Oprah Winfrey needs to stop promoting pseudoscientific nonsense
September 25, 2007 by William K. Wolfrum
Let me start this by saying that I have an extremely high regard for Oprah Winfrey. She is a rare talent, indeed, and has captivated audiences on her show for decades, and has also shown herself to be an accomplished actress and a willing and prodigious philanthropist. That she has risen to dizzying heights shows that she is not just talented, but also tenacious and with amazing business savvy. There’s a lot to respect and like about Oprah Winfrey.
Except for her penchant to glamorize pseudoscience.
Oprah has literally spent hours and hours telling her viewers about the wondrous abilities of such things as The Secret. What is the real Secret? How Rhonda Byrne managed to get Oprah Winfrey to hock her snake oil in front of 20 million viewers.
That “The Secret” is pseudoscientific nonsense goes without saying. At least it should. But with Oprah pushing it, Byrne and her band of new age profiteers are making money hand over fist while Joe and Jane Sucker are at home wondering why they can’t seem to be able to wish for that Ferrari. Luckily, there are literally thousands of Web sites that easily debunk “The Secret’s” nonsense, but all of them combined likely don’t get the viewership of one segment of Oprah.
Lately, Oprah has fallen in love with Dr. Mehmet Oz (“America’s doctor”). Much like “The Secret,” Dr. Oz is brimming with positivity as he talks about his intricate theories on losing weight (Buy his book “YOU: On a Diet”!). Through it all wildly cheerful Dr. Oz also happily dabbles in pseudoscience himself.
Dr. Oz’s book “Healing from the Heart” is dedicated to advancing beliefs in acupuncture and homeopathy, among other things.
At his NeuroLogica Blog, Dr. Steven Novella, a neurosurgeon and host of the popular podcast “Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” takes Dr. Oz to task for sounding exactly like every other pseudoscientist that has come around the bend:
[Dr. Oz] also says:
“It’s just that if we’re truly going to achieve maximum healing, maximum impact, we ought to take any tool that’s at our disposal, and that includes nonscientific approaches, as long as we have evidence that they don’t hurt the patients.”
The inherent self-contradiction was apparently not evident to Dr. Oz. How can you have evidence of safety if the approach is nonscientific? Evaluating evidence is a scientific endeavor. He is also assuming that at least some nonscientific approaches are effective, but again how will we know this without looking at the evidence? Once you are considering evidence, then you are doing science and the only question is – are you doing good science or bad science? Dr. Oz and other integrative proponents would have us rely upon bad science, as long as we call it something else (i.e. “alternative”).
This is the core insanity of the CAM/integrative movement. They make many flowery statements about spirituality, energy, being open, respecting other cultures, etc. but when it comes down to it the only thing that matters is this: does the treatment work and is it safe. The only way to know is to do careful observations under controlled conditions and systematically evaluate the results (by the way, we call that doing science). They either do not understand what science is or pretend not to, or they simply ignore the fact that a “nonscientific approach” means that you are making poor observations, using logical fallacies, cherry picking the evidence, or committing other intellectual errors. Science is not an aesthetic choice, a philosophy, or a cultural construct – it is simply using valid logic and careful and systematic observation to test claims and ideas. Therefore a nonscientific approach does not do those things.
So in the end, despite his compelling stories and feel-good philosophy, Dr. Oz is advocating that doctors use treatments based upon sloppy reasoning and poor evidence. It really comes down to that. Everything else is an elaborate distraction.
In the end, those like Dr. Oz and Rhonda Byrne can package up whatever nonsense they like and sell it to whomever they wish, for the most part (see: Trudeau, Kevin). There will always be such snake-oil sales people.
Which is the problem I have with Oprah. If there’s one person in the media that I truly believe has a fundamental caring for her viewers, it’s Oprah. No one is that good an actress, or could be one for so long. She really does care about people. Which makes her support of such wasteful nonsense as “The Secret” more upsetting. Or her support of doctors who will dabble in the non-scientific, which not only can hurt a person’s pocketbook, but a person’s person, as well.
In the end, it’s Oprah’s show and she can promote anyone she likes. But what she needs to do is to have skeptics on the show offering the other side. Because by glamorizing pseudoscience, Oprah Winfrey is not helping her viewers one bit, but doing the complete opposite, and helping form a society that is completely detached from reality.