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Dr. Oz on alternative medicine: Bread and circuses

NOTE: Dr. Novella has written up a detailed description of his experiences on The Dr. Oz Show. Please read it. Also note that the online video for Dr. Novella’s appearance is now available:

  1. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 1
  2. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 2
  3. Controversial Medicine: Alternative Health, Part 3

When I first learned that our fearless leader and partner in crime for this blog, Dr. Steve Novella, Yale neurologist, blogger, and host of the popular skeptical podcast the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe was going to be on The Dr. Oz Show, I was concerned. After all, this is the same physician who had in essence given up science-based medicine in favor of media stardom based on the promotion of alternative medicine. Of late Dr. Oz has been getting worse, too, promoting pseudoscience and what can only be described, in my opinion, as quackery. The snake oil that Dr. Oz has promoted over the last several months includes Dr. Joe Mercola, one of the biggest promoters of “alternative” health, whom Dr. Oz first had on his show about a year ago and then defiantly defended in a return appearance in early 2011, to be followed by a rapid one-two punch in which Dr. Oz had an ayurvedic yogi named Cameron Alborzian, who promoted highly dubious medicine, including “tongue diagnosis,” to be followed a few days later by something I would never, even in my most cynical assessment of Dr. Oz, expected, namely the appearance of faith healer Issam Nemeh on his show. ext Dr. Oz endorsed a diet that he once eschewed as quackery and then, to top it all off, invited psychic John Edward onto his show, asking Is talking to the dead a new kind of therapy? All of these offenses contributed to the reasons why in 2011 the James Randi Educational Foundation awarded him the The Media Pigasus Award for the second year in a row.

So right from the start I wasn’t very optimistic about how this whole thing would turn out. Fortunately, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Steve managed to hold his own in a completely hostile environment with only minor stumbles, while Dr. Oz peppered him with “Have you stopped beating your wife?”-style questions. At one point, Steve even managed to hand Dr. Oz his posterior. Alas, I doubt it will make any difference to Dr. Oz’s viewers, but we can always hope to change a few minds. I also realize that, however a big deal being on Dr. Oz’s show was to Steve and many members of the skeptical movement (especially supporters of SBM), to Dr. Oz it was just one segment in one episode of one season of a daily talk show made up of 150 episodes, each containing four or so segments. Not to detract from Steve’s achievement at all (it’s truly amazing that he managed to get on the show and do as well as he did, given how badly the deck was stacked against him), but to us this is big; to Dr. Oz it’s just another segment of another episode. It’s entertainment. As giddy and anxious as we at SBM have been the last two weeks, we have to keep things in perspective.

So what happened?

As I watched the beginning of the segment, my experience having watched several episodes of Dr. Oz’s show led me to look for the not-so-subtle signs of the story that Dr. Oz and his producers intended to portray. In a television show like Dr. Oz’s, you always have to look for the story, and the story is revealed by how the issue being discussed is framed. I didn’t have long to wait. One thing I thought as I watched the opening minutes of this episode of Dr. Oz’s show is that that watching Oz really reminded me of was Kevin Trudeau, whose strategey for spreading snake oil was implicit in the title of his book, Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. The message is the same as Dr. Oz’s. It’s you (as in Dr. Oz’s audience or Kevin Trudeau’s readers) against the establishment. The Man is trying to keep you down and keep you from The Truth (a.k.a. “natural cures” that don’t rely on big pharma)! So, what are you, sheeple? Or are you among the enlightened, like Dr. Oz and his viewers? Why is your doctor afraid of alternative medicine? (Yes, that was the title of the segment.) It’s a blatant appeal to the vanity of Dr. Oz’s audience, whose members are encouraged to feel not just like a maverick, bucking the system, but to feel superior to everyone else, “empowered” to “fight the power.” Right from the start, Dr. Oz frames the issue of “alternative medicine” as the little guy versus dogmatic physicians, as “taking control” from undefined outside forces. In doing so, he paints himself as the champion of the little person, willing to risk everything to tell his audience The Truth. It’s a load of fetid dingos’ kidneys of course. Dr. Oz is fabulously wealthy and famous in a large part because he’s embraced alternative medicine and found a way to preach it to the masses, all wrapped up in a lovely bit of framing:

Today I’m taking on a controversial issue in medicine that has everything to do with helping you take control of your health. There are a lot of doctors, including me, who are putting their reputations on the line because we’re using alternative therapies in our traditional practices. But many doctors claim that these therapies are nothing more than junk science and may even be dangerous. Your doctor could be one of them. Why are they so afraid of alternative medicine? Should you be too?

