Convincing laypeople to accept the basic scientific principle of evolution has always been tough. Research has found that many people associate evolution with the notion that life is random and meaningless, and then reject the theory as unbearable. Given this reflexive resistance, what are science educators to do?
New research provides an unorthodox answer: Enlist the aid of a celebrity.
"The reach of credible celebrity endorsers [extends] beyond consumer behavior to core individual beliefs," concludes a research team led by psychologist Steven Arnocky of Canada's Nipissing University. "Exposure to a celebrity's opinion about evolution can influence individuals' acceptance of evolution."
In the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Arnocky and his colleagues demonstrate this pattern in a series of studies. One of them featured 360 college students in northern Ontario, all of whom read a magazine article about evolution. One version of the fictional piece expressed support for the theory, while another was skeptical, and a third was neutral.
In half of the articles, the viewpoint was expressed by an expert on the subject; in the others, it was conveyed by a celebrity: George Clooney. (In the latter case, the piece was framed as a "Celebrity Book Review," in which the movie star recommended a book of his choosing.)
After being quizzed on the contents of the article, participants completed a standard questionnaire measuring their level of acceptance of the theory of evolution. Using a five-point scale, they reported their level of agreement with such statements as, "Organisms existing today are the result of evolutionary processes that have occurred over millions of years."
Participants who read that Clooney endorsed evolution expressed greater acceptance of the theory than those who were told that he was anti-evolution or neutral on the subject. This held true even after subjects' age and level of religiosity were taken into account.
But while Clooney's endorsement carried weight, the views of the expert—in this case, a fictitious biology professor at a prestigious university—did not. His stance on the subject did not have a significant impact on the participants' opinions.
Follow-up studies confirmed celebrities' persuasive power on this topic, with one finding that it remains potent when the star endorser is a woman (actress Emma Watson).
The results present an opportunity for science educators, who would be wise to utilize stars in their informational campaigns. But they also suggest that scientifically unsupported statements by public figures—such as Justin Bieber's scoffing at the Big Bang theory—could easily spread ignorance.
Either way, it appears the influence of the famous is hardly limited to the brand of running shoes we buy. When it comes to convincing people of a basic scientific truth, Johnny Depp beats Charlie Darwin.