The Oprah-fication of medicine

OprahUnfortunately, a frequent topic on SBM has been the anti-vaccine movement, personified these days by celebrity spokesmodel for Generation Rescue Jenny McCarthy and her dimmer than dim boyfriend comedian and actor Jim Carrey. Unfortunately, it is a topic that is unlikely to go away. We’ve all speculated why the anti-scientific emotion-based notion that vaccines somehow must cause autism persists in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, but I think the question goes much deeper than that because it’s not just about vaccines. The anti-vaccine movement is but one of the most visible components of a much deeper problem in our public discourse, a problem that values feelings and personal experience over evidence, compelling stories and anecdotes over science.

I’m referring to the Oprah-fication of medicine in America.

Why Oprah? you may ask. I’m happy to tell you. Oprah Winfrey has been the host of the highest rated syndicated talk show in television history, her self-named The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show has been running for nearly 23 years, with over 3,000 episodes. Winfrey is so famous that she is one of those rare celebrities who is known instantly by just her first name. Say “Oprah,” and virtually everyone will know to whom you’re referring, and her show is often colloquially known as simply Oprah. Given this unprecedented level of success, which has made Oprah a billionaire and a ubiquitous presence on TV, her own magazine, her own satellite radio station, and, soon, her own cable channel, Oprah has developed a media empire that few single individuals can match or beat. Indeed Rupert Murdoch is the only person that I can think of who likely has a wider reach than Oprah. Personally, I have no problem with Oprah’s level of success. Clearly, she is a very talented and savvy TV host and businesswoman.

Unfortunately, in marked contrast, Oprah has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen, and she uses the vast power and influence her TV show and media empire give her in order to subject the world to her special brand of mystical New Age thinking and belief in various forms of what can only be characterized as dubious medical therapies at best and quackery at worst. Arguably there is no single person in the world with more influence pushing woo than Oprah. Indeed, she puts Prince Charles to shame, and Kevin Trudeau is a mere ant compared to the juggernaught that is Oprah Winfrey’s media empire. No one even comes close. No one, and I mean no one, brings pseudoscience, quackery, and antivaccine madness to more people than Oprah Winfrey does every week. (She doesn’t discuss such topics every day, but it seems that at least once a week she does.) Naturally, Oprah doesn’t see it that way and likely no one could ever convince her of the malign effect she has on the national zeitgeist with respect to science and medicine, but that’s exactly what she does. Consequently, whether fair or unfair, she represents the perfect face to put on the problem that we supporters of science-based medicine face when trying to get the message out to the average reader about unscientific medical practices, and that’s why I am referring to the pervasiveness of pseudoscience infiltrating medicine as the “Oprah-fication” of medicine.

How does Oprah do it? Easy (for her, at least). She makes stars of woo-meisters by featuring them on her show and giving them her stamp of approval, that’s how. Indeed, there was a documentary on the other night that I missed called The Oprah Effect. While not specifically about Oprah’s promotion of pseudoscience, happily it appears not to shy away from it, either. The basic structure of the documentary is to examine what happened to three business after they were mentioned on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not surprisingly, their sales went through the roof, and apparently the documentary derives much of its interest and drama from how each company reacted to sudden fame and skyrocketing business. However, the Oprah Effect affects far more than companies she may feature on her show or books that she features on Oprah’s Book Club, a regular feature that can make a bestseller out of an obscure book by an even more obscure author. The Oprah Effect also includes her favorites and proteges, and, sadly, most of those people are not particularly science-based in their recommendations about medicine. Indeed, some of them are into dangerous medical practices and quackery, and Oprah gives them the stamp of approval.

The Oprah Winfrey Show and the promotion of pseudoscience

Over the years, Oprah has promoted a wide variety of dubious medical practices, pseudoscience, and mysticism on her show. Indeed, just this week, NEWSWEEK ran a long article (excerpts of which I will quote but which you should read in its entirety) entitled Live Your Best Life Ever! Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever! (Indeed, the article was a big part of my impetus to write about the Oprah-fication of America.) It reveals just how forcefully Oprah and her credulous belief in New Age nonsense are reflected in her show. It starts with the example of Suzanne Somers, whom I’ve mentioned before because of her belief that alternative medicine cured her of her breast cancer:

In January, Oprah Winfrey invited Suzanne Somers on her show to share her unusual secrets to staying young. Each morning, the 62-year-old actress and self-help author rubs a potent estrogen cream into the skin on her arm. She smears progesterone on her other arm two weeks a month. And once a day, she uses a syringe to inject estrogen directly into her vagina. The idea is to use these unregulated “bio-identical” hormones to restore her levels back to what they were when she was in her 30s, thus fooling her body into thinking she’s a younger woman. According to Somers, the hormones, which are synthesized from plants instead of the usual mare’s urine (disgusting but true), are all natural and, unlike conventional hormones, virtually risk-free (not even close to true, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

Next come the pills. She swallows 60 vitamins and other preparations every day. “I take about 40 supplements in the morning,” she told Oprah, “and then, before I go to bed, I try to remember … to start taking the last 20.” She didn’t go into it on the show, but in her books she says that she also starts each day by giving herself injections of human growth hormone, vitamin B12 and vitamin B complex. In addition, she wears “nanotechnology patches” to help her sleep, lose weight and promote “overall detoxification.” If she drinks wine, she goes to her doctor to rejuvenate her liver with an intravenous drip of vitamin C. If she’s exposed to cigarette smoke, she has her blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy. In the time that’s left over, she eats right and exercises, and relieves stress by standing on her head. Somers makes astounding claims about the ability of hormones to treat almost anything that ails the female body. She believes they block disease and will double her life span. “I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic,” she said. “But I want to be there until I’m 110, and I’m going to do what I have to do to get there.”

That was apparently good enough for Oprah. “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” she said. “But she just might be a pioneer.” Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims “have been met with relentless criticism” from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn’t quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”

I was actually amazed to read this. I’ve known for a while that Suzanne Somers promotes so-called “bioidentical hormones,” which is the sort of nonsense quack-friendly journals like JPANDS publish. I’ve also realized that it is the height of stupidity for a woman who has survived breast cancer to pump herself full of estrogen in the futile and pathetic quest to reclaim her lost youth. It’s just begging for a recurrence of her breast cancer, and Ms Somers epitomizes the cliche of “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Either that, or her cancer was estrogen receptor-negative, but even in that case it’s definitely pushing her luck to be bathing in “bioidentical” estrogens. Be that as it may, “good” Somers is not with respect to science and medicine, but lucky she is. Although I was aware of Somers’ promotion of bioidentical hormones at doses designed to boost her estrogen levels to what they were in her 20s, but I had been unaware of all the other quackery she promotes, including the multiple supplements, the “nanotechnology patches,” the vitamin C drips, and the chelation therapy. More recently, she has been promoting stem cell quackery. (Yes, indeed, when I want to read about the latest stem cell science, Suzanne Somers is exactly the person to whom I’d look.) In any case, Suzanne Somers promotes medical advice and practices that could be dangerous to women, and Oprah is totally down with them. Moreover, it’s her show, and so her opinion is all that matters:

On Oprah’s show, there is one opinion more equal than others; and by the end of the program there was no doubt where Oprah herself stood on the issue. She told her audience that she found Somers’s bestselling books on bioidentical hormones “fascinating” and said “every woman should read” what she has to say. She didn’t stop there. Oprah said that although she has never had a hot flash, after reading Somers she decided to go on bioidenticals herself. “After one day on bioidentical estrogen, I felt the veil lift,” she wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine. “After three days, the sky was bluer, my brain was no longer fuzzy, my memory was sharper. I was literally singing and had a skip in my step.” On the show, Oprah had her own word of warning for the medical establishment: “We have the right to demand a better quality of life for ourselves,” she said. “And that’s what doctors have got to learn to start respecting.”

