Posts Tagged “bioidenticals”

She is, despite her nearly-unrivaled success and popularity, one of the most dangerous people in the United States. That may sound like an extreme statement … but it’s no joke. I mean it. The woman is truly dangerous.

I’m referring, of course, to the famously New Agey and feel-goody Oprah Winfrey. She has long peddled amorphous New Age metaphysics — pushing e.g. the quasi-mysticism of Marianne Williamson — but over the last couple of years has begun seriously trafficking in pseudoscience, particularly, pseudomedicine. Given the extent of her influence over her audience, the possibility that lives are at stake, is extremely real.

Despite the growing vehemence and miltancy of her campaign to mislead, the mass media have been largely unwilling to take her on. Until now. Newsweek recently profiled the insanity Oprah has been foisting on people. (A hat tip to R.T. Carroll of the Skeptic’s Dictionary for pointing me to it).

The Newsweek article begins with Oprah selling Suzanne Somers and her questionable medical habits (her own ad hoc form of hormone-replacement therapy), and describes how Oprah staged this presentation so as to make Somers appear authoritative:

[Somers says her “bioidentical hormones”] block disease and will double her life span. “I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic,” [Somers] 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.”

Oprah is, therefore, convinced that Somers — who is not a doctor, or a scientist, and has absolutely no healthcare credentials I’ve ever heard of — must be correct, because her defiance is evidence of that. This is exactly the kind of emotionalistic justification Oprah has found to support the pseudoscientific claims of others like Jenny McCarthy … whom Oprah assumes to be more of an authority on the causes of autism than doctors and researchers, because McCarthy is a mother, and simply “knows better” than everyone else.

The article even suggests why Oprah is so susceptible to this sort of thing and why she so ferociously defends the pseudoscientists and New Agey freaks she peddles:

Oprah takes these things very seriously. They are, after all, the answers she hopes to find for herself. If Oprah has an exquisite ear for the cravings and anxieties of her audience, it is because she shares them. Her own lifelong quest for love, meaning and fulfillment plays out on her stage each day. In an age of information overload, she offers herself as a guide through the confusion.

The article goes over how much influence Oprah has on her viewers and explains the extent of her influence over them:

Her most ardent fans regard her as an oracle. If she mentions the title of a book, it goes to No. 1. If she says she uses a particular wrinkle cream, it sells out. At Oprah’s retail store in Chicago, women can purchase used shoes and outfits that she wore on the show. Her viewers follow her guidance because they like and admire her, sure. But also because they believe that Oprah, with her billions and her Rolodex of experts, doesn’t have to settle for second best. If she says something is good, it must be.

Therein lies the danger in taking her too seriously, as the article continues to say:

This is where things get tricky. Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn’t good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn’t an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah. Some of the many experts who cross her stage offer interesting and useful information (props to you, Dr. Oz). Others gush nonsense. Oprah, who holds up her guests as prophets, can’t seem to tell the difference. She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

Ms Winfrey and her staff, of course, have a convenient way to swerve out of the path of this criticism:

Oprah would probably not agree with this assessment. 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.”

So you see, everything she shows is just someone’s “first-person story” and not to be taken seriously. This is contradicted, of course, by what Oprah herself says on the show, and by how she stages things (as shown in the example of Ms Somers).

The anti-vaccine campaign of Ms McCarthy is something I’ve covered already, and something that Oprah has helped fuel. But Newsweek goes over another, lesser-known example of Oprah’s peddling of pseudoscience, by Dr Christine Northrup:

Oprah turned to Northrup for advice in 2007, when, as she put it, she “blew out” her thyroid after a stressful season of work and travel. She felt sick and drained and she gained weight. She asked the doctor to come on the show to explain what was going on. “When I called her to talk about this whole thyroid issue,” Oprah told the audience, “she always connects the mind, the body and the spirit.”

Thyroid dysfunction, which affects millions of Americans (mostly women), occurs when the thyroid gland located in the neck produces too much or too little thyroid hormone. Too much (hyperthyroidism) and the metabolism races, sometimes causing anxiety and weight loss. Too little (hypothyroidism) and it slows, which, if severe, can lead to depression and weight gain. Many things can trigger the disease, especially autoimmune disorders.

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.”

Here is a doctor, then, who says thyroid disorder is caused by swallowing words. That’s right, swallowing words. Not by germs, or allergic reactions, or toxins, or the environment … but swallowing words.

Oprah, you see, is big on the “mind-body-spirit” thing. She goes in for stuff like “holistic medicine” in which “the ‘whole’ person” is treated. This is opposed to conventional medicine, which — in her thinking anyway — never treats “whole people.” (I’ve never heard of a conventional doctor treating, say, a broken leg by amputating it, setting the bone, then reattaching it … so I’m not sure how it can be said that conventional doctors never treat “whole people.” But hey, what do I know?)

In any event, Newsweek goes on to punch the obvious hole in this particular little scenario:

An interesting theory—but is there anyone who believes that what Oprah suffers from is an inability to express herself?

The article concedes that some of Oprah’s frequent guests are not all space-cadets peddling absurdity:

Right about now is when you might be asking, is there anything Oprah gets right? In fact, there is. For one, she gives excellent diet and fitness tips. Two of her longest-serving resident experts, Dr. Mehmet Oz and trainer Bob Greene, routinely offer sound, high-quality advice to Oprah and her audience on how to lose weight and improve overall health. For the most part, it is free of the usual diet-industry hype, perhaps because so many of her viewers are on to those scams by now. Oz’s and Greene’s philosophy amounts to: eat nutritious foods, and exercise.

So it’s not all doom-&-gloom on Oprah’s show, but even so:

Oz isn’t without his faults. He sometimes keeps quiet on the show when Oprah’s out-there experts are spouting their questionable theories. There seems to be an unwritten rule that one Oprah expert may not criticize or correct another, and Oz has an interest in keeping Oprah happy. She has turned his books into mega-bestsellers, and features him on her Web site and in her magazine. Her production company is also bankrolling his own syndicated TV show, Dr. Oz, which debuts in the fall.

Way to go Dr Oz … sell out your own science, to satisfy the metaphysics of your meal-ticket.

Only on rare occasions is Oprah ever willing to say she’s gone too far. After selling a book and video called “The Secret” — which asserts that thoughts, not reality, govern our lives, and can bring success, wealth, and even cure disease — the following happened:

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.”

Hopefully Ms Winfrey will realize her support for Ms Somers and Ms McCarthy may be just as dangerous, and suggest that maybe they have flaws, too.

But somehow, I doubt it.

Note: Newsweek has gotten a lot of feedback about this exposé of Oprah. Far from being intimidated, they’re thrilled, and have said so in one of their blogs.

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