Can celebrity endorsements help people accept evolution?

The short answer to the question above is “yes”. Or so suggests new research on acceptance of evolution published in Evolutionary Psychology (click on screenshot below; access free with Unpaywall app and free pdf is here).

The method: Several samples of people from Canada (most from a “small university in northern Ontario”, probably Nipissing University) were given one of three fictitious passages to read; these passages were either pro-evolution, anti-evolution, or neutral (the last was a summary of a work of fiction). Participant’s religious beliefs as well as demographic data were also taken. There were four experiments in total, and I’ll summarize the results briefly. One of the passages involved my book, though it wasn’t from my book; I’ll put that in along with the “antievolution passsage” as examples of the readings (pictures of the book covers were also included):

1.) Acceptance of evolution after reading the three passages. After controlling for sex and age, the three passages by themselves had no effect on participant’s acceptance of evolution as judged by the often-used MATE test, which has 18 questions. In other words, reading about evolution (or fiction) didn’t affect a person’s short-term acceptance of evolution. (Although acceptance/rejection wasn’t assessed before reading, the passages were randomized among the 150 subjects, presumably taking care of stuff like religiosity—which was negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution).

The fact that students’ reading of the three passages had no overall effect on their MATE scores set up the scenario for the rest of the study, which involved adding endorsements to the passages: endorsements by either an “expert” in evolution (a fictitious professor) or a celebrity (George Clooney or Emma Watson, chosen for their likability and recognition.

2.) Endorsements by a male celebrity vs a male expert; student population. Students again were randomly assigned one of the three passages, and this time each passage was accompanied by a heading indicating it was from a magazine article called “Celebrity book review”, with the celebrity being George Clooney, or “Expert book review”, with the “expert” being fictitious American university professor George Rooney. Thus we have six conditions, with pro-evolution, anti-evolution, and neutral passages, each with an endorsement by a celebrity or expert. Remember that both celebrity and expert could endorse either pro- or anti-evolution stands.

The result was that, compared to the initial non-endorsement condition shown in 1.) above, a celebrity endorsement or a pro-evolution passage raised acceptance of evolution compared to the neutral condition, while Clooney’s endorsement of an anti-evolution passage lowered it compared to the neutral condition. In other words, a celebrity endorsement had an effect on acceptance of evolution.

This was not seen when the three passages were endorsed by an evolution science expert; here there was no effect. The figure below shows the effect of Clooney’s endorsement (left three bars) compared to Rooney’s (right three bars):

(From paper) Figure 1. Mean differences in acceptance of evolution scores across opinion (proevolution, anti-evolution, and control) and purveyor (celebrity, expert) conditions. †p < .01. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.

3.) Endorsements by a celebrity vs an expert; “community” population. Here the authors did the same test, but used only Clooney and not the expert, and surveyed 157 people “recruited form various public locations. . . in a small city in Northern Ontario, Canada.” There was no assessment of the passages themselves without endorsement, but the authors apparently assumed that reading the passages themselves had no effect on the MATE score—as was found in the student population.

The result was the same: there was a significant difference between treatments in the expected direction (effects weren’t that large for the pro-evolution endorsement), showing once again a celebrity effect (see below). As I said, there was no test of endorsement by an expert scientist. But there’s a problem because there was no initial test of the effects of the passages themselves, without endorsements, on the “community members”, so there’s that critical assumption that the community mirrors the condition of the students.

(From paper) Figure 2. Mean differences in acceptance of evolution scores across opinion (pro-evolution, anti-evolution, and control) purveyed by a male celebrity among a community sample. †p < .01. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.

4.) Endorsements by a female celebrity; student population. Here the celebrity was Emma Watson rather than George Clooney, and there was no comparison with an evolution “expert” (who would presumably have been a woman scientist). Let me show why they chose Watson:

Emma Watson was chosen as the female celebrity because she was included in Time Magazine’s 2015 list of the 100 most influential people. Additionally, AskMen.com (2015) placed her at the top of its list of the Top 99 Outstanding Women, in part because she is “rich, successful, famous, stylish, beautiful, intelligent, personable, and kind.”

Well, that’s more or less the same criteria used for Clooney. And once again the celebrity endorsement had an effect on the data from 158 students recruited from that same “small University in Northern Ontario” (why do they hide its name; it’s obvious!). Here are the data for Watson’s endorsement; the direction and size of the effect (i.e. the degree to which endorsement of evolution increased acceptance or criticism of evolution decreased acceptance) was about the same for Watson or Clooney.