That statement epitomizes the attitude that infuses The Oprah Winfrey Show when it comes to medical issues and science. Anecdotes trump science, and scientists should “respect” pseudoscience because of feelings and a desire for “quality of life.” Indeed, thees are exactly the attitudes that permeate the CAM movement and the antivaccine movement. It’s therefore not surprising that Oprah would be drawn to them, especially since she clearly does not have the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize that what Somers offers is a risky false promise. Here’s what also matters to Oprah:

Somers says it’s mainstream doctors who need to get their facts straight. “The problem is that our medical schools do not teach this,” she said in a February interview with NEWSWEEK. She believes doctors, scientists and the media are all in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. “Billions are spent on marketing drugs, and these companies also support academic research.” Free from these entanglements, Somers can see things clearly. “I have spent thousands of hours on this. I’ve written 18 books on health. I know my stuff.”

No, Somers does not “know her stuff.” Writing books is no guarantee that she “knows her stuff,” particularly given that she clearly does not understand science and cherry picks references to support her viewpoint, ignoring those that do not. Like Jenny McCarthy (more on her later), Somers also suffers from the arrogance of ignorance, in which she thinks her Google University and self-taught knowledge trump the understanding of scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying such questions deeply. Again, Oprah is drawn to this sort of thinking because it reinforces her message of “empowerment” and her apparent distrust of medical authorities. Truly, she is the perfect representative for the science-free attitudes that have allowed the rise of so much pseudoscience in medicine.

Speaking of bioidentical hormones, another favorite and frequent guest on Oprah is Dr. Christiane Northrup, a woo-friendly gynecologist who has some very strange views about the vagina and has advocated using qi gong to increase “energy flow” (i.e., qi) to the vagina and cure all manner of “female” ills, as well as providing fantastic orgasms. Our very own Dr. Harriet Hall has done a detailed examination of Dr. Northrup’s views. It turns out that Dr. Northrup is also very much “skeptical” of vaccination, in particular the HPV vaccine. She’s even gone so far as to parrot antivaccine propaganda about the VAERS database, as I’ve detailed earlier. Not only that, but she is a germ theory denialist, who has credulously also parroted the myth that Louis Pasteur “recanted” on his deathbed (same link). The NEWSWEEK article describes her thusly:

Northrup holds a special place in Oprah’s constellation of regular guests. A Dartmouth-educated ob-gyn, she stresses alternative therapies and unseen connections between the soul and the body that she believes conventional doctors overlook, but that she can see. She has written about how she has used Tarot cards to help diagnose her own illnesses. (On her Web site, she sells her own “Women’s Wisdom Healing Cards.”) In other words, she gets right to the center of Oprah’s search for hidden mystical meanings. Oprah says she reads Northrup’s menopause book “just like it’s the Bible. It’s the book next to my bed. I read the Bible. I read that book.”

Oprah found Dr. Northrup when she “blew out her thyroid,” and Dr. Northrup promotes a wide variety of pseudoscience with regard to thyroid disease:

But Northrup believes thyroid problems can also be the result of something else. As she explains in her book, “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say.”

This is nothing more than prescientific mystical nonsense about the origins of disease, and Oprah believes it.

And, of course, let’s not forget David L. Katz, MD. You may recall Dr. Katz from Dr. Atwood’s discussion of him on SBM. Dr. Katz is probably best known around the skeptical blogosphere for saying that he thinks:

…we have to look beyond the results of RCTs [randomized clinical trials] in order to address patient needs today, and to do that I’ve arrived at the concept of a more fluid form of evidence than many of us have imbibed from our medical educations.

Dr. Katz has also defended homeopathy, promoted anecdotes above clinical trials and scientific evidence, and gone on to suggest that we need to think more “fluidly” about evidence. For this, he has been roundly criticized and even mocked in the blogosphere–and deservedly so. No wonder he’s a regular, along with Dr. Mehmet Oz, on Oprah. Indeed, one of the NEWSWEEK blogs even refers to him as one of the “resident heath experts” on Oprah and a columnist for Oprah’s magazine.

Until most recently, the low point of Oprah’s malign influence came when she fell under the spell of The Secret. Yes that Secret, New Age nonsense so flaky that even most New Age believers correctly view it as nonsense. Basically, The Secret postulates that there is a “law of attraction” that “always works” in which what you visualize can be yours. In other words, according to The Secret, well, let’s let Oprah describe it, as quoted in an article from by Peter Birkenhead entitled Oprah’s Ugly Secret:

…the energy you put into the world — both good and bad — is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day.

While it is fairly obvious that attitude and motivation do affect one’s chances for success in this world and that a lack of motivation coupled with a bad attitude will usually lead to failure, The Secret takes this relatively easy to accept contention that your attitude and drive have a significant influence on how well you do in life and puts it on more steroids than Major League Baseball players have used over the last couple of decades, to the point of utter ridiculousness. As Birkenhead put it:

“Venality,” because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought.” “Venality,” because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.”

The truly despicable aspect of The Secret is that a consequence of its teachings is not that people bring good things to themselves with their thoughts but the flip side, too: That people bring evil to themselves with their own thoughts and that it is their fault. Tell that to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, or the millions killed by Stalin, or even the 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001. According to The Secret, they all brought that evil upon themselves with their “negative” thoughts. In other words, if you get cancer, AIDS, or other serious and possibly fatal diseases, it’s your fault for not being “positive” enough. If you’re not rich, it’s your fault for not being “positive” enough. If you are a failure in life, it’s your fault for not “believing” hard enough.

