Ethics Dunces: Ten Prominent Doctors, Surgeons and Med School Professors Who Want Columbia To Kick “Dr. Oz” Off Its Faculty

Dr Oz

Perhaps they tried this because Columbia has been having a bad ethics year so far… that could be it, I guess.

For the record, here are are the ten prominent individuals in the field of medicine who called on Columbia University to kick Dr. Mehmet Oz, better known to Oprah fans and junk TV addicts as “Dr.Oz,” off its medical school’s faculty:

Henry I. Miller, M.D.
Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy
& Public Policy
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Scott W. Atlas, M.D.
David and Joan Traitel Senior Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford, CA

Jack Fisher, M.D.
Professor of Surgery (emeritus)
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Shelley Fleet, M.D.
Longwood, FL

Gordon N. Gill, M.D.
Dean (emeritus) of Translational Medicine
University of California, San Diego
La Jolla, CA

Michael H. Mellon, M.D.
Pediatric Allergist
San Diego, CA

Gilbert Ross, M.D.
President (Acting) and Executive Director
American Council on Science and Health
New York, NY

Samuel Schneider, M.D.
Princeton, NJ

Glenn Swogger Jr. M.D.
Director of the Will Menninger Center for Applied Behavioral Sciences (retired)The Menninger Foundation
Topeka, KS

Joel E. Tepper, M.D.
Hector MacLean Distinguished Professor of Cancer Research
Dept of Radiation Oncology
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
Chapel Hill, NC

And here is their letter. They are troubled because “Dr. Oz” has embraced dubious products and health promotion techniques on his TV show. Indeed he has. On TV, Dr. Oz is a quack. He uses his medical credentials to, as the letter says, show “disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine” and to display  “baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops.”  And no one can deny that  “he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”

None of which is justification for taking him off the faculty, where his teaching duties are unrelated to his lucrative TV persona, and are the direct result of his recognized expertise in cardiothoracic surgery.

Could it be that all of these doctors—including Professors Tepper and Fisher, and Dean Gill— have never encountered the sacred educational principle of  academic freedom?

Here you go, guys: read the statement on the subject by the Association of American Colleges & Universities board. The short version is that society is best served if teachers, professors and scholars can teach, study, speak and write without interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, professional threats or public pressure. It is closely allied with the freedom of speech, which is an extension of academic to the public. A particular professor’s public statements may seem objectively irresponsible, ill-motivated, inappropriate or embarrassing to his or her discipline or the institution that employs her, but that institution may not take action against that individual without being in breach of academic freedom.

Is Oz abusing his influence and position? Absolutely, and unethically so. This is one reason why schools choose their faculties with care, or try to. You just never know what orbits some of these people will spin off into, though. Dr. Linus Pauling, one of the most influential chemists in history, was a pioneer in the fields of quantum chemistry and molecular biology and who won two Nobel Prizes, spent his latter years being a shill for the vitamin industry, although an unpaid one. The best teacher I ever had was the late Professor George Wald, who also won a Nobel, in his case for his work on the biochemistry of the human eye. He became a fanatic, if persuasive, anti-Vietnam war activist. His mania even crept into class sometimes. Then, as now, I considered Wald’s politicking an abuse of his fame and position, just like I believe that singers shouldn’t mix their partisan rants in with their songs during concerts. And they shouldn’t, just like scholars and professors shouldn’t cash in by lending credibility to dubious weight-loss schemes and anti-vaxx nuts, like Dr. Oz has.

If there was ever a terrifyingly slippery slope, however, this is it. There is no way, no way at all, to allow these doctors to pressure Columbia into sacking Dr. Oz and then find a bright line that wouldn’t lead to the harassment and dismissal of today’s Walds, like Cornel West, Angela Davis, and Noam Chomsky on the left, or Ben Carson and Thomas Sowell on the right. Then there is Catherine McKinnon, the Elizabeth A. Long Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, a radical feminist who has championed, indeed inspired campus speech codes...Leon Kass, University of Chicago’s Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus of Social Thought, who has vigorously opposed stem cell research… William Happer,  the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University, who dares to question the “consensus” on global warming…Robert P. George,  the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, who has has the temerity to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage while supporting the philosophy of–the Horror!— Capitalism…Peter Singer, of course, the Princeton ethicist who sees no moral or ethical distinction between late-term abortion and killing a healthy newborn with a hammer, and who regards both as ethical…and Thomas Nagel, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, and national pariah who thinks Charles Darwin was wrong.

Now personally, I wouldn’t want many of these scholars on my faculty, and while I’d love to have been taught linguistics by Professor Chomsky, to name one, his forays into political science are as embarrassing as Pauling’s obsession with Vitamin C. Still, if these professors are removed for their views, then no scholar whose blasphemous, outrageous, unconventional ideas just might be right, could ever challenge the conventional assumptions of academia.

Dr. Oz’s tawdry hucksterism is small-potatoes in this context. Yes, he’s annoying, and I can’t blame any doctors who gag watching his show. In the end, however, their effort to remove him from the faculty at Columbia is as ethically misguided as anything Oz has done, and far more dangerous.