Note the “brave maverick doctor” pose. I have no idea if Dr. Oz is aware of this or not, but this is the same pose that quacks who think vaccines cause autism frequently take, that only they are “brave” enough, clever enough, or “open-minded” enough to reject that nasty, reductionistic “Western” science. Dr. Oz then uses the fallacy of argumentum ad populum; i.e., proclaiming that, since alternative medicine has “reached its tipping point” (in his opinion, at least) and people spend $35 billion a year on it in this country, that there must be something to it. It’s a silly argument. Lots of things are very popular; popularity doesn’t equal “scientifically valid.” I do have to admit one thing that made me totally chuckle here. Dr. Oz referred to chiropractic as “chiropractics.” I mean, seriously, Dr. Oz. If you can’t at least get the terminology right about something as commonplace as chiropractic, I find it very hard to take you seriously. Very hard indeed, even more so after he trots out the “superstars of alternative medicine” that he’s showcased on The Dr. Oz Show, including Andrew Weil, Christiane Northrup, Joe Mercola, and Deepak Chopra, to name a few.

Of course, there wouldn’t be any drama if there weren’t any “holdouts,” which is how the argument is framed. It’s very clever. Dr. Oz is the brave, open-minded doctor willing to try things outside the mainstream. Skeptics and proponents of science-based medicine are portrayed as going against the flow, as negative, as “holdouts” against what is portrayed as the inevitable triumph of alternative medicine, when the moon will be in the seventh house and Jupiter will align with Mars. And Dr. Oz is persecuted for it, too. Those nasty skeptics! They’ve portrayed him as having abdicated professional responsibility and gone to the Dark Side. Nasty skeptics!

Dr. Oz’s offense, real or imagined, aside, I’m much less amused by how Dr. Oz panders to his audience. It begins right at the very start of the segment, where Dr. Oz proclaims that you–yes, you!–his viewers (well, maybe not you, as in you who read this blog) “aren’t afraid to test the time-honored traditions of alternative medicine.” That’s because, obviously, if you watch Dr. Oz’s show, you must be a brave maverick, just like him. You’re the brave maverick, and he’s the brave maverick doctor–a perfect combination! If you’re not afraid of alternative medicine, then why is your doctor? (Yes, Oz actually said that.) All of this was just the introduction, at which point the framing was complete. It’s Oz and his viewers against the world, which leads Oz to the very first question to Steve:

Why are there so many doctors out there–and doctors are our viewers–who don’t like alternative medicine? Why do you not want me to talk about these therapies on the show?

More framing. Notice now that Oz frames alternative medicine as a preference. To Oz and his viewers, doctors who support science-based medicine don’t object to alternative medicine because it is unscientific, because there’s no evidence that most alternative therapies work and a lot of evidence that they don’t, or because it’s a false dichotomy. (Yes, I’m talking about the fact that alternative medicine is by definition medicine that has not been shown to work scientifically or has actually been shown not to work. It can never be repeated too many times in this context that alternative medicine that has been shown to work scientifically ceases to be “alternative” and becomes just “medicine.”) Oh, no, those doctors just don’t like it, as many people don’t like Brussel sprouts, or as some people prefer Coke over Pepsi (or vice-versa). It’s a preference that doctors are trying to impose on their patients, those nasty, reductionist, doctors! Worse, as the language used by Dr. Oz reveals, not only is this opposition to alternative medicine a mere “dislike,” but it’s a “Western” dislike. Yes, Oz kept repeating the term “Western medicine” or “Western science,” another false dichotomy. Good science is good science; it doesn’t matter whether it was done in the “West” or the “East.”