This sort of belief in magical thinking came to its toxic conclusion when people started actually listening Oprah’s advice about The Secret:

The message got through. In March 2007, the month after the first two shows on The Secret, Oprah invited a woman named Kim Tinkham on the program. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her doctors were urging surgery and chemotherapy. But Tinkham wrote Oprah to say that she had decided to forgo this treatment and instead use The Secret to cure herself. On the show, Oprah seemed genuinely alarmed that Tinkham had taken her endorsement of The Secret so seriously. “When my staff brought this letter to me, I wanted to talk to her,” Oprah told the audience. “I said, get her in here, OK?” On air, Oprah urged the woman to listen to her doctors. “I don’t think that you should ignore all of the advantages of medical science and try to, through your own mind now because you saw a Secret tape, heal yourself,” she said. A few weeks earlier, Oprah could not say enough in praise of The Secret as the guiding philosophy of her life. Now she said that people had somehow gotten the wrong idea. “I think that part of the mistake in translation of The Secret is that it’s used to now answer every question in the world. It is not the answer to all questions,” she instructed. “I just wanted to say it’s a tool. It is not the answer to everything.” The Law of Attraction was just one law of many that guide the universe. “Although I live my life that way,” Oprah said, “I think it has its flaws.”

Actually, it’s not quite accurate to say that Tinkham tried to use The Secret to heal her breast cancer, although she was clearly profoundly affected by The Secret. I’ve discussed Ms. Tinkham’s case in detail, and it turns out that she is under the care of a quack named Dr. Young who believes that tumors are all an “acid” and that “alkalinization” will cure all disease. On the other hand, it is clear that The Secret did have quite a bit to do with Tinkham’s rejection of conventional therapy, and Oprah’s promotion of The Secret was what sold Tinkham on it. Either Oprah doesn’t know her own power, or she does not want to take responsibility for her promotion of mysticism and quackery. Possibly it’s a little bit of both. Yet, promote quackery is what Oprah does. Moreover, she is now promoting it through her surrogates.

Oprah’s proteges go forth and spread anything but SBM

The first of Oprah’s proteges to get his own show was Dr. Phil, who is not so much a purveyor of pseudoscience as profoundly annoying, sensationalistic, and self-righteous. He’s also been known to flirt with dubious science, as when he promotes polygraph tests as though they were reliable. He’s also done some seriously questionable things from an ethical standpoint, for instance his sensationalistic visit to Britney Spears in the hospital and self-serving statement afterward. Personally, I find Dr. Phil to be not unlike Jerry Springer in that he brings usually lower economic class people suffering from difficulties onto his show and then takes the role of the father figure dishing out stern but simplistic “answers” to their problems.. His self-righteous lectures serve much the same purpose as the abuse heaped on the guests of The Jerry Springer Show, namely to let the crowd heap abuse upon the transgressors and thereby feel superior to them, only with pretensions of being more than that. Still, Dr. Phil is not the worst of Oprah’s proteges.

Neither is the other of Oprah’s most famous pseudoscience-loving proteges is Mehmet Oz, whom we at SBM and elsewhere have castigated for his promotion of CAM as “prevention” and his advocacy for hijacking President Obama’s agenda for health care reform to get the government to pay for CAM. Dr. Oz has been a frequent guest on her show, inappropriate scrubs outside of the O.R. and all. His advice on Oprah tends to be mostly not unsound, but Oz, like Andrew Weil, frequently mixes science-based medicine with woo. He’s also a very famous advocate for CAM who has shown up with Dean Ornish, Mark Hyman, and Andrew Weil at the recent Institute of Medicine woo-fest designed to influence the Obama Administration’s health care policy. He also–surprise! surprise!–is a pitchman for a company that sells information from a dubious test its readers take to pharamceutical companies in order to allow them to send targeted ads to them.

He is also presently poised to get his own TV show in the fall, thanks to Oprah.

The absolute worst of Oprah’s proteges is the celebrity spokesmodel for the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy. Beginning in the fall of 2007, Jenny McCarthy, characterized as having “warrior spirit” and as a “warrior mom,” has been a regular guest on Oprah, where she’s been given more or less free rein to spread her gospel of vaccines causing autism and her claims that biomedical quackery can “cure” or “recover” autistic children. Indeed, it may well be that McCarthy is, to paraphrase the title of an excellent book about Operation Market Garden during World War II by Cornelius Ryan (later made into a movie), a woo too far. For it was Oprah’s inking of a deal with Jenny McCarthy to develop a number of media efforts, including one of the most inane blogs I’ve ever seen and a television show, that has drawn the attention of the mainstream media to Oprah’s promotion of quackery. McCarthy’s promotion of antivaccine propaganda and pseudoscience is, quite simply, so egregious and such a threat to public health that even the Oprah-friendly (or Oprah-intimidated) media has become alarmed, given McCarthy’s statements that, if she ever had another child, she would not vaccinate that child. The NEWSWEEK article even notes McCarthy’s crude statement that

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

In both articles I’ve cited, reporters tried to get a statement from Oprah. This is what they got. First, from the article on the Oprah Effect:

Asked if Oprah or her show endorses McCarthy’s views, a representative for Oprah’s program said, “We don’t take positions on the opinions of our guests. Rather, we offer a platform for guests to share their first-person stories in an effort to inform the audience and put a human face on topics relevant to them.” When McCarthy’s views have been discussed on the air, statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that there’s no scientific evidence of a vaccine-autism link have been read.

And from the NEWSWEEK story:

She declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement she said, “The guests we feature often share their first-person stories in an effort to inform the audience and put a human face on topics relevant to them. I’ve been saying for years that people are responsible for their actions and their own well-being. I believe my viewers understand the medical information presented on the show is just that—information—not an endorsement or prescription. Rather, my intention is for our viewers to take the information and engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners about what may be right for them.”

The first-person story that, as Oprah says, puts “a human face on topics” is an important part of the show’s success. Perhaps Oprah’s most attractive quality, and one that sets her apart from other daytime hosts, is that she abhors the celebration of victimhood. She succeeded despite a childhood of abuse, and her own experience left her with very little tolerance for people who indulge in self-pity or blame cruel fate for their troubles. She often features regular people or, even better, celebrities, who have met challenges in their lives.

In other words, Oprah washes her hands of any responsibility for spreading misinformation under the guise of “trusting her audience” to be able to distinguish good advice from bad advice. She also values “self-empowerment” apparently above all else. That would be all well and good, except that Oprah mistakes the story of someone like Jenny McCarthy, who claims to have, through being a “warrior mother,” to have overcome her son’s autism and turned herself into an “autism advocate.” It matters not to Oprah that McCarthy’s claims are based on her belief in autism quackery and anti-vaccine pseudoscience. All that matters is that, by her own narrative, Jenny McCarthy has “triumphed” over the odds for the sake of her son. The compelling personal story of “empowerment” thus trumps science, and the only “balance” Oprah feels compelled to provide is a dry statement from the CDC and AAP.

What is Oprah’s responsibility?