Columbia’s med school replied to the doctors’ demands succinctly:

Dear Dr. Miller et al,

As I am sure you understand and appreciate, Columbia is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.




Pointer: Fred

9 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces: Ten Prominent Doctors, Surgeons and Med School Professors Who Want Columbia To Kick “Dr. Oz” Off Its Faculty

  1. I don’t watch Dr. Oz. That’s the free market at work. If Michelle Bachman wants to watch him and take his anti-vaxx crap seriously, that’s her business. My guess, neither the Doc nor the Cheerleader are going anywhere soon, but neither are they in any danger of becoming American icons. They will have their followings, but sniping at them, like these professors are doing to Oz, will only make them stronger in their buffoonery. Columbia’s response was perfect.

  2. I’m going to have to both agree and disagree with you here. First off, I applaud Columbia University’s response and agree that the principle of academic freedom is applicable here… to a point.

    Secondly, however, I’m going to have to disagree with you regarding the parallels. Linus Pauling was an embarrassment to medicine, not chemistry. Wald was overly passionate about politics, not biology. Nagel’s views on biology are an embarrassment, not his views on what he’s supposed to be actually teaching. Chomsky’s forays into political science may be an embarrassment (personally, I regard them as something of a mixed bag), but that’s not what he was the professor of, is it?

    Kass, McKinnon, Harper, and Singer are closer parallels, of course, but there’s still one rather huge difference: Dr. Oz is a doctor… and runs his show as one. It is, as the comedian John Oliver put it, the Dr. Oz Show, not “Check This Shit Out With Some Guy Named Mehmet”. This is quite relevant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that offering medical advice is within the scope of what doctors do. Offering that advice while invoking his medical license as a relevant qualification, simply put, can be considered part of the actual practice of medicine.

    (Whether or not it legally counts, of course, is another matter. Medical boards are famously reluctant to actually censure doctors for this sort of crap anyway, even when they’re legally justified in doing so… but that’s another issue. His behavior is, however, covered by the enforceable portions of the AMA ethics code even without getting into matters like the reports I’ve seen/heard of him doing things like bringing reiki “practitioners” into the operating room, some of the things I’ve heard about his work at Colombia, or the one time I know of that he actually conducted a human-subjects research project on the show itself without IRB approval.)

    This is important for the very simple reason that the medical profession depends on trust and trustworthiness, for much the same reasons as the legal profession does. We, both as individuals and as a society, regularly entrust doctors with tremendous power over our lives, our health, and even our freedom (see the Baker Act, for instance). When doctors fail to live up to this trust — never mind actually betraying it — people inevitably suffer and die. This is why medical practitioners are licensed — much, I might add, as lawyers are. There are even a number of parallels (and, admittedly, a number of differences) in the ethics codes and statutes.

    The same, I should add, happens when patients don’t trust their doctor, when medical advice is ignored, and so on. The antivaccine movement is, in large part, fueled by mistrust of the mainstream medical establishment, for instance, and anyone who’s done a rotation in the ER will have horrific tales of the outcome of people thinking they can go off their (immunosuppressant, cancer, antiretroviral, dopaminergic, etc., etc.) medication in favor of “alternate” treatment methods (or disbelief of the diagnosis which lead to them being on it).

    This isn’t the depth of it, either. We trust doctors to do things that, frankly, we would be (and are) up in arms whenever anyone else did. Just to pull out one example, doctors routinely drug innocent children into a stupor, open them up with knives, and pull out their hearts. Some doctors even do this on a regular basis. If anyone other than medical professionals were doing this, they’d be put on trial faster than you could say “habeas corpus”. As is, the doctors who specialize in this sort of thing actually have waiting lists, and parents literally beg for them to do this to their children.

    By going on the air and offering the fake “advice” he does, Dr. Oz is not just being a huckster: he’s flaunting fundamental principles of medical ethics and undermining the entire profession for the sake of his ego and pocketbook. He isn’t just abusing his position: He’s abusing his medical license.

    And yes, “abusing” is the proper term. It’s worse since he isn’t just a random doctor — he is, to use his self-given appellation, America’s Doctor. He is arguably the most prominent member of the profession in the world, and routinely puts himself forward as the profession’s spokesperson.

    Doctors in Oz puts it fairly simply, even if they understate depth of the issue: “There are many financial, political, and scientific issues challenging American healthcare. But we say that trust is the foundation of the doctor-patient relationship for good reason. Doctors can’t help patients if patients won’t trust us to provide balanced, evidence-based information. When a doctor uses the mainstream media to consistently promote unproven or misleading medical claims, the public’s trust in doctors will inevitably erode.”

    When I mentioned parallels between medical and legal ethics, Dr. Oz’s conduct is one of the cases where it is very easy — trivial, almost — to construct a close equivalent. Imagine a hypothetical divorce attorney who teaches at a university. He may even be good at his job and knowledgeable in his field; it doesn’t matter, although he has occasionally flirted with a few dubious legal theories. He meets a celebrity and hits it off, and gets offered an appearance or two on her TV talk show. One appearance leads to another, and he’s eventually given a show of his own, the “Lawyer Joe” show, where he talks about a variety of legal issues.

