The Irresponsible Dr. Oz, Softening The Public Up for Charlatans

Don't be skeptical! Dr. Oz says it's real.

When Summerlin Hospital had to step in to prevent first-time parents from endangering their infant by using “natural medicine” to treat their sick newborn, it may have been fighting the influence of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oprah Winfrey’s health-care guru.

The popular “Dr. Oz” is a walking TV and book franchise, a Harvard-educated cardiovascular surgeon who has emerged as the nation’s most persuasive and trusted advocate for unconventional health care, or as Dr. Wallace Sampson, former chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud, calls it,”faith healing for the masses.” He has testified before a Senate panel to condemn the mainstream medical profession’s failure to embrace “the natural healing power of our bodies,” and its hostility to “hypnotherapists, massage therapists, spiritual healers.” Dr. Oz has, shall we say, an open mind.

In his expose of the popular health talk show host, “Shamblog” writer Steve Salermo wrote in the New York Daily News,

“…Oz seldom misses an opportunity to diss the physical realm. “As we get better at understanding how little we know about the body,” he told Oprah’s audience in 2007, ‘we begin to realize that the next big frontier . . .  [isn’t] the chemistry of our body. It’s understanding for the first time how energy influences how we feel.” Or consider the blurb he did for Esquire on a new product offering “homeopathic stress relief.” “Does it work?” he wrote. “I doubt we could prove it in a clinical trial, but not everything that’s measured is important, and not everything that’s important can be measured.” Less measured is the opinion of the British Medical Association, which recently denounced homeopathy as “witchcraft.”

“Aiding and abetting Oz is a rotating cast of colorful guests. For example, he gave air time to Dr. Joseph Mercola, a fan of krill oil for “support” of joint, liver and heart health. Unsurprisingly, Mercola sells the product on his Web site – where he also advanced the novel idea that cancer might be a fungus and, if so, should be responsive to baking soda. Mercola has been twice warned by the FDA about his questionable claims.”

That the handsome, engaging MD with the soothing manner would be selling his trusting audience on the credibility of quacks seems beyond imagining to his legion of fans, and Salermo was roundly criticized when he dared to suggest that yet another of Oprah’s protegé’s was less than reliable. But he was 100% right: Dr. Oz is not only irresponsible, but dangerous.

The irrefutable proof? Last month, Dr. Oz prominently featured John Edward, a skilled carnival-tent performer who is, amazingly enough, even more deceitful than his almost name-sake, John Edwards. Edward, you see, claims to talk to dead people, and makes millions of dollars for himself doing it. Of course, he doesn’t talk to dead people. Edwards is a skilled “cold-reader,” who convincingly guesses at the personal details of his marks’ lives based on basic background information and uses their answers to his questions to manufacture messages from The Great Beyond. At best, he is an entertainer, like “The Amazing Kreskin” of Johnny Carson fame, but unlike Kreskin, his schtick is based on the fiction that what he does is real.

This allows him, and those like him, to con desperate widows, conscience-stricken widowers and grieving children. “Patrick Jane,” the  hero of TV’s Emmy Winning “The Mentalist,” essentially portrays a John Edward of a parallel universe,  where the fake psychic uses his skills to solve crimes.  In this universe, however, Dr. Oz fawned over the fake medium Edward, and refused to inject a single note of skepticism into the program, perhaps because he didn’t do his research and didn’t know the long, long history of acts like Edward’s.

In a TV Guide article ( Dr. Oz Says Psychic John Edward “Changed My Life” ) published to promote Oz’s Edward-fest, the gullible doctor was quoted as saying this:

“I walked out of that studio thinking, “There’s something here. It’s bizarre. I don’t know what exactly is happening. But it’s definitely something.” I’m a heart surgeon. I can explain a lot of weird things. I’ve seen people who should have died who didn’t. Over the years I’ve had some pretty deep conversations with people who died and say they saw “the light” and came back with stories. I’ve heard many things that are not easy to reconcile with the western scientific mind, so you try to think of a reason for what’s going on. Could it be synapses short-circuiting in the brain that make people think they’re having an out-of-body experience? That’s what a doctor does. He tries to find a rational explanation. But I can’t make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.”

This is talk-show host malpractice.

Almost a century ago, when charlatans like Edward were under every rock, and psychic and paranormal phenomena were a widely believed national fad, Scientific American offered a rich cash prize to anyone, like Edwards, who would submit their supposed extra-normal abilities to scientific scrutiny. If one passed the tests of his or her claimed abilities offered by the magazine’s panel of scientists, experts, and skeptics, the money would be awarded to the nation’s first certified psychic.   Initially, throngs of famous psychics, mediums, “automatic writers” and others applied for the prize.

All of them ended up exposed and ruined. You see, one of the members of the committee was none other than magician Harry Houdini, who had studied and practiced the skills of deception like no one before or since. He could do every single amazing feat the psychics claimed to so, but using natural means, and he used his knowledge to expose their techniques and destroy their careers. The Scientific American prize is still available today. Don’t expect John Edward to try to claim it, though—Houdini’s old spot on the committee is held by the estimable James Randi, another magic history expert and former magician. Edward is no fool.

The fool is Dr. Oz.

