Mar 17 2011
I’ve really come to detest Dr. Mehmet Oz.
You remember Dr. Mehmet Oz, don’t you? How can you escape him? He is, after all, Oprah Winfrey’s protege, and of late he’s really been living up (or down) to the example set by his television mentor, who of late apparently thinks nothing of promoting faith healing quack John of God on her show. Following in the footsteps of his much more famous and well-known mentor, this season on his television show, The Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Oz has in some ways imitated Oprah and in some ways gone her one better (one worse, really) in promoting the Oprah-fication of medicine. And this season has been a particularly bad one for science-based medicine on The Dr. Oz Show. Apparently Dr. Oz felt that he had to surpass what he did last season, which included inviting a man whom I consider to be one of the foremost sellers of quackery on the Internet, Dr. Joseph Mercola. Prior to that, Dr. Oz had done an episode touting the glories of that form of faith healing known as reiki. In between, he made appearances at various panels of woo-friendly physicians trying to coopt President Obama’s health insurance reform initiative to cover more “holistic” care (i.e., “integrative medicine”).
In the next season, in particular over the last couple of months, Dr. Oz showed me just how wrong I had been when I had previously been saying that Dr. Oz seemed to be mostly science-based but with a soft spot for certain kinds of pseudoscience. This season, Dr. Oz has thrown down the gauntlet to science-based medicine (SBM) and, as I like to put it, crossed the Woo-bicon. First, he not only invited Joe Mercola back on his show, but he did it defiantly, defending Mercola against what I consider to be much-deserved charges of being a seller of quackery and lauding him as a “pioneer of holistic treatments.” A couple of weeks later, Dr. Oz pulled the classic “bait and switch” of alternative medicine, featuring a yoga instructor on his show who also advocated all sorts of Ayruvedic quackery. Then, a mere few days later Dr. Oz, apparently not satisfied at his transformation from nominally science-based to being based solely on whatever would bring him higher ratings, completed his journey to the Dark Side of quackery by credulously featuring a faith healer on his show and hosting what has to be the lamest faith healing that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. After that, I didn’t think Dr. Oz could go much lower, although he tried, two examples of which were his anti-vaccine-sympathetic episode on autism in which he featured Dr. Robert Sears and his utterly reversing a previous scientifically correct stance of his and promoting a dubious and potentially dangerous diet.
So where could Dr. Oz go after these episodes? After his credulous featuring of a faith healer on his show, I didn’t think that even Dr. Oz could or would go any lower. Man, was I wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! I admit it freely and incredulously. As I found out from all of you, Dr. Oz’s guest on his show on Tuesday this week was psychic scammer John Edward, whose show Crossing Over with John Edward ghoulishly featured Edward convincing bereaved guests that he could speak with their departed loved ones. But it was even worse than it sounds just from my description thus far. How low can a physician go to feature someone like Edward, who claims to be able to talk to the dead but in reality is nothing more than a so-so cold reader? He can entitle his segment featuring Edward, Are Psychics the New Therapists (part 2 and part 3). Dr. Oz even helpfully features a segment in which Edward gives his audience advice on how to harness their psychic powers and a chapter from John Edward’s latest book. As I watched, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess that means I just haven’t become cynical enough yet, because Dr. Oz’s trajectory has been so obviously leading to something like this for several months now. After all, once you’ve had a faith healer on your show, there really aren’t any boundaries left with regards to your respect for science to justify barring someone like Edward from your show, are there? Certainly, I can’t think of any, but then I am not Dr. Oz. Come to think of it, Dr. Oz obviously couldn’t think of any, either, which is why John Edward was on his show.
Perhaps the most telling part of the episode came right at the beginning of the John Edward segment, telling about Dr. Oz’s audience, that is. Dr. Oz introduces the segment by saying:
We’ve had more requests to join this show than any other we’ve ever done before, more than weight loss, more than cancer, more than heart disease. The topic? Do you believe we can talk to the dead?
Yes, apparently Dr. Oz’s fans were clamoring to be in the audience for this episode above all others, and throughout the show the audience was completely enthusiastic and fawning, just like the show’s host, who asks the question: Is talking to the dead a new kind of therapy? I kid you not. I wish I were kidding. I really do. Then, Dr. Oz even goes one step beyond by answering his own question with a comment to the effect that “psychic medium John Edward believes it can be,” after which he asks another question: “Could it help you someday?” What follows is a taped segment about grief from “devastating loss” and how some people even resort to trying to talk to the dead, for which, we are told, they need a person like John Edward. Edward then describes grief as an “energetic form of cancer” that will, if not treated, “metastasize to other parts of your life.” This is actually not a bad analogy, but the devastating effect of grief doesn’t mean that one has to lie to the patient. Edward apparently disagrees, as he even assures us that speaking to a psychic medium can be very therapeutic if you’re suffering from grief due to the death of a loved one. Even if that were true, would it justify the lying and deceit inherent in claiming to “speak to the dead”?
After that, Dr. Oz comes back on and finishes the introduction by saying:
Now as a heart surgeon I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain and that science can’t study.