Notice also how Oz takes on the mantle of the victim. It’s not about him talking nonsense about science and medicine, about him promoting quackery (which he has been doing a lot of in 2011). Oh, no! It’s all about skeptics like Steve trying to shut Dr. Oz up! As if we could! It’s a silly argument, obviously custom made to try to portray Dr. Oz’s critics and close-minded, dogmatic, simpletons. In reality, this is a distortion of our position. Nothing could be further from the truth to claim that supporters of SBM don’t want Dr. Oz to talk about these therapies. What we don’t want him to do is to promote them as efficacious when scientific findings indicate that they are not. What we want is a skeptical, science-based assessment of them. Despite the claim by Dr. Oz and his producers that we are “afraid” of alternative health, in actuality we crave an open dialogue based on science, both preclinical and clinical trials, not marketing hype, pseudoscientific claims, and testimonials.

After some minor stumbling, Steve explained very well how the very concept of alternative medicine is an artificial category that exists primarily to produce a double standard that favors modalities that can’t cut it based on science. Unfortunately, as is frequently the case in such “debates,” Steve was paired with a true believer, Dr. Mimi Guarneri, who did exactly what I complain about all the time. She used the classic “bait and switch” of alternative medicine, claiming nutrition, exercise, and the like as “alternative” and then using that to imply that all the other woo that falls under the rubric of “alternative” medicine must have value too. Steve answered that quite well also, but I doubt it got through the audience. Much of the talk was dominated by herbs and supplements, rather than the more bizarre quackery that Dr. Oz has featured on his show in 2011, such as homeopathy, faith healing, and the psychic scammer John Edward. No doubt this is intentional, because herbs and supplements are at least potentially real drugs (impure drugs with highly variable quantities of the active ingredient, but drugs nonetheless). As such, they are the “bait,” used to lure in the credulous, after which the “switch” is made for the real woo, modalities like acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, and the like.

One thing that cracked me up is that Oz defined alternative medicine rather artificially by dividing it into three categories. Why three? who knows? Perhaps it’s like the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, you know, “…then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.” Whatever the reason for choosing the number three, Oz divides alternative medicine into things you can put in your mouth, things that are done to your body, and the “mind-body” connection. For each one of these divisions, Dr. Oz showed a brief video promoting their glories. Particularly irritating and, quite frankly, dishonest, is how Dr. Oz at each point tries to turn around Steve’s statements about how various alternative medical therapies have been studied and found not to work into a straw man in which a distorted version of Steve’s argument is repeated back to him, represented as saying that there aren’t any studies or that there aren’t enough studies. Dr. Oz and Dr. Guarneri then bat that straw man down with gleeful abandon. At one point, Oz even says, “I totally disagree that these have not been studied and some evidence been found to support them.” Of course, “some evidence” has been found to support that most ridiculous of quackeries, homeopathy; one has to look at the totality of evidence to know that not only is homeopathy ridiculous from a basic science standpoint but that the clinical evidence that exists is most consistent with nothing more than placebo effects.

The utter intellectual bankruptcy of this approach was demonstrated when Dr. Oz brought in Catherine Ulbricht, PharmD, MBA[c], chief editor of Natural Standard and editorial board member of Natural Medicine Journal, who touted Natural Standard. One thing I noticed about the journal for which she is on the editorial board is that it is the official journal of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), which is definitely a strike against it right there. (Actually, it’s two strikes.) Naturopathy is a hodge-podge of mostly unscientific treatment modalities based on vitalism and other prescientific notions of disease that fancies itself to be science-based. In fact, as if to emphasize the connection between Dr. Ulbricht and naturopathic quacks, I found in my e-mail box a mass mailing from the AANP touting her appearance on The Dr. Oz Show. Such are the “benefits” of being on the AANP mailing list. Let’s just put it this way. Dr. Ulbricht has published at least one review of homeopathic remedies, specifically Oscillococcinum, in which she concludes that it probably works and that more studies are needed. Amusingly, in the segment that follows Steve’s segment, Dr. Ulbricht even invokes the alt-med cliche of aspirin having been derived from willow bark and being perfectly safe. Of course, natural product pharmacology is in no way “alternative” (more bait and switch), and aspirin is not without risks, sometimes life-threatening.