As we have seen, Oprah doesn’t think she is responsible for what people do with the misinformation she promotes. Indeed, note how shocked she was that a breast cancer sufferer (a woman with Stage III disease, if I recall correctly) would take the nonsense she pushes on her show seriously and actually act on it by refusing surgical and medical care that could save her life. Philospher and ethicist (not to mention blogger) Janet Stemwedel asks:

I’m curious to hear what you all think about this. Is it acceptable to give any guest you please a soapbox without taking a position on the opinions they voice from that soapbox? Is reading official statements from the CDC and AAP enough “balance” to Jenny McCarthy’s views on vaccines, or do you think the “Oprah Winfrey Show” needs to do more?

And, if Oprah and her producers are aware of the Oprah effect (which, really, they have to be, right?), should that awareness of their reach lead them to try to meet a higher ethical standard as far as the foreseeable consequences for giving Jenny McCarthy a soapbox?

I have two answers to Janet’s questions: my answers in an ideal world and my answer in the real world. In an ideal world, my answers would be:

  1. No, simply reading an official statement from the CDC and AAP as “balance” to Jenny McCarthy’s idiotic and dangerous views on vaccines, which have led her to a know-nothing activism based on the arrogance of ignorance that is already eroding faith in vaccines. Indeed, there is already a site called the Jenny McCarthy Body Count to chronicle deaths from infectious disease that can be partially attributed to her antivaccine zealotry. She uses emotion and her son to argue falsely that vaccines cause autism and that various quackery “cured” him (and, by inference, can cure other children with autism, too). Reading a dry statement from the CDC is utterly useless in combatting this message. It is nothing more than what I like to call the “token skeptic” who trots out the skeptical viewpoint briefly in a formulaic method.
  2. Yes, the awareness of the Oprah Effect should make the producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah herself realize that they have real power and, as the comic geek inside me can’t resist saying, with great power comes great responsibility. Indeed, adding more “balance” is not enough. If they were truly to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard, useful idiots to the antivaccine movement like Jenny McCarthy and the hucksters who barfed The Secret onto the world wouldn’t be allowed within ten miles of Harpo Studios. “Balance,” after all, implies that there is enough scientific validity to a view that it is somewhere on the same planet with science. There is no “balance” between Jenny McCarthy and scientists. Jenny McCarthy is, quite simply, completely wrong about vaccines and autism. There is no “balance” between promoters of The Secret and scientists; The Secret is nothing more than New Age nonsense based on prescientific beliefs that were prettied up for the 21st century. There is no validity to them. “Balance” is a sham used by promoters of pseudoscience and quackery to claim a legitimacy that they don’t deserve.

In the real world, unfortunately, my answer would be this: Oprah doesn’t care about science or accuracy. Rather, she cares about three things: ratings, “empowerment,” and entertainment. If it gets ratings, it interests her. If it fits into her apparent “spiritual” world view (like The Secret does), it’s all good to her. If it fits in with the “alternative” medical beliefs of her audience (as Jenny McCarthy, Mehmet Oz, and Christiane Northrup do), she likes it. If it provides a message of “empowerment” (whether real or not), it is good. Those scientists and nasty skeptics are such downers, too. They harsh the happy buzz of all that “positivity” and overcoming adversity to provide “inspirational” stories. None of this is new, either. After all, remember that Oprah sandbagged James Randi when he was the skeptic on a show about psychics. She was also extremely sarcastic and abusive to a woman named Laura McMahon who had agreed in 2007 to be the token skeptic on another episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show about psychics.

The bottom line is that, whatever good Oprah may have done with her money, when it comes to medicine and science, she is a force for ill. Her intentions may be the best in the world, but that is only why she is the living embodiment of the cliche that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That’s especially true when that same road is also paved with no mental filter of critical thinking to keep out nonsense, and Oprah clearly has no mental filter when it comes to pseudoscience and quackery. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed. Too bad Oprah doesn’t seem to understand or accept that. The result is the Oprah-fication of the popular discourse about medicine in the media, as epitomized by the “tell both sides” imbalance seen on shows like The Doctors. Indeed, Oprah is one of the most potent forces in American for the undermining of critical thinking and science-based medicine in existence. The Huffington Post may promote a lot of quackery, but when it comes to influence in the media Oprah is the Queen of All Media.

Unfortunately, given the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine, I’m having a hard time determining if Oprah is a symptom or one of the causes of the rise of pseudoscience and quackery over science-based medicine.

Posted in: Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (53) ↓

53 thoughts on “The Oprah-fication of medicine

  1. Michelle B says:

    Good post.

    Oprah is both a symptom and a cause of the rise of pseudoscience and quackery over science-based medicine. Her dabbling in pseudoscience in front of a large audience is only possible from the very beginning because of the already existing general acceptance of pseudoscience (most people do not even know want science is, they think the law of attraction crapola in The Secret is science!). And by her embracing and supporting it and giving it a nice cheerful, positive facade, she is the cause for increasing and maintaining its appeal.

  2. Michelle B says:

    meant: most people do not even know WHAT science is….

  3. Khym Chanur says:

    Unfortunately, in marked contrast, Oprah has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen, …

    I remember someone (possibly several someones) speculating that Oprah doesn’t peddle woo because of credulity, but to make money. Just because she’s savvy at business doesn’t mean she’s immune to irrationality, but a media empire that big has got to be doing its share of market research, and if (speculating again) that research says that what her audience wants is woo…

  4. The Newsweek piece was good, but they were too positive about Oz. They did not seem bothered by his mixing of mainstream and unscientific medicine.

  5. David Gorski says:

    I agree. Perhaps I should have spent more time on that aspect, but the post was getting too long. Also, I have seen Dr. Oz on Oprah; he does, for the most part, dish out relatively uncontroversial medical and diet advice, although, as the article points out, he never, ever disagrees with even the most woo-tastic Oprah guest.

    It’s more Dr. Oz’s activities outside of the show in promoting CAM and mixing sound advice with nonsense (like Dr. Andrew Weil does) that bother me.

  6. Jules says:

    Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Three Wise Men…I’m still agog at the number of pills that Suzanne Somers pops (I’m the kind of person who has to reminded to take one pill a day, never mind 60).

    But I think there is something to be said about self-education and the Internet. I (used to) feed my cats a raw diet, because what I read about cats and food and raw diets made sense–well, not some of the more absurd sites, which are equally as anti-vax as some of the Jenny McCarthy stuff. Plus I don’t really buy the “toxins” crap, either. But at some level, carnivores eat meat, and feeding a carnivore meat is not something that I would have considered had I just gone by what my vet at the time said (“Brand name cat food”).

    I don’t feed one a raw diet any more (the other one still loves her chow), because her renal failure has progressed to the point where her BUN/creatinine have been high for two tests in a row. Right now, she gets the Scourge of All Raw Feeders: Science Diet’s kidney prescription diet.

    I’m being a bit facetious when I write that, but it’s true that if you even mention SD on a raw feeding community, you’ll get vitriolic diatribes about how Evil the Company is, how They don’t know Anything about Feeding Animals, etc etc. But the point is, there’s a difference between engaging in unconventional practices, and rabidly adhering to them come hell or high water when there’s a ladder and a helicopter waiting to spirit you to safety.