(From paper): Mean differences in acceptance of evolution scores across opinion (pro-evolution, anti-evolution, and control) purveyed by a female celebrity. p < .01. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.

The upshot. In this study, among all three groups (with the caveats given above), celebrity endorsement of a position on evolution changed students’ or the population’s views on evolution in the expected direction, whether that endorsement be an affirmation or a criticism. In other words, evolution is like a product that can be sold more readily if a celebrity endorses it (the authors cite data showing positive effects of such endorsement in commercials).

Further, a celebrity had a much bigger effect than that of a fictitious “expert”. In fact, endorsement or criticism of evolution by a scientist had no effect. These celebrity effects occurred irregardless of the effect of participants’ religiosity, which itself was negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution.

Of course there are limitations of these tests. The authors mention the limitation of much of the study to undergraduate students, and to a “young, Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic sample.” Maybe celebrities don’t have an effect on other populations.  But the authors don’t mention another significant issue: the effect was measured only in the short term, presumably within an hour after reading the passages. We don’t know if this kind of “priming” has any long term effect on acceptance of evolution, which you’d need to measure a long time after the students read the passages. What we’re like to see is long-term acceptance, not short-term acceptance.

I guess I’m not surprised at the result, as we know that people tend to accept ideas more readily when those ideas are endorsed by members of their “tribe,” and I suppose that people like Clooney and Watson, who are widely admired, can be considered members of the Canadians’ “tribe.” It’s not clear whether people can see a scientist as a member of their tribe.

But what action does this result suggest if we want people to accept evolution? I suppose it couldn’t hurt to have celebrities endorse evolution, though I’m not aware of any who have. (Of course, celebrities, at least in Hollywood, tend to be liberal and Democratic, and so probably would endorse evolution). So by all means let’s get the NSF to gather celebrity endorsements and publicize them.

Since I’m not a celebrity, though, all I can do is talk about the data supporting evolution, as I’m no George Clooney! Maybe a combination of a scientist and celebrity, as with people like Brian Cox (previously a rock star) or Neil deGrasse Tyson, would work better than scientists alone.

All I can say is that if endorsements work over the long term, that’s fine; but people should also look at the data supporting evolution rather than simply relying on either scientist-experts or celebrities. After all, you can understand why evolution is true without fancy degrees in science.

41 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    OK – Emma Watson, George Clooney definitely NOT scientists.

  2. Marou
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    A pedant writes:
    ‘Irregardless’ – really?

    • Gamall
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      No need to be a pedant to point out that irregardless is a terribly clunky word. And a pox on humanity. And literally worse that Hitler.

      • JB
        Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Lol..I see what you did their.

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 4:55 am | Permalink

      Glad I spotted this comment. I was going to write:

      “irregardless” – Nooooooooooooooooooo!

      but I don’t need to now.

  3. Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    That should read, “A pedant has written:”…

  4. Jenny Haniver
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I can hardly wait to see what happens when the Kardashians and Cardi B endorse evolution. It’ll go big-time then.

    • JezGrove
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Sadly, their followers will probably think they somehow evolved their bigger shinier body parts…

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        That sure cracked me up. You’re right.

  5. Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    And Brian May– also a rock star turned astrophysicist.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Brian May is also a very likeable personality, who puts a human face on the ivory tower (to scramble metaphors).

      So that has something to do with it.

      cr

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 1:33 am | Permalink

      He’s retired from rock?

      -Ryan

  6. Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Apart (!) from the fragilitiy in acceptance of evolution, I see no reason for concern.

    An unknown and presumaby unfamous expert will be regrded as parti pris when it comes to judging what most people will recognise as the conclusion of mainstream expert opinion.

    A view allegedly put forward by non-expert celebrity will be looked at more seriously if that expert is regarded as intelligent and generally well-informed, as one might well regard both Clooney and Watson. So yes, by all means bring on the celebrities if they meet those two broad criteria.

    And you might also have mentioned Professor Alice Roberts, who is, in the UK at least, a celebrity precisely *because* of her TV presentations directly related to the evolutionary anthropology that is her area of academic expertise.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      It would be interesting to see the same study run with Justin Bieber and Honey Boo-Boo as celebrity endorsements.

