This past October, actress and neuroscientist Mayim Bialik released a YouTube video in which she told viewers that she was going to do something she hadn’t done in 30 years: Get a vaccine. Specifically, vaccines for the coronavirus and flu.
“Now you might be saying, ‘Hey wait a second, Dr. Mayim Bialik, you don’t believe in vaccines. You’re one of those anti-vaxxers! I know it because I read it online,’ ” Bialik said in a jovial tone, waving her hand dismissively. “Well folks, let’s finally talk about it.”
Bialik was referring to the many headlines that have appeared since her 2012 parenting book revealed her two sons were not on the “typical” vaccine schedule — and when she has offered quotes such as one to People magazine in 2009, saying “we are a non-vaccinating family.” While Bialik has long fought back against the anti-vaccine label, this video was the most in-depth defense yet. “I have never once said that vaccines are not valuable, not useful or not necessary — because they are,” she said, adding her children did receive some vaccinations, which she delayed for reasons she doesn’t want to share publicly.
But her comments are making the rounds once again as Bialik is suddenly in a bigger spotlight in 2021 than anyone could have predicted. Bialik, who drew rave reviews when she guest-hosted “Jeopardy!” earlier this year, was tapped on Aug. 11 as the host for the show’s primetime specials and spinoffs alongside executive producer Mike Richards as the daily syndicated host. When Richards was forced to step down days later after the revelation of his offensive comments on his former podcast, Sony Pictures Television announced that Bialik would fill in and film 15 episodes this week as executives continue their search for a permanent host.
Now that Bialik is officially embedded in a legendary television institution, “Jeopardy!” fans and social media users are digging into her past: Her 2017 New York Times op-ed about disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein that was criticized for victim-blaming, or her book that promoted the hotly debated attachment parenting philosophy (“Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way”).
When Richards was originally involved in the host search process, he said that social media response would play a role, but not a particularly big one — after all, plenty of the “Jeopardy!” core audience does not spend a lot of time on Twitter. But that appears to be changing, as the online backlash with Richards was too overwhelming for Sony executives to ignore.
“Everybody cares about it, whether you’re ‘Jeopardy!’ or ‘Big Brother.’ That’s our world today,” said Marc Berman, who runs the website Programming Insider. “The world has changed — it’s not just about watching a television show. It’s about people interacting.”
Two of Bialik’s stances drawing the most ire are her quotes on vaccines and her role as a “science ambassador” for Neuriva, an over-the-counter supplement marketed as a way to improve brain health, which has been slammed as pseudoscience. Bialik, who rose to fame as the starring role in the 1990s NBC sitcom “Blossom” and then CBS’s monster hit “The Big Bang Theory,” also earned her PhD in neuroscience from UCLA in 2007.
“Neuriva is backed by real science and vetted by a real neuroscientist: Me! I really am. Check your phone,” Bialik cheerfully says in one of the commercials, adding the supplement helps with everything from memory to concentration. “Don’t trust your brain to any old supplement — trust the one backed by America’s favorite neuroscientist. Again, that’s me!”
Bialik’s partnership was announced in March, though the following month, Bloomberg Law reported that as part of a false advertising class action settlement, Neuriva manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser agreed to swap marketing language that the supplement was clinically or science “proven” with terms such as clinically or science “tested.” In the wake of Bialik’s “Jeopardy!” announcement, social media users have also started sharing a Psychology Today article from 2020 that called Neuriva “snake oil” and “pseudoscience nonsense.” A representative for Neuriva did not return a request for comment.
James Russell Bateman, a behavioral neurologist, said clinical scientists often “recoil” at these products because they haven’t been tested fully in humans — and companies make claims about them that aren’t required to be true. They just include a warning label and note that supplements are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“I see a lot of folks coming in who are desperate — cognitive decline in older adults is terrifying to them. They’re worried about Alzheimer’s and losing memory,” said Bateman, an assistant professor at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. “It’s a vulnerable population who are willing to pay money for something that may not have much in the way of benefits.”
There’s “always a kernel of scientific truth” in these types of supplements, Bateman said, such as the fact that Neuriva contains the “coffee cherry extract,” which increases levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). One problem is that while that has been tested in mice — studies have sometimes shown it helps them go through mazes more quickly — it’s unclear if it leads to improved cognitive skills in humans, or even increases levels of BDNF in the brain.
But when a celebrity with scientific credentials endorses such a product, it can make an impact. “It gives a veil of legitimacy to something like this — I would say that there’s quite a difference between having a basic science background and having done lab work, and then being able to translate that lab work into human trials,” Bateman said. “There’s a big chasm there.”
Bialik’s publicist had no comment on her association with Neuriva, though in regards to her past comments on vaccines, said the actress and her sons are all fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and “she believes in the science behind vaccines and medicine.” A Sony spokesperson declined to comment on the backlash against Bialik, but pointed to a previous release that stated they are thrilled to have the actress on board.
Despite Bialik’s explanation in her October video, in which she said it was “disturbing” that people won’t get a coronavirus vaccine, some have still criticized her for vocalizing her wariness about vaccines in general. “Now, do I think we give way too many vaccines in this country compared to when I was a vaccinated child? Yes,” she said, and added that there is a “tremendous profit” made from vaccines and “the medical community often operate[s] from a place of fear in order to make money.”
In other words, look for these issues to continuously arise on social media as Bialik takes the stage on “Jeopardy!” once again this fall. Given the late Alex Trebek’s saintly reputation, and the fact that “Jeopardy!” is beloved for celebrating facts and knowledge, it’s no surprise that Bialik’s questionable statements are drawing fire.
“If you’re looking for a host to fill in for the one of a kind Alex Trebek, that nobody could match, nobody could top, your standard is so high here,” Berman said. “You have to check out everybody very carefully.”