    I do still mix a bit of chicken into my CRF kitty’s food. She seems to like it.

  7. Kimbo Jones says:

    I wonder if we’re taking the wrong approach to CAM. Although I personally think it’s all garbage, I wonder if we’re being too sledgehammer to the face about it. To some people who use it, it’s not just some kooky belief, it’s part of their culture. Not just ethnic culture either, but it effects their interactions with other people on day to day basis. Then we come along all “you’re a moron” when maybe what we should be saying is “if you have an infectious disease and you use CAM instead of antivirals, you’re probably spreading that disease to the people around you, which could kill people” (for example). Sort of like the wedge method, but used for good instead of evil. Start with the biggest, most far-reaching issues and then start introducing less severe things like unnecessary supplements in the “worried well”.

    I guess what I’m saying it, what’s necessarily so bad if some patients want to spend their hard earned cash on CAM if they are willing to compromise and follow evidence based treatments? Yes, there’s the risk that they will credit the CAM and not the treatment. Yes, it’s an extra expense. But if it increases rapport and encourages people that “Big Med” is just an unfounded conspiracy (i.e., doctors are willing to listen to their concerns and “support their beliefs”), maybe it will help protect against some of this “science is corrupt and trying to kill us” nonsense and allow health professionals to communicate with their alienated patients again.

    But I dunno, I may be way off. What do you think?

  8. Calli Arcale says:

    Kimbo Jones, you may be right that sometimes we’re too sledgehammer at people who use woo. It’s just that we’ve grown accustomed to doing battle with the really dangerous, wacko, “out there” stuff, like chelating autistic kids and then giving them Lupron, stuff that honestly deserves a sledgehammer approach.

    But most of the people who use woo aren’t that out there. They use it alongside regular medicine, and in fact aren’t at all clear on the distinction between the two. The alt-med garbage aside, I think for most people, the false dichotomy of “alternative” and “mainstream” simply doesn’t exist. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Bad, in that they give a homeopath the same standing as an MD. But good in that they haven’t been suckered in by the false dichotomy, which means that the old weapons against quackery will still work. (The “alternative” terminology is just a way of avoiding regulation. If the general public doesn’t seem alternative medicine as different from regular medicine, then there’s hope that we can convince Congress to resume treating them both the same way.)

    So maybe we need to be careful how we convey our message. Not temper it, nor adopt the strategies of our opposition (such as Oprah), but perhaps try not to antagonize the opposition. Many of us already do this, and I’ve seen it be successful. I’ve seen alt-me users successfully educated to where they understood the difference.

    I’m not sure we can do much about the conspiracy theorists; their perception of the situation is so warped that there isn’t a common ground to work from. But the regular folks, those are the ones who need to hear about this stuff. To learn how deceptive and manipulative Oprah is, for instance.

    Jules — feeding raw meat to a cat is probably fine as long as you take basic precautions to avoid spoilage. (Cats can get food poisoning too, after all.) Heck, I’ve had sashimi and I’ve had steak tartare — I can see why the pets like it. ;-) It takes dedication to prep your pet’s food, and you obviously love your kitties a great deal. I think the only really dangerous wacky diet I’ve seen suggested for cats is the vegan one that PETA promotes. It involves a LOT of supplementation, because cats are not really built to digest plant matter. They end up unable to absorb enough nutrients in the short time the stuff is in their gut.

  9. drApple says:

    It’s truly distressing that these people have such a powerful and influential soapbox with Oprah’s show. The Oprah effect works because of the manipulation of public emotion through spurious anecdotes. It’s obvious to see why passionate, unscientific claims are viewed in a more favorable light by the public than the cold hard facts of scientific studies. This cold hard science is hard to understand for the public and lacks the passionate face of the people it helps.

    Sometimes I muse about a daytime talk show in the same vein as Oprahs that would show the faces of the people science has helped. A Carl Sagan-like scientist would host it and all the guests would be people that had pacemakers, or were taking statins or had an organ transplant. I guess my point is that I believe science should fight fire with fire.

  10. Jules says:

    @ Callie:

    *headdesking the secretaire to splinters*

    (Yes, we have a secretaire)

    There are few things that will have me railing like a lunatic and frothing at the mouth (a la Jenny McCarthy) than the unspeakable idiocy of feeding obligate carnivores vegan diets.

    @ drApple:

    What do you think of the TED presentations that are shown on YouTube? Something like that, maybe? (I think the research presented is cool, even if it is irritatingly dumbed down). Hehe, more evidence that autism is a genetic predisposition, because it’s so damn hard to find a charming and charismatic scientist–who’s right! It’s the Anna Karenina problem: there are so many nice ways to be wrong, and only one boring way to be right.

  11. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    I find it amusing that the same people who complain about “Big Pharma” have no problem taking 60 vitamin pills a day. Why are they not concerned about the profit the vitamin companies are making?

  12. DevoutCatalyst says:

    “I find it amusing that the same people who complain about “Big Pharma” have no problem taking 60 vitamin pills a day. Why are they not concerned about the profit the vitamin companies are making?”

    Haha. And she only wants to live to age 110. I thought 120 was the new 90…

  13. tmac57 says:

    Dr. Gorski, that was one of the best articles that I have seen on this subject (which has become a pet peeve of mine). I just sent this email to Oprah’s show:
    ” This is my 3rd attempt to try to get Oprah’s attention about what a growing number of people out there feel like is her irresponsible promotion of pseudo-scientific nonsense. I believe that Oprah wants to do good, but it is clear that she is promoting harmful quackery. Please take a look at this blog entry by Dr. David Gorski* from Science Based Medicine Blog .

    I urge others out there to contact here show here:

    They can ignore an email or two, but if they start to see thousands of them coming in challenging her on this, it may make a difference.

  14. pec says:

    You convinced me. We should get Oprah taken off the air. She has no right to question the medical industry when you guys have spent your whole lives developing the thinking skills needed to know what is true and what is not. Without your unfailing guidance, we are like little lost sheep, wandering hopelessly and falling for new age quackery. Without your fatherly expertise, we might actually stop trusting the drug companies. And wouldn’t that be a sad day in America if the public lost faith in the drug companies. What if the drug companies went out of business and stopped making Viagra and Prozac? How could we live?

    Oprah has a heck of a nerve to doubt the safety of vaccines. After all, several correlational studies have been done, proving conclusively and without a trace of doubt that mercury is good for you. It should be added to baby formula.

  15. pec says:

    And yes Summers sounds like a nut who can’t face mortality. But how is she any different from Kurzweil?

  16. Citizen Deux says:

    pec – thanks for the fling of poo here. Somers is pursuing a process of “life extension” which is unsubstantiated and possible deadly to herself. It’s her body – she can rock on.

    Oprah is an influential public figure, she facilitated the election of the most recent President (despite delcaring neutraility at the start), she promotes views which are dangerous and simply wrong and she if humanly fallible (her endorsement of the hoax book A Million Little Pieces for example).