      • yazikus
        Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        That would be really interesting! I’m guessing that folks who follow those two might not be thinking about evolution much, if any. If Bieber/BooBoo were to start talking about how important it was? Perhaps we’d be reaching a whole new audience of potential science lovers.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that is correct, I’d tend to attach more weight to the opinion of say John Cleese than to the one of Mr Bieber. (But then, I’m not the one who needs convincing about evolution by Celebs, already convinced by the science).
      Note, it works the other way round too. Cruise with his scientology turns out to be a kinda feeble upstairs. Same for Jim Carey with his antivaxx lunacy. And what about Suzan Sarandon with her ‘Bernie or burst’ stance? The attitude that gave the US years of pollution, climate change denialism, ‘tricke’down’and destructive international relations not to mention decades of courts that would gladly curtail women’s rights and reinstate Jim Crow.
      Three examples were endorsing unreasonable stances by Celebrities have torpedoed my bit of esteem I had.

    • Posted November 20, 2018 at 5:05 am | Permalink

      Apart (!) from the fragilitiy in acceptance of evolution, I see no reason for concern.

      I give you Jenny McCarthy. A lot of people will take her opinion on vaccination over any number of people who know what they are talking about. Probably people have died because of her views.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    … these passages were either pro-evolution, anti-evolution, or … a summary of a work of fiction …

    The first of these things is not like the others.

    • Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      I know. It starts with a p.

      • Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

        😀

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:49 am | Permalink

        And that rhymes with “T” and that stands for “trouble.” Right here in River City.

        • yazikus
          Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

          One of my all time favorite musicals. Always apropos, it seems. ‘A wholesome trotting race no!! But one where you set down right on the horse!’. Scandalous.

  8. Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I wonder whether it is really celebrity that they find convincing or simply someone they think they know. After all, the expert’s opinion can be dismissed because (a) the subject doesn’t know them and (b) of course an evolution expert would believe in evolution. An astrology “expert” wouldn’t move my dial on astrology.

    It might be difficult to include a friend as influencer in a version of this experiment but it results might be interesting. In the meantime, it seems we should create a “Celebrities for Evolution” group.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    George Clooney … chosen for [his] likability …

    I guess so. Michelle Obama recently told Jimmy Kimmel that “Clooney is my ‘freebie’.”

    Fella can’t get much more likable than that. 🙂

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      Michelle Obama is a delightful lady. (If she endorsed something – about which I had no strong opinions – I would certainly be more inclined to entertain it.)

      But the same goes for George Clooney – one of the most likeable personalities in Hollywood, I think.

      cr

  10. Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    Feast your eyes on the celebrities who deny evolution
    https://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/celebrities-deny-evolution-article-1.2445238
    For bonus credit, guess how many of these are now (this was 2015) vocal Trump supporters.
    There is likely to be an underlying personality cluster to at least some of this nit-wittery. My first guess would be authoritarian personality (easy to assess with a couple of quick questions about the death penalty or spanking children).
    Now–what intrigues me is whether anything links these beliefs.
    I realize that this might be hard to believe (or even stomach) but a lot of Trumpenites do see him as a godlike figure (I’m not kidding, there exists a sub-rediit of r/thedonald called “God Emperor” and I spent some time on it to see if they were being ironic/joking.
    They banned me so I’m guessing, not.)
    Christianty is, in at least some of its forms, a personality cult (as is Islam and some forms of Buddhism). Judaism isnt. Sometimes I wonder if what is really distinct about Christianity/ Islam/ secular relgions like Marxism is the personality cult–desire to worship some earthly manifestation of deity elements–not the other-worldliness per se?

    • yazikus
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      r/thedonald called “God Emperor”

      So, I heard something on the radio about this, and thought it was a Dune reference, but then someone corrected me that it was ‘God King’ and now I don’t know what the hell they were talking about. Care to enlighten me?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      “There is likely to be an underlying personality cluster to at least some of this nit-wittery”

      “Crank magnetism,” I believe, would be le mot juste.

  11. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Perhaps you should issue a new edition of the book: Why Evolution Is True, by Jerry Coyne and George Clooney.

    • Posted November 19, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Exactly. First convince the celebrities, then the world.

  12. Posted November 19, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Did they factor in political persuasion? Both Clooney and Watson are well known for their liberal activism so that the issue of supporting or betraying the tribe may well have come into it.

