Dr. Mehmet Oz was a regular guest on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' before launching his own show, which averages 3.7 million viewers daily. (George Burns, Harpo Productions, Inc)Oprah Winfrey — that fountain of uncritical thinking, meaningless psychobabble and assorted mindless New Agery — is such an influential mass-media tycoon that merely being “a friend of Oprah” is a career unto itself. Her repeat guests all have little media empires of their own, built on the foundation of having gotten the Oprah Seal Of Approval. Some even have their own TV shows … e.g. Phil McGraw and, more recently, “Dr Oz” (aka Mehmet Oz, MD).

As I’ve blogged before, Oprah and her frequent guests can — and sometimes do — offer advice that can actually be dangerous, if followed to the letter … and her audience is more than large enough to assume there are some out there who do exactly that. That said, of all the assorted fruit-loops, fuzzy thinkers, and wingnuts to whom Oprah grants airtime and endorsements, Dr Oz has not attracted the kind of criticism that other “Friends Of Oprah” have received (such as Suzanne Somers).

But now the Chicago Tribune raises serious questions about Dr Oz and his advice (WebCite cached article):

Dr. Mehmet Oz is known as “America’s Doctor,” and it’s not much of a stretch.

Though he is a medical specialist — an acclaimed cardiac surgeon — Oz offers health information on just about any topic, from diet to child care to sex, through a television show that averages 3.7 million viewers a day, six best-selling health guides, columns in Esquire and Time, and a Web site.

Millions turn to him for advice, looking for an authority figure to make sense of the flood of medical information available online and in the media.

Much of the material Oz provides is solid, but some medical experts express reservations about his approach, saying Oz’s ventures also offer advice unsupported by science.

Oz has called the rotavirus vaccine “optional” — a risky view, according to experts. He tells people to examine the shape and sound of their bowel movements closely — a silly idea, specialists say. He invited a doctor to his TV show who has helped spread the idea that cancer can be cured with baking soda. On his Web site, another doctor endorses a group that promotes unproven autism treatments.

Dr Oz’s production staff defends his non-discriminating approach toward medicine:

Oz declined to be interviewed, but his spokespeople say the doctor’s mission is to give his audience information from multiple perspectives. His “Ask Dr. Oz” feature offers answers not only from prestigious medical centers such as the Cleveland Clinic but also from alternative medicine practitioner Deepak Chopra and from Dove, maker of skin care and beauty products.

“The purpose of the site is to provide users with as much information as possible and allow the users to differentiate between what they find helpful and what they do not,” Oz’s spokespeople wrote in response to questions.

But more information is not necessarily better, as not all perspectives are equal in medicine.

Like many people, especially in the mass media, Dr Oz appears to think that if you throw enough information at people — good, bad, and in-between — they will all magically gravitate toward the good information, and the bad will fall into the gutter. Unfortunately, however, that’s not what happens in real life. People who are barraged with information will, in the majority of cases, gravitate toward the information that they find emotionally compelling … which often is not the valid, scientifically-sound information. Members of Dr Oz’s audience are not all well-schooled in medicine and capable of discerning the bad information and rejecting it. They depend on Dr Oz … who has learned medicine and ought to be capable of separating good medical information from the bad … to do that for them. (If they didn’t have this expectation, they’d have little reason to watch his show in the first place!)

Dr Oz and his staff do his viewers a disservice by blasting them with a mixture of good advice and pure bullshit, then expect them to tell the difference. They can’t — and they shouldn’t have to. Clearly what Dr Oz is doing, is subordinating the pursuit of science and good medicine, to the desire for ratings, which for him hinge on Oprah’s demographic: They much prefer “touchy-feely” notions that are emotionally satisfying, rather than valid and rational. In other words, they’re much more interested in “truthiness” than in truth.

I wonder what makes Dr Oz think that dispensing a mixture of valid advice with a whole lot of bullshit is a way for him to live up to the Hippocratic Oath?

Hat tip: Consumerist

Photo credit: George Burns, Harpo Productions, Inc (see Tribune article)

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  • Steven Kage

    Some of the info Oz slings is definitely bullshit-a dangerous situation if people believe it; e.g., myth debunked: that cold doesn't cause colds. Silly demo which ignores the basic fact that colds are caused by the immune system not being able to suppress the virus, not by exposure to the virus as Oz suggests; and if you get cold, your immune system is compromised because of all the energy your body is using to try to stay warm. So mom was not wrong to tell you to bundle up. Duh! Another myth debunked that most heat is lost through the head, Oz stating that "Heat can be lost from any part of the body that's exposed". Misleading: heat is lost more quickly (and cold gets in more quickly) from body parts that are least insulated by muscle and fat, like the sternum, hands, feet, and yes, the head where bone is near the body surface. Once cold gets into to bone, its hard to drive it out (we all know this from experience; we don't a pseudo-scientific magic-act experiment to show its true! So, can we believe anything he says? There's a cure for bullshit on my TV: its the off button.

    • You’re right about the “off” button being a sure and absolute cure for televised bullshit … but it only works for you and me and for most of this blog’s readers. It doesn’t work for everyone, though, and that means the bullshit is propagated. It’s possible for widespread bullshit to have a negative effect on an entire population.