    I don’t get your fear of Big Pharma complex – I know it’s listed somewhere in the DSM-IV – any organization is subject to error (it’s simply that Big Pharma has more to lose and has demonstrated better control than say – Herbalife or other “natural” firms).

    Your Mercury shot is as tiresome as it is out of date.

    As usual, you miss the ethical nature of the discussion. No one asked to remove Oprah from the air – save you. She is an entertainer who has taken the mantle of prophet for her audience.

  17. David Gorski says:

    As usual, you miss the ethical nature of the discussion. No one asked to remove Oprah from the air – save you. She is an entertainer who has taken the mantle of prophet for her audience.

    pec always cries “Censorship!” whenever we criticize someone promoting pseudoscience. She seems to equate freedom of speech with freedom from criticism.

    No, what I was doing was criticizing, which I have every bit as much right as Oprah to do (and an infinitesimally smaller soapbox from which to do it).

  18. Kimbo Jones says:

    Pec, I know you’re just flaming, but in the interest of other readers who may be following along I feel the need to respond:

    When it comes to infectious disease, you’re right to be a moron doesn’t supersede my right to not be infected by you because you decided that wishing your illness away a la “The Secret”, or something, was better than antivirals. [and my point is ignored so that I’m taken literally in the responses in 3….2….]

    How dare those drug companies take an herb and cut out all the non-medicinal stuff that causes nasty side effects and limits absorption, thereby making the active ingredient more potent and effective. Those sniveling bastards, participating in our capitalist society as if they have any right to run a business. They should just get all their resources to make, distribute, and research drugs by the shear goodness of the employee’s hearts (who will obviously have no bills to pay because they will live in a fairyland utopia where houses and children are free, too).

    Look, I’m not saying “Big Pharma” doesn’t have its negatives, but to latch onto anti-pharm conspiracy rhetoric in favour of CAM *just because it’s something else* (seeing as the argument isn’t “they are better and here’s the evidence” but “Big Pharma doesn’t know everything, so there”) is just plain irresponsible. It’s also hypocritical to live in a capitalist society and expect a business that’s providing a service to billions to not make money. Maybe they shouldn’t make as much money, but that doesn’t make the drugs ineffective and that doesn’t make them wrong. It just makes them greedy. Which has nothing to do with drug effectiveness.

  19. weing says:

    “Without your unfailing guidance, we are like little lost sheep, wandering hopelessly and falling for new age quackery.”

    That’s about the only correct thing you’ve said.

  20. weing says:

    Oh, I know you didn’t mean it. But it is a correct statement anyway.

  21. weing says:

    I’m still waiting for a slick lawyer to go for Oprah’s big pockets for injuries caused by following the woo she’s pushing. Also waiting for Obama to confiscate all her income above $100K as she clearly doesn’t need the money.

  22. LindaRosaRN says:

    This is an important subject, not only for Winfrey’s vast influence on the American public, but her considerable popularity abroad, even in Arab countries. And let’s not forget which current American president may feel indebted to Winfrey for his all-important success in the Iowa primary where she played a significant role.

    While it’s quite disturbing that she’s taken over the Discovery Health channel, let’s hope Ms. Winfrey gets diverted onto other matters soon. From Bob Park:

    In New York last week, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London, a group of millionaires that included Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, George Soros, Oprah Winfrey, David Rockefeller, Eli Broad, Ted Turner, and Michael Bloomberg met to discuss the best uses of their vast wealth. Over drinks and dinner they agreed that overpopulation is the highest priority. It is the root cause of the worldproblems. The historic goal of war is the need to expand. Hunger, poverty, pollution of air and water, the spread of disease, the destruction of habitat of other species, would all be reduced if the Earth were less crowded.”

  23. Kari says:

    I think that’s the longest blog entry (on any blog) that I’ve taken the time to read. Excellent post.

    David, may I have permission to reprint online?

    As much as Oprah wants to prevent herself as a neutral party, she’s complicit. She certainly has the right to present her show and her guests in any manner she so chooses; it’s too bad she makes such poor choices.

  24. Prometheus says:

    Oprah found Dr. Northrup when she “blew out her thyroid,”…

    That has to be one of the strangest phrases I’ve seen on this ‘blog – and you’ve had a bunch of weirdo stuff here.

    How exactly does a person “blow out” their thyroid? I’ve heard of (and seen) a person “blowing out” their knee (translation: tearing ligaments and/or cartilage in the joint). I had a friend “blow out” her eardrum diving.

    But how do you “blow out” your thyroid? Was she doing a Louise Armstrong trumpet riff and “blew out” her thyroid instead of her cheeks? Or was she doing lines of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) in the green room and “blew out” her thyroid that way?

    I’ve said this to a number of commenters on my own ‘blog: you can often tell that a person knows nothing about what they’re discussing simply from their use of words. Nobody who had even a passing knowledge of the thyroid gland would say that it was “blown out”.

    Now, I imagine that she got this colorful phrase from the genius who diagnosed her thyroid ailment – Dr. Northrup. In that case, it shows that Dr. Northrup is woefully uninformed about the thyroid gland and shouldn’t be diagnosing or treating anything to do with it.

    Pec unwittingly got it absolutely correct:

    She [Oprah] has no right to question the medical industry when you guys have spent your whole lives developing the thinking skills needed to know what is true and what is not.

    I doubt that Pec actually means that, but I think that Oprah (does she have a last name?) needs to seriously consider her responsibility (if not liability) to the public.

    Frankly, there are too many people out there who can’t reliably discern fact from fiction as it is – we don’t need another glitzy vapor-brained celeb telling people to trust the quacks.


  25. Prometheus says:

    That should be “Louis Armstrong” above, not “Louise Armstrong”.


  26. Doazic says:

    I think that’s really something that Endocrinologists should be blamed for. A lot of specialists just assume that their patients know that they should stretch before using their thyroid vigorously to avoid a “blow out”; when most people including those who should know better just skip it entirely.

  27. pec says:

    [pec unwittingly got it absolutely correct:

    She [Oprah] has no right to question the medical industry when you guys have spent your whole lives developing the thinking skills needed to know what is true and what is not.]

    Yes, I meant it. You guys are IT and I mean IT. Even God doesn’t come close to your all-seeing all-comprehending all-powerful amazingness. Oh wait, I forgot, there is no God. I know that because you told me. And if you tell me something well then who am I to question or doubt? Who am I to think I can think, when I did not attend medical school? I cannot think. I cannot exist without your all-knowingness keeping me alive from one moment to the next.

    And that’s what Oprah needs to understand. We have to convince her, with force if necessary, that she MUST STOP THINKING, she MOST STOP HAVING OPINIONS. Because let’s face it, Oprah is not qualified to think about health, since she has not attended medical school.

    And we know that there are secrets taught only in medical school which are never revealed to the ignorant public. And even if we could get access to those secrets, we are far too dumb to comprehend them.