So, let’s see. Just because the great and powerful Dr. Oz can’t explain it, he assumes that talking to the dead must be real and that science can’t study it. It’s a massive argument from ignorance combined with special pleading, in which it is assumed that the methods of science are inadequate for studying the phenomenon of people like Edward who claim to be psychic mediums. Dr. Oz lives that attitude as well, as he shows not even the slightest whiff of skepticism, nor does he offer anything more than the most perfunctory of challenges to what Edward is doing. Actually, he doesn’t even do that. Other than a brief question near the beginning about whether people who have limited resources should spend money on a medium or use it to find a good counselor, there are no challenges. Throughout the entire segment, Dr. Oz’s tone is more than just respectful. It’s downright fawning and deferential.
Consistent with that, Oz doesn’t even include a “skeptic” in the audience as he has with previous woo-filled episodes. The closest he comes to it is having Katherine Nordal, PhD of the American Psychological Association, who not really introduced on the show but is described on the APA website as “the executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association.” Her job is described as overseeing “the promotion of the professional practice of psychology” and ensuring “psychological services’ accessibility and availability through legislative and judicial advocacy, public education and marketplace initiatives.” I’m not sure what purpose Nordal served because she didn’t really question whether Edward could speak to the dead, which makes her a pretty lousy candidate to play the role of token skeptic that is common on these shows. Then, when Dr. Oz asks her whether finding a medium might be a form of therapy, rather than stating unequivocally that it is not, or at least not a good form of therapy because it involves deceiving the patient in a major way and is thus unethical, she says that it can be a form of therapy, just answering the question in the title of the segment with in the affirmative and giving the imprimatur of the APA to psychic mediums. At the very best, Dr. Nordal was naive and credulous, which led her to be taken advantage of by the producers of the show; at the worst, her behavior was profoundly cynical. What she should have said is that, although some people might find imagining conversations with their deceased loved ones to be comforting, mediums are not professionals; most have no medical or psychological training; and there is no evidence that they can speak with the dead. Given these facts, it is far better to use the services of a qualified psychologist trained in grief counseling.
At this point, Edward goes into his routine. If you ever caught his television show back when it was still on the air, nothing Edward does in his segment on Dr. Oz will come as a surprise. It’s nothing more than the old psychic medium trick of cold reading. This time around, he was actually a lot better at it than I remember him. His “hits” were more common and his “misses” fewer than I remember from the handful of episodes of his old show. In fact, there was one part that turned out so conveniently that I have to wonder if Edward’s people had managed to stage it somehow. At one point, Edward insists that someone in the room has experienced the death of a loved one associated in some way with St. Patrick’s Day or occurring in March. Of course, in an group of people the size of Dr. Oz’s studio audience, the odds are quite high that at least one person there has a relative or friend who died in March within reasonable proximity to St. Patrick’s Day. After badgering the audience, finally a young woman says that a friend of a friend had died in a car crash on St. Patrick’s Day. Predictably, Dr. Oz was awestruck. In fact, if you want to know just how lacking in skepticism Dr. Oz is, just check out this TV Guide article released before the show in which Dr. Oz Says Psychic John Edward “Changed My Life”:
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.
Or, one could say that there are times when Dr. Oz’s knowledge isn’t equal with that of skeptics who actually pay attention to these things. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so amazed by Edward’s transparent schtick. But he is, and once again he uses the argument from incredulity. Worse, he uses his position as a physician to create a false argument from authority. Just because he can’t imagine a scientific explanation for what John Edward does, Oz assumes that there isn’t one, and most of his audience accepts his authority as a surgeon as being reason enough to accept his assertion that science can’t explain Edward:
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.
Which is, of course, what psychic mediums do. It’s what they do and have done for hundreds of years, if not longer. It’s not for nothing that John Rennie characterized Oz as the “great and gullible.” Dr. Oz was gullible when it came to faith healing and quackery, and he surpasses himself in gullibility in his treatment of John Edward and psychic mediums. What they do and how they do it are not mysteries to, for example, James Randi or Joe Nickell, who quite properly described Edward as “hustling the bereaved.” Both describe how Edward uses the technique of cold reading, and Nickell even describes how Edward has been caught in the past using “hot reading,” or using information gleaned from his minions having chatted up the audience before the taping of his show and then presenting that information as having been received from the dead. When he can’t guess right, Edward’s technique is to do this:
What separates John from other cold readers, is that John works with a sizable audience (the Gallery) and when his readings go like the above, as happens far too often, he will just say that he’s picking up the “energies” of two different or distinct families which is suppose to explain away wrong guesses. Enough wrong guesses or if the guest isn’t cooperating, he will just claim the “energy” is pulling back and then move on to someone else he hopes this time will be more volunteering of information.
This is what Edward appeared ready to do with the “St. Patrick’s Day” connection; that is, until the young woman in the audience finally came forward. She later explained her delay in doing so to fear of standing up and being on the show, after which Edward praised her for being honest.
After watching a sad spectacle like this, that of a once respected surgeon debasing himself with faith healers and psychic mediums, I asked myself what could possibly be going on here. My first thought was that reiki must be a powerful gateway woo, leading to the really hard stuff, like faith healing and psychic mediums. After all, Dr. Oz’s wife is a reiki master, and he got his start in the CAM world by (in)famously allowing reiki masters into his operating room to work their magic (and I do mean the word “magic” literally) on his cardiac patients as he was operating. Ten or fifteen years on, that little incursion into woo seems very quaint.
In actuality, 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. One of those will be the next topic Dr. Oz tackles. Either that, or David Icke will be involved. It’s coming. I know it.
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