  13. Posted November 19, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    [sigh]

    I don’t care if people “accept” evolution (or relativity, or plate tectonics, or …) I care if they understand it enough to make appropriate decisions on it. (Including passing scientific literacy tests!)

  14. Posted November 19, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see celebrities making it easier for teachers to start incidentally talking about the fact of evolution with children as soon as they are in school. Adults are only hostile to the idea if religious teachers got there first started poisoning their brain from an early age.

    This isn’t just about being educated and open to science, of course. It’s about coming to terms with one’s own identity. It’s much easier to understand one’s impulses (and stop them or learn how to use them) if one knows one is a freaking goddam ape and not a divine child of God who must follow the divinely issued user’s manual or risk going to hell.

    I think scientists, while being right to emphasise a thorough-going evidence-based scientific outlook in the later years of education, tend to underestimate the having kids simply encounter facts before they can understand the theoretical framework. Just say it — animal species change very slowly over time. We are also animals. We also changed very slowly over time. It’s no big deal. In fact it can be just as dull and mundane as the existence of atoms or gravity.

    Primary school teachers need to get used to this, and get familiar and comfortable with the facts, and just start mentioning it bluntly as a fact occasionally.

  15. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 19, 2018 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Some celebrities are fairly smart, but others are relatively dense. Emma Watson (and Natalie Portman too) have degrees from Ivy League Universities, so their opinions ARE important to me.

    The opinions of gifted writers and directors are more likely to impress me than those of actors.
    Clooney WROTE (and directed) a great film about Edward R. Murrow, so his opinions matter to me as well.
    Susan Sarandon is a gifted speechmaker, so her opinions count.

    The opinions of Tom Cruise and Gwynneth Paltrow don’t impress me for obvious reason.

    For years I believed in evolution just because people I trusted said so. Finally, I buckled down and read selected portions of Darwin’s “Origin”. I also decided to read one religious defense and one atheist one, so I read Ken Miller’s “Finding Darwin’s God” and Dawkins’ “Greatest Show on Earth”. Since I post here so frequently, I suppose I really should get around to reading WEIT. But I am now convinced, and I think in an informed way.

    • Don Mackay
      Posted November 20, 2018 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      It is one thing to be ‘convinced’, but if you want to feel evolution ‘in your bones’ then read ‘Animal Species and Evolution’ by Ernst Mayr (1966).

  16. Posted November 19, 2018 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think I would be more, or less, inclined to accept, or reject, evolution based on endorsements by scientists or celebrities (or celebrity scientists). I made my way from being a Nazarene in my early life to being a secularist believer in evolution. I read and studied and listened to all sorts of people who impacted my beliefs, pro and con. It would be impossible for me to say now who had the most affect in my development.

    I think it’s useful to be aware of celebrities and scientists who believe in science and evolution. But, as for them causing one’s belief, this seems comparable to followers of religious leaders by the religious. There should be some depth to the knowledge of the individual, not just emulation with noncritical acceptance.

  17. peepuk
    Posted November 20, 2018 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    A garbageman is far more important in my life than every single celebrity I know, however about their opinions I do not care. Why should I?

    What value does it have to believe true claims (f.i. Evolution through natural selection or the second law of thermodynamics) for the wrong reason?

    Even with scientists, a few will be brilliant but wrong and some will be just bad and totally wrong. Science has a way of filtering out wrong claims but it takes often a lot of time.

  18. Posted November 20, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I have thought that the most efficient way to combat female genital mutilation would be if popular young men (e.g. top athletes and singers) from the population in question state that they find the practice moronic and would marry only a woman with intact genitalia.

  19. Diane G
    Posted November 21, 2018 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    sub

  20. don mackay
    Posted November 21, 2018 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Angus,

    thanks for the below. In the light of the general tenure of them you may be interested in this from my friend, Jerry Coyne.

    https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2018/11/19/can-celebrity-endorsements-help-people-accept-evolution/

    Very bush at present with NCEA. must away, Will catch up later. Cheers, Donny.

  21. drawingbusiness
    Posted November 22, 2018 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    As much as I like and admire Professor Brian Cox for his intelligence, likability and no-nonsense approach to ignorance and misinformation, I’m not sure being the keyboard player in a one-hit pop group has earned him the moniker “rock star”.


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