    Oprah, come to your senses! You are too dumb to think about health!

    Who needs God when we have all-knowing, all-powerful, all-comprehending MDs to guide us.

    And I mean it.

  28. Chris says:

    One big difference between the MDs here, and Oprah:

    The MDs who blog here are able to admit when they are wrong.

    This is something Oprah does not seem to do, and nor do you.

  29. weing says:

    You are straw manning. I never told you that there is no God. That would be presumptuous of me. That’s not my area of expertise. Your beliefs about God are just as good as anyone’s here.

  30. JustAsItSounds says:

    I subscribe to both SBM and Metafilter in Google Reader. I suspect I’m not the only avid reader of both as another Oprah/Suzanne Somers thread has cropped up there.

    A few comments had to be deleted as per MetaFilter’s editorial policy, so it may seem a little confused. You can get more of the full story by reading this MetaTalk thread (a sort of Meta-metafilter).

    Basically none other than T S Whiley’s son showed up in the original MetaFilter thread, defending T S Whiley and babbling about how the Whiley Protocol is both different from (it’s much more effective, doesn’t increase risk of breast cancer, uses nice plant derived estrogen, not yucky mare’s urine derived estrogen), and yet the same as standard HRT (doesn’t require clinical trials to prove efficacy/safety, chemically identical to normal HRT regimens).

    Of course he didn’t admit his connection until he was effectively outed by some basic google-fu. It get’s wierder as it seems that he might not in fact be T S Whiley’s (13 year old?) son, Jack Raden as he later ‘admitted’ but in fact T S Whiley’s husband, Neil Raden.

    This is not the first time that Neil Raden has posed as one of his offspring in order to shill for his wife (comment #108)

    Of course this behaviour, in no way, detracts from the efficacy/safety of the ‘Wiley Protocol’, but merely gives one an insight into the standards of honesty involved

  31. Dan Warren says:

    Thank you, Dr. Gorski, for this badly needed diatribe on the 800 pound gorilla that is the oprah effect. I have long felt that the promoters of rational medicine (and the skeptical movement) have been too soft on oprah and her gang of woo masters.

    I would put her at the top of the list of those who degrade the medical and scientific health of the American population.

    I do worry that her powerful influence will be utilized in the upcoming health care reform as CAM is elevated and force fed to the public to fill the resource gaps (much like the barefoot doctor campaign of Mao in the dawn of communist China). I would look forward to a Part II of this post to look into the quackery that Oz and the other minions peddle with her priceless blessing.

  32. tmac57 says:

    Dan Warren- I know that you didn’t mean it that way, but ‘diatribe’ has a fairly negative connotation. Ex:”a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism”. I realize that it has other less pejorative meanings though.

  33. LindaRosaRN says:

    Read it all here:
    Live Your Best Life Ever!
    By Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert
    May 30, 2009

  34. Dan Warren says:

    Thank you, tmac57, for the correction. I certainly intended a less pejorative meaning. Though, I may have been projecting my own rage upon the subject. I contend that oprah, even aside from her woo, makes our jobs as physicians much harder than they need to be:

    All of her “medical shows” depict either medical “miracles” or medical disasters. Her attentive, broad, trusting audience gains the sense or expectation that when they seek medical care, they are going to have one of these two extreem experiences, even though the vast majority of patients have uneventful, boring, safe treatment.

    In expecting a disaster, anxiety levels rise and one is paralyzed with suspicion that catastrophe lurks around every corner.
    Conversely, with the anticipation of a miraculous result of the planned treatment, expectations are practically impossible to meet, resulting in needlessly frustrated patients and undeserved dissatisfaction. I spend inordinate amounts of time attempting to counteract THIS oprah effect to bring my patients to a rational state of mind and manage their expectations.

    I do recognize that this is a common problem throughout the sensational media. Still, given the extent to which her influences reach, I contend that oprah bears dishonor of queen of this campaign.

  35. Tommy says:

    I wonder if people are drawn to alternative medicine and the like because of a perceived lack of (for lack of a better word) “spirituality” or “humanity” in medicine, or if it is more because the scientific rationale behind mainstream medicine is simply beyond what most people can understand without significant study, and in an age of self-empowerment, anything one can’t understand is discarded as irrelevant or too highbrow.

    Of course an alternative view would be that people view the medical profession as being “establishment,” and alternative medicine and such are “anti-establishment,” and if this is the case, then there is little hope of combating alternative medicine because the more you engage it, the stronger it makes the other side look. If this is the case, then fighting with the proponents of CAM and the like only appears to lend credence to the argument.

    I’d imagine the reality is not a simple mix of these conditions, plus others. But it would seem like a rational method of combating a problem like the one described in the article would be to adopt the strategies of the “enemy.” If people are drawn to alternative therapies that lack any scientific evidence to support them, maybe it’s because those alternative therapies bring a value that traditional medicine is not currently bringing. If this is the case, it would seem like the answer would be to determine what is missing, and see how it could be incorporated into the clinical practice of real, science-based medicine.

    My personal opinion is that the massive explosion in popularity of alternative medicine, etc., is a symptom of many ills of the medical profession in the country currently. This makes it a much larger problem than just Oprah. Even if Oprah stopped being the a conduit of expression for the movement, another person would see it as profitable and step in to provide that role. My opinion is that Oprah is simply a savvy businessperson (the evidence for this is far more convincing) who knows what her audience wants.

  36. Prometheus says:

    There are a lot of reasons that people have “turned to alternative medicine”, not the least of which is the way that “alternative” practitioners have defined the term.

    If you look at the surveys that have shown this alleged “turn to alternative medicine”, you’ll see that almost all of them include such things as “prayer” (I never realized my grandmother was doing “alternative” medicine!), “relaxation”, “meditation” and even “exercise” (e.g. Yoga) as “alternative medicine” practices.

    When you weed out these fairly common practices (which most real doctors don’t consider “alternative” – or at least not “medicine”), the numbers look a lot different.

    If you then take away the people who are using “vitamins” and “antioxidants” or having their back twinges “adjusted” but take all of their real medical concerns to a real doctor, the number of people who are “turning to alternative medicine” is actually very small.

    Many of the remaining “alternative” medicine enthusiasts are what my doctor calls “the worried well” – people who are in good health but have less “energy” or “focus” than they think they should or are starting to feel the effects of aging.

    They have nothing that modern medicine can address, so they “turn to alternative medicine”, which promises to “holistically” increase their “wellness”. These are the same people who, in earlier days, would have been patent medicine customers.

    Another group which often is seen “turning to alternative medicine” are those people with medical conditions for which modern medicine still hasn’t found a cure or effective treatment. They are the natural prey of “alternative” medicine and have been so since real medical therapies were available.

    It’s not that “alternative” medicine has an effective treatment for these people – it doesn’t. It just has a more palatable way of dealing with their patients. The way “alternative” practitioners say “There’s not much I can do for you.” is “I can cure you if you just believe in me!”, which means pretty much the same thing, but sounds a lot more “holistic” and “empowering”.