If there’s one area that Steve managed to score against Dr. Oz in spite of the deck being stacked against him, it’s acupuncture. Steve pointed out that it doesn’t work above and beyond a placebo. As I like to say, it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles and it doesn’t even matter if you stick the needles. The results are the same, and there is a small risk to sticking needles into people’s bodies. Dr. Oz’s reaction is very telling; he says:

There are billions of people around the world who use as the foundation of their healthcare system. It’s the basis of ancient Chinese medicine. I just think it’s very dismissive of you to say because we couldn’t take this idea that exists with a different mindset and squeeze it into the way we think about it in the West then it can’t be possibly effective.

All of which is utter nonsense. First, it’s very arguable whether there are “billions of people” who use acupuncture as the foundation of their health care system. The Chinese, for instance, are actually moving away from traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture back towards that evil reductionistic “Western” medicine because it works. But even more telling is that Dr. Oz has fallen back on the hoariest of hoary alt-med excuses for not being able generate evidence in favor of their woo: You can’t use “Western science” to study my woo! He even claims that “Western science” can’t understand acupuncture well enough to “know how to study it the way it has to be studied.” It’s special pleading, and it’s pathetic. In fact, Steve’s response was brilliant in that it managed to point out that popularity doesn’t equal efficacy and to liken acupuncture to bloodletting, a comparison that clearly irked the Great and Powerful Oz. Whether Dr. Oz realized it, this was the one part of the show where it can legitimately be said that Steve handed him his posterior, even in spite of everyone being against him. True, Oz would never admit it, but this was the one point in the segment where the mask slipped just a little bit and for a brief moment Dr. Oz looked quite unhappy. After all, he promoted acupuncture, and Steve had just likened it to bloodletting. On the other hand, Oz clearly got what he wanted out of Steve. Steve was fighting a battle based on science, reason, and evidence; Oz was playing to his audience and burnishing the Dr. Oz brand. He got to appear reasonable to his audience by acknowledging criticism while completely controlling the flow and, above all, the language of the discussion. Steve tried to punch his way out of the language box Dr. Oz was constructing and did about as well as anyone could hope to, but always had the last word and always controlled the forum.

It was bread and circuses all around, indeed, so much so that my wife ridiculed the later segments, in which Dr. Oz used huge bottles with huge labels, like “aspirin” as props to help Ulbricht “explain” what his audience should look for in supplements and “natural” remedies. I had never noticed that before, but going back to my past posts on Dr. Oz (particularly the one about Dr. Mercola’s appearance), I had to admit that my wife was spot on in her observation. I even kicked myself for not having noticed it before. Giant props, as if for a children’s show. Simplistic answers. It’s all there.

Finally, there were two very annoying bits in this whole exchange. First, Dr. Oz appropriates the alt-med trope of “individualization” (which in alt-med, really means “making it up as you go along“), even likening his favorite woo to a “bow and arrow” or a “stealth approach” to “hitting what you want to get that works in you” and science-based medicine to a “ballistic missile approach that we have so often become comfortable with.” “Ballistic missile approach”? You mean like Tarceva, Herceptin, Avastin, and other targeted therapies designed to hit very specific molecular targets?

In his “final word” on the topic, Dr. Oz then solidifies the bond with his intended audience. Oz fans, it’s you and him against the world! Check it out:

Alternative medicine, I think, is at the grassroots level, and because of that nobody owns it. Now, that stated, I think we got our homework to do. But I think alternative medicine empowers us, and that’s the big message–but only if you know more about it. And if it does work for you, trust me, do not let anybody take it away from you.

