if you overdo it but I thought that a little Emergen-C would help a cold. Maybe not! Not only that, but check this out:

A 2013 study from the University of Guelph, for example, did a blind study of commercially available supplements and found that “most of the herbal products were of low quality, including considerable product substitution, contamination and use of fillers.” Remarkably, they found some product substitution – the use of another, unlabelled herb in place of the main ingredient – in products of 83 percent of the companies tested. In other words, only 17 percent of the companies were providing products that matched what the label said. This is, of course, both dangerous and unethical. It should not be forgotten that the massive supplement and vitamin industry, worth, by some estimates, approximately $60 billion worldwide, is about profits and moving product. Because of the bucks to be made, many pharmaceutical companies have recently acquired companies that produce supplements. Since it is not a tightly regulate industry, this situation should surprise no one. (pp. 48-49)

It surprised me! I totally believed that if you buy a bottle of raspberry ketones, it should contain raspberry ketones. (Yeah, I know they’re useless.)

Another widely held belief that Caulfield blows apart is the notion that it’s healthier to live in the country than the city. Again, no! Rural dwellers have higher rates of cancers, depression, heart disease, and pretty much every other ill humans can suffer, than urban dwellers. Even though we picture cities as smoggy dust holes and envision the country as clean and pristine, there is scientific evidence that shows we’re better off in the smoggy dust holes. This is one of those scientific studies that I can’t refute, but it feels wrong. It doesn’t “make sense” to me. I love going to Vancouver Island because the air does feel cleaner! Maybe if you’re just there on vacation it feels invigorating, but if you live there your health suffers? The studies observe that there are socioeconomic factors as well, but that even urban poor are better off than rural poor. It goes against our notions, but facts are facts.

Caulfield undergoes a Gwyneth cleanse but has various bodily products (blood, feces, etc.) tested both before and after the cleanse. The result? No change! The idea of detoxifying is unscientific and also super silly. Here’s another quote!

The idea of detoxing is faulty in so many levels that it borders on the absurd. First, the human body has organs, including the kidneys, liver, skin and colon, that take care of the detoxification process. When you pee, you are detoxifying. Toxins don’t build up waiting to be cleansed by supplements and special foods…As summarized in a 2005 academic article titled “Detox Diets Provide Empty Promises,” “These approaches are contrary to scientific consensus and medical evidence and are not consistent with the principle that diets should reflect balance, moderation, and variety.” (pp. 25-26)

Caulfield speculates that the appeal of cleanses lies in the masochism of punishing your body in this fashion. “Cleanses are a form of self-flagellation.” (p. 43) Your average Westerner is accustomed to a certain level of self-indulgence on a daily basis (I know I am), so an extreme diet is a form of atonement for this behaviour, and the reduction in calories may actually provide a break from regular overeating. So, possibly not all bad, and my dietician mother says, “A couple of weeks on one of these diets won’t kill you, but it’s not a long-term strategy for weight loss.”

While there were sections that validated things I felt I already knew – juicing is silly, also cleansing and colonic irrigation – there were sections that made me distinctly uncomfortable. For instance, the aforementioned tanning piece. I also squirmed through the section on the beauty industry. Basically, all the claims made for various products are false, especially if they use words like “radiant,” “rejuvenating,” and similar. I have a weakness for beauty products and if a product makes an interesting claim I usually plunk down my money for it. I love new product, especially makeup. It’s fun to play with. Mind you, I also get excited about a new set of pencil crayons. It’s all art, innit?

So here’s the thing: the rise of social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, makes people feel close to celebrities. It also gives celebrities a direct way of promoting their beliefs and opinions. Sometimes they benefit financially from such promotion and sometimes it’s just something to tweet and it feels good to make a pronouncement and have all your loyal following go Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah. And because people feel close to the celebrities they follow, they are susceptible to following their chosen celebrities’ advice. Caulfield shows that this is not sensible behaviour and that the advice itself is often not helpful and can often be dangerous.

In Part II I’m going to consider Caulfield’s thesis that because of media, both social and traditional, people not only emulate celebrity behaviour, but they also seem to consider a celebrity lifestyle an accessible and realistic goal and direct much of their energy and resources into achieving this goal, despite clear and obvious evidence that the success rate of this kind of endeavour is not high. Less than 1%, in fact! Yes, we will talk about hockey parents…





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