    For the two groups above – the “worried well” and those with incurable disorders – “alternative” medicine is just selling “hope”. It’s false hope, to be sure, but hope is what these people are buying. Real doctors could do the same, but generally feel that it is unethical to lie to their patients, even when a lie could make them feel better.

    Of course, some MD’s and DO’s are down rooting in the false-hope trough with the DC’s, ND’s LAc’s, etc…. This doesn’t mean that “alternative” medicine has any validity, just that it’s easier and often pays better than real medicine. Doctors are human, with human frailties. It is actually a testament to the ethics of the average doctor that more of them aren’t selling herbs and adjusting “chi”.

    The real bottom-dwellers of “alternative” medicine are those who prey on people who have treatable conditions but are afraid of the treatment. Many cancer quacks fit this description, telling their patients that they don’t need to take nasty, harsh “chemicals” or worry about five-year survival. And generally, they won’t, since starting cancer treatment late (or not at all) puts patients at the “low end” of the survival curve.

    These “alternative” medicine bottom-feeders promise easy, mild, “natural” treatments for cancer (or rheumatoid arthritis or even diabetes and high blood pressure). They promise “no side effects” and they are mostly correct, since their “remedies” usually have no effect whatsoever. The only “side effect” is that the patient’s cancer, diabetes, hypertension or whatever continues to progress along the natural history of the untreated condition.

    Fortunately for the “alternative” practitioners, the “end-point” of this non-therapy is often death, and dead people don’t write testimonials.

    They can’t appear on Oprah, either.


  37. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    OK, I am somewhat embarrassed to post this link, but I saw this on Yahoo and was glad to see Oprah is at least not on top anymore.

    I just hope that Angelina has vaccinated her kids…

  38. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    Also, I think one reason people turn to alternative medicine is that these “practitioners” always say they can treat you. If you go to the doctor, he/she may just say you need to eat better, lose weight, etc. However, an alternative practitioner will always have something (treatment, herb, etc.) and people want to be “healed”.

  39. Carl Bartecchi says:

    Just a comment about your mention of Dr. Oz, showboating in his scrubs (where is the stethoscope around his neck?) on TV shows.
    A recent editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal by a medical student (April 28, 2009 – Scrubs: What you don’t see is what you get) shows that the student recognized the problems with medical personnel wearing uniforms and white coats outside their work area – these clothing items become progressively more contaminated during clinical care, according to many studies. The medical student notes that medical students at Columbia University in New York City are warned that they may have to repeat their surgical rotation if found wearing scrubs outside of the hospital. Isn’t this the same hospital of Dr. Oz – fine role model he turns out to be? I loved the picture of Dr. Oz (with his scrubs) and Opra with the statement by the picture “Resveratrol does one other thing,” Dr. Oz says.”It turns on a system in your body that prevents your cells from aging.” He is also big on the “magical” berries from Brazil – acai berries. But less we excessively downplay the contributions of Dr. Oz, we need to remember his staunch support for therapeutic touch along with other irrational therapies.
    Carl Bartecchi, M.D.

  40. Chris says:

    Congratulations at your mention in the Newsweek blog, where the author had these words to say (with emphasis added by me):

    The article really struck a nerve with Dr. Dave Gorski, a blogger at Science-Based Medicine (bookmark it: the site is a great source of thorough, critical reviews of both the latest research and medical fads). The first sentence quoted here can only be described as a “run-on of rage”:

  41. nwtk2007 says:

    OK Joe, one paper is a review of reviews and the other is a discussion or as it puts it “a critical evaluation”.

    Neither one is a study at all and neither constitute “evidence”.

    Are you still reading summaries and abstracts only?

    Did you pay the $31 to see the article by Ernst or are you a member? Either way I would assume that you have the full article and could therefore E-mail it to me at so I too could read it through and through as I am sure you will say you have, which, indeed, you might have. If so then I appologize for the sarcasm.

    In fact, if you could send me both, that would be greatly appreciated. If there is a difficulty, just copy and paste the articles to a notepad document and attach it to my E-mail.

    Thanks in advance for your help.

  42. nwtk2007 says:

    Sorry guys, the above comment was for a different thread. I don’t know how it switched.

  43. Dave Ruddell says:

    Thought you’d like to know, an adapted version of this article appeared in the Toronto Star today. It was on the front of the Insight section, and there was a tease graphic at the very top of the front page.

    The story has comments, here:

    If you want to see the front page, try

  44. tmac57 says:

    Dave Ruddell- Thanks for the links. I was a little unsettled by the comments on the article in the Star. It looked like the majority either disagreed outright or missed the point of the article altogether.

  45. Noteinstein says:

    Very enjoyable read. Thanks.

    People haven’t changed for centuries. Everyone is always looking for the simple solutions to their problems. It’s inherent in our culture. Here, take a pill and you will be fine. This is especially true for common problems that cannot be addressed by current medical science, such as aging.

    Whether the pill is provided by Oprah or not, the ones seeking it will find it somewhere. She is basically the modern version of the quack on the street corner selling bottled corn syrup as a cure all back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

    However, ultimately, I believe that if someone does come into real health problems they will seek medical attention from their doctor, not tune into Oprah. There will always be extreme cases where people will refuse medical advice and treatments from a health professional, but I assume these individuals are few and far between.

    Do you think if Suzanne Somers has a recurrence of her cancer she will not go see her oncologist? I would be confident in saying she would.

    Is Oprah being irresponsible? That’s difficult to answer. I’d just say that people are simply irresponsible. They choose what they want to believe.

  46. MomOfBoy says:

    Fascinating post. I found my way over from the Toronto Star article.

    I’m not a medical person, just a mom of an autistic boy.
    I thought a personal experience might be of interest.

    I recently had a dressing down from my best friend of 8 years who pronounced we could no longer be friends because she didn’t agree with my parenting philosophy. She informed me in a very mean way that my child was diagnosed years ago and yet “nothing had been done.” for him.

    I was completely dumbfounded as she has been a sounding board, source of advise, and confidante for my endless struggle to figure out and do what is best for my son.

    After reading this article the light bulb has gone on. I remember her bragging to me about Jenny McCarthy and her son and what a “great Mom she is.” I remember another occasion when she told me that she “knew people” whose kids had therapy and “it’s like they don’t even have autism anymore.”

    My friend bought into this thinking, judged me for having a child who is NOT cured, attacked me for it, and ended our friendship over it. The pieces have come together at last.

    I am isolated enough as a mother of a special needs child because there are a lot of activities we can not participate in, but I never would have dreamed that the special needs of my child would ever be used as a reason for the breaking off of a friendship.

    I’ll understand if you delete this post as it doesn’t exactly flow along with the conversation being had, here… but I wanted to comment and thank you for your post.

    A victim of the new McCarthyism

Comments are closed.