In other words, you brave maverick Dr. Oz viewers, don’t worry your little heads about science. Don’t listen to those buzz killer skeptics who just don’t like alternative medicine and Dr. Oz. They’re so much less interesting than cupping, acupuncture, homeopathy, reiki, and various other forms of mystical, magical woo. They’re paternalistic, too! (Never mind that Dr. Oz oozes paternalism, complete with the giant props that would be appropriate on a children’s show.) Be “empowered” by listening to whatever message that the latest seller of snake oil is promoting to you. “Learn” more about alternative medicine from Dr. Oz; don’t worry if the information is science-based. Be good Dr. Oz fans. Above all, take your “empowerment” to buy what Dr. Oz says you should buy. As the segment right after Steve’s segment takes great pains to point out to Dr. Oz fans, even to the point of bragging about the number of “cease and desist letters” Dr. Oz’s lawyers have sent to supplement hawkers claiming an endorsement, don’t buy goods not endorsed by Dr. Oz on his show. They sully and dilute the Dr. Oz brand, after all, and The Dr. Oz Show is about nothing, if not about the Dr. Oz brand name.

And, of course, keep watching his show.

Additional commentary:

  1. Alternative Medicine: The Magic of Oz
  2. Dear Dr. Oz: I Just Think it’s Very Dismissive of You to Reject Reality
  3. The Dr. Oz Show: The Price is Right of Medical Woo
  4. Steve Novella goes to Oz
  5. Steve Novella on Dr. Oz
  6. Steven Novella on Dr. Oz
  7. Dr. Steven Novella vs. Dr. Oz

Posted in: Acupuncture, Herbs & Supplements, Science and the Media

Leave a Comment (16) ↓

16 thoughts on “Dr. Oz on alternative medicine: Bread and circuses

  1. daijiyobu says:

    The “empowerment” thing got me too, as what most stood out.

    When I found out that the Ozes has honorary doctorates from Bastyr (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzPdcVqcj3Q , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJwpSF2GVsg ), and then you see the nonsense naturopathy has codified at the .gov level (see http://www.oregon.gov/OBNM/Aboutnaturopathy.shtml ), and how he’s on the sidelines cheer-leading this very weird movement…

    Empowering? Now the irrationa, fake, and absurd is empowering…

    -r.c.

  2. Skeptic says:

    Oz really likes to conflate issues. To lump alternative medicine it and claim that if there is proof for one form of it to work (nutrition!!) that it is all valid, or if one herb is proven to work then all herbalism is proven. He’s gone completely off the deep end. Blech.

  3. Happy Camper says:

    @daijiyobu

    Yea, ALT. “medicine” is empowering until your stage 1 or 2 cancer turns into stage 4.

  4. tmac57 says:

    I worry. Why? Dr.Oz now has 4 headline posts on SBM,two on Neurologica,two on Respectful Insolence,and 1 on Pharyngula. Going by the adage that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all…well,I uh…crap,who knows?

  5. Sc00ter says:

    People outside the US can view the video hear – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6kn-JJ2HiU

    I heard the Dr. Oz official site is only viewable in the US

  6. nybgrus says:

    @Sc00ter: I have been able to watch it in Australia (haha, watching Oz in Oz). But thanks for the link – I’d rather give youtube the traffic than Oz.

  7. chaos4zap says:

    @tmac57
    The attention these articles have received certainly rattled enough cages to invite Steve on the show. When it comes to the specific claims or ideas that OZ promotes, the facts are the facts and people either care about the facts, or not so much. Without SBM and Neurologica and others doing the leg work, then where would people that care about the facts go? I’m sure a google search of any alt-med topic would require you to weed through pages and pages of results before you get to anything skeptical. The more press these sites get, the higher up in the google search results it may go and In my opinion, that potential benefit far outweighs the risk of making bad ideas even more popular by drawing attention to them.

  8. tmac57 says:

    @chaos4zap- Oh I totally agree with you.I think it was a great coup for Steve to be invited on to the Oz show.The publicity sword cuts both ways of course.I am just a worrier by nature.I tend to fret about unintended consequences too much I guess.

  9. nory says:

    Dr. Gorski,
    I just want to suggest two videos for future review. The first one is a Dr. Oz show. The second one is produced by Mike Anderson. Both of them feature popular promoters of vegan diet like C.T. Campbel, Dr. Esselstyn, Dr. Neal Barnard from PCRM and others. Thanks
    Here are the links:
    1. http://youtu.be/BTdVT9UFMFY
    2 part 1. http://vimeo.com/15829623
    2 part 2. http://vimeo.com/15830738
    Hope the subtitles won’t disturb you too much

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