Several years ago, I gave up on The Today Show generally and host Matt Lauer particularly after had I had watched in horror as he performed a completely uncritical interview of television medium Lisa Williams, then star of a cable TV show “Life Among the Dead.” Williams claimed to see dead people, like Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” and Lauer accepted her claim as fact while showing no skepticism whatsoever. I wrote:

“Lauer’s conduct, not to mince words, was embarrassing and disgraceful. Mediums and psychics scam millions of people out of millions of dollars every year, aided and abetted by television shows like “Medium” and “The Ghost Whisperer,” which present characters with paranormal abilities as heroes who can solve crimes, heal broken psyches, and prevent disasters. Yes: these shows and others are self-evidently fiction and entertainment, and it is not the fault of the producers that many Americans still regard them as mirroring truth. But Lauer is supposed to be a journalist. His job is to apply his skills as a journalist to report facts, challenge deception and uncover truth. Instead, he used his credibility to support the most incredible of claims, without a smidgen of actual evidence and in defiance of science, logic, and history.

“Some transgressions of journalistic ethics are so serious that they forfeit an individual’s right to be called a journalist at all. Lauer actually had the gall to make the distinction between himself and “skeptics and cynics” regarding Williams’ powers, when it is he, as a journalist, who is obligated by his profession to be the skeptic, and to insist on separating fact from opinion, self-promotion, and fiction. Williams said that she sees and talks to dead people; she also claims that her son has “healing hands.” That was good enough for Matt Lauer, and it is likely to be good enough for many of the millions who trust the Today hosts; remember that his partner, Katie Couric, moved directly into the news anchor’s chair at CBS. Lauer didn’t challenge or investigate a likely instance of public deception; instead, he endorsed and participated in it.”

Okay, Lauer showed himself to be an incompetent, lazy and irresponsible journalist, as well as an idiot, and that’s bad. Dr. Oz, however, is a doctor with a national following, and for him to permit his credentials and credibility to be put in the service of a scam-artist like John Edward is far, far, worse.

David Gorski, who writes the blog Science-based Medicine, provided a detailed dissection of Edward’s appearance with Dr. Oz, and concluded with this:

“…What’s going on here, I think, is more likely to be pure hubris. I submit to you that Dr. Oz has become so enamored with himself and his image as “America’s doctor” an the iconoclast who bucks the medical system, sees beyond “Western medicine,” and is just so much more damned smart than other doctors, that it likely never occurred to him that he could be fooled by a psychic scammer like John Edward just as easily as anyone else. Add to that his need to fill the insatiable maw of his daily TV show with new topics and new guests, coupled with the demands of his audience, who are clearly very much into this sort of thing, and it becomes easy for him to justify having a guest like John Edward as both evidence of his intelligence and open-mindedness and giving the people what they want. Bread and circuses. That’s apparently what they want. I can only wonder what’s next for The Dr. Oz Show after this? I predict alien abductions. Or maybe the “conspiracy” to keep the One True Cure for Cancer from the people….”

Whichever it is, and whatever the reason for Oz’s complete abdication of due diligence and responsibility, he has betrayed the trust of the public that looks to him as an expert, and someone who can be relied upon to supply facts, good advice, and careful analysis. Instead, he has laid them bare to attack by unscrupulous predators who use grief as a tool for enrichment.

14 thoughts on “The Irresponsible Dr. Oz, Softening The Public Up for Charlatans

  1. “Dr. Oz has, shall we say, an open mind.”
    So open the wind blows through it. Oprah is a major driving force behind the silly magical thinking that’s becoming so prominent in the media. From her show have sprung :
    1. ‘The Secret’ – all you have to do is wish to be successful, and everything will be fine if you have the right mental imagery–the flip side of which is , you thought that cancer on yourself, or caused your child to die because if thinking can change your fate, we must have ‘thought’ ourselves into whatever pickle we’re in. Well, The Secret doesn’t explain that very well…

    2. Dr. Phil- Telegenic I suppose, with that down home style, but practically without a credential to his name.

    3. And of course, good ol’ Dr. Oz. Elderly women like my mother watch him and get sucked in….have they no shame? Stick to heart surgery, buddy, if you can even do that well….

    It’s incredible what people will swallow, as well as what people are willing to push if someone doesn’t stop them.

    • I never was aware of this aspect of Oz’s act until recently. When I participated in one of Oprah’s expos a couple years back, he (along with Suzie Orman) was the rock star. Smart people with limited education can be dangerous (Glenn Beck comes to mind) when their curiosity and search for knowledge leads them into dark corners they should have been taught to avoid. Oprah’s in this category, and has done a lot of damage by her endorsement and promotion of people like Dr. Oz, who pass on the illicit prestige to the likes of John Edwards.

  2. I don’t know about Poe, but HP Lovecraft would not have been in on this kind of nonsense. He was a skeptic who only wrote stories about the supernatural (and often the “supernatural” in his stories was just really advanced alien technology).

  3. This is why one of the best shows on TV is Showtime’s Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
    P&T consider Houdini a personal hero and have said that his work as a skeptic was essentially their inspiration for doing the show.


  4. And another of my favorite quotes:

    “Anything that can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” (Sam Harris).

  5. Pingback: Science-Based Medicine » The trouble with Dr. Oz

  6. Now wait, we have to be fair. I’m sure a Dr. Oz double-blind research study might be limited when N=3 and a little subjective with researchers and young scientists seeking their undergraduate degree. However, he did deliver a valuable lesson when he cried that his image was abused by hundreds of home business sites marketing green coffee bean extract. We must be careful what we put on the Internet…Now I wouldn’t want his karma for the poor soul who hurts himself in a new way with unroasted coffee beans but there is some value…

  7. Good article. Agree with it all.

    I’m sure the author enjoyed seing Dr. Oz in front of Congress explaining away his rubbish since this was written. There is nothing less than an urgently damaging and debilitating disrespect for critical thinking in this country. I think more than half of adults lack–and I base this on seeing results of various national surveys–the ability to think critically in an even elementary manner about the world around them.

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