    His show is wildly successful, and he soon becomes a national celebrity. He even starts referring to himself with the appellation of “America’s Lawyer” in commercials and the like. He gets product endorsements, makes a load of money, etc., etc.

    But, well, there aren’t that many legal issues which could be of interest to the average watcher, and he has to make his show interesting to keep the ratings up. Sure, there are a lot, but he’s doing hour-long, weekly programs. At first, most of his advice is good, if generic (“document everything”), but over time he branches out and starts talking and offering advice about the areas of the law that he [i]isn’t[/i] an expert on, making a few errors as he does (failing to point out that some things vary by jurisdiction, for instance, or failing to mention recent legal reforms) but even this isn’t enough.

    There are a few ways he could solve this: he could start focusing on individual cases, invite knowledgeable colleagues, he could go into investigative journalism and start exposing the myriad injustices littering our legal system. Instead, he starts promoting the dubious legal theories that he’d flirted with in academia. He promotes the argument from natural law as the “miracle solution” to your legal woes, argues that people on trial for capital crimes should attempt to encourage jury nullification as a defense strategy, and so on.

    This works commercially, albeit not without a cost. People start noticing what comes to be called the “Lawyer Joe” effect: whenever he supports some oddball theory, the courts are flooded with people attempting to file lawsuits, defend themselves, or simply argue cases on the basis of what he’d said. Many of these people even represent themselves pro se, believing the advice from Lawyer Joe’s show to be sufficient to let them navigate the legal system on their own; others simply ignore their lawyers’ legal advice, trusting Lawyer Joe over their own attorneys.

    Lawyer Joe continues unabated, his show’s advice getting steadily kookier and more bizarre as the show’s run goes on. He hosts (and gives favorable coverage to the legal viewpoints of) secessionists, Sovereign Citizens, and even starts talking about “legal solutions your lawyer thinks are crazy”.

    Someone (let’s call him Mr. Lteid) manages to get themselves into legal trouble after failing to realize that one of Lawyer Joe’s strategies violated his homeowner’s association agreement and sues, claiming that his failure to warn people to consult with a lawyer prior to implementing his advice breached a duty of care; this is dismissed on the grounds that “Lteid has pointed to no authority that would lead this court to find a duty of care between a television talk-show host and his vast home-viewing audience, and Lteid fails to convince this court that creating such a duty would be sound public policy.”

    Lawyer Joe takes this as encouragement, and continues his conspiracy-mongering and dubious legal advice. The courts start spending an inordinate amount of effort sorting out the consequences of his conspiracy-mongering, from the myriad frivolous liens resulting from his Sovereign Citizen show to frivolous lawsuits from people misinformed regarding their legal rights.

    Eventually, ten lawyers with a history of political activism get fed up with the situation and, at least in part as a publicity stunt, write a letter to Lawyer Joe’s university, asking the school to kick him off the faculty.

    Obviously, this entire chain of events is absurd. If nothing else, the legal profession would quickly recognize Lawyer Joe as an existential threat and move to correct any loopholes he exploited in the relevant rules and statutes. People would be publicly speaking up within the week about his tendency towards dubious legal advice, and the media would have a field day.

    The medical field is nowhere near as good as the legal at handling this sort of thing.

    This is where and why I have to disagree with your analysis: Dr. Oz’s conduct is not “tawdry hucksterism.” It is an abject betrayal of his profession and of its goals and ideals, a clear and present danger to the public health, and an existential threat to the field as a whole (although more a symptom than a root cause). It is not “small-potatoes in this [or any other] context”: it’s rampant, unchecked, and unpunished professional misconduct from a holder of a medical license.

    The medical field, as a whole, has a serious obligation to fight this sort of thing. They have, so far, failed.

    I applaud Miller et al. for acting. I emphatically do not applaud the method they chose. The appropriate recipient wasn’t Columbia: it was the medical board.

    I also don’t think Miller and his colleagues were the right ones to act… but discussing the reasons for that goes beyond the scope of this comment (and, frankly, this has gone on long enough, both in length and in writing time). You may want to check out Orac’s coverage over at Respectful Insolence, however. (I can and will provide links if requested.)

    • As a postscript, practical addendum, and way to fix my failure to click the “notify me of new comments” box when posting the above, I should note that I don’t think that Miller and co.’s goal was to actually have Oz removed from the faculty at Columbia. I think the entire affair was a publicity stunt.

      This does nothing to change my analysis.

      • And, going back over it, I realize that I left out two things I’d intended to include in my analogy: The study finding that half of “Lawyer Joe’s” legal advice was baseless or wrong, and his “defense strategy” against the letter and his critics, which included asserting that his show was “not a legal show”. I also forgot to include the “absurdly high-profile” descriptor regarding his conduct in the fourth-from-last paragraph.

        Oh well. There are always things you’re not satisfied with.

        • The “Lawyer Joe” scenario has been played out in real life. The verdict? A radio call in legal show creates no lawyer-client relationship, and thus the advice given isn’t the practice of law.

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