A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

And the world's greatest threat to scientific understanding is... Oprah?!

On paper, I should be an Oprah fan; she's intelligent, liberal and very outspoken. She has, to her credit, raised issues which other shows did not at the time, though albeit on a tabloid talk show - But exposure is after all exposure, even if it is aimed at the daytime TV demograph; housewives, bored students, household pets who have figured out how to use the remote and if certain Disney movies are to be believed, toys that have gained sentience and come to life when their owners are out. But despite all this, I feel my blood boil each time Oprah appears on the little box in my living room. I've even been known to yell at the little box when she says certain things in a seemingly irrational manner that would convince any passing anthropologist I was from one of those remote tribes who had never seen a TV before and believed that someone was trapped inside it. Yes, I do come off that crazy at times. For those of you lucky enough to not know me personally, I'll clarify that blood boiling sensation is not motivated by an irrational fear response to differing levels of melanin. Nor is it because I am intimidated by her having one X chromosome up on me. The truth of the matter is I dislike Oprah because of her repeated scientific and medical garbage.

Tom always asked for Oprah's medical advice when he needed a laugh...

"What?!" I hear some of you say. "Oprah wouldn't do that!". Alright, before I am assassinated by the more rabid members of the Oprah fan club allow me to state quite clearly and baldly three crucial points. Firstly, much of the medical advice given on Oprah's show is absolute and demonstrable tripe. In fact, much of it would be more likely to kill you than cure you. Secondly, Oprah gives an air of respectability to people with vested interests and dangerous wares that shouldn't be entertained and finally that Oprah's championing of absolute drivel and shocking inane approach to complex issues diminishes the very understanding it disingenuously claims to champion.

Let me wipe the froth from my mouth and try to elaborate on those three points lest I choke on my own vitriol. It is well established that the medical content of Oprah's show is at best ludicrous and silly and at worst positively negligent. The fact that the medical advice given by Oprah is absolute mindless new-age dross is well known and I won't rehash it too much. That it is often frankly dangerous is also well known There was an excellent article in Newsweek about it in 2009 (Available here) and an equally fantastic entry about it over at Science based medicine. I could re-list all the shockingly stupid and dangerous ideas that have been brought to the mainstream by Oprah, who seems to think that gushing anecdotes trumps critical thinking and actual reasoning / investigation but I'll move on to the second point.

Fans of Oprah may argue that these are not 'her' views, but rather the views of her invited guests. But that argument is crippled by a few facts; for starters, Oprah herself frequently endorses the view point of her guest, defending them from criticism on the show. She also champions these daft beliefs - for example, when she had actress and self-help guru (I use that term in the 'shameless charlatan' sense) Suzanne Somers hawking her 'bio-identical hormones', Oprah lavished praise on her and started using the medically unsound procedure herself, before lashing out at the medical establishment with "We have the right to demand a better quality of life for ourselves, ..and that's what doctors have got to learn to start respecting." Consider the biscuit well and truly taken by that sense defying stand against... well.. it's not actually very clear. Think Shakespeare's  'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...' and you're on the right track*. Oprah has had numerous snake oil salesmen and women on her show virtually uncontested - but to cite one example with tragic consequences, Oprah has also given a repeated pulpit to Jenny McCarthy. McCarthy, a playboy bunny, who just so happens to believe her son is autistic (actually, in 2010, McCarthy released a statement claiming her son no longer had autism or had been cured.. let's just skip over the fact that this isn't possible and concede that Jenny McCarthy's ability to diagnose is a distant, distant, distant second to her ability to look good in various states of undress) AND his autism (or, more accurately, not autism) was caused by vaccination. This is an old, misinformed, thoroughly debunked view - a view that has claimed the lives of children whose parents were more inclined to listen to people like Jenny McCarthy and Oprah rather than the the legions of medical scientists telling them otherwise. For Oprah to give this frankly dangerous scaremongering an airing without even a pretense of challenging was beyond reckless. Worse still, McCarthy now writes for Oprah's magazine / website and propagate this odious, malignant and utterly wrong factoid.

Jenny McCarthy: Some experience in the field of cosmetic surgery, not so hot on immunology / hotdog garnishing.

It's not like this was a one-off incident either - McCarthy isn't Oprah's only regular guest with some bad science - Dr. Christiane Northrup, for example, told an audience member on Oprah that the HPV vaccine could kill. From whence Northrup divined this fallacious yet terrifying statement wasn't clear - presumably from her Tarot cards, as she informs Oprah viewers that she believes she can diagnose through them. I wasn't even aware there was a tarot for the cervix though now I think about it, I would like to see it. Dr Oz, Oprah's frequent medical guest, endorses an entire range of 'energy' treatments, using 'energy' in a way guaranteed to make any physicist cry. Oprah's website is even worse, advising all sorts of alternative treatments and therapies, each of which are unified by the sole fact there is not one iota of evidence any of them work, and indeed, those which have been examined have been found to not work. I'll stop myself on this point now for fear of inducing severe hypertension - interestly, if I was black, Oprah and Dr. Oz would no doubt tell me that high blood pressure is caused by genetic memory of being a slave. Yes, they have done this. You can read about it here, but I probably don't need to tell you it has been vigorously removed of bunk a long time ago. Sadly for me, my ancestors were more likely to have been viking slave traders than slaves so If I ever feel a compulsion to drink beer from a horn or pillage a monastery that's due to my own mental instability so arguing genetic memory in court wouldn't hold much  Wōden.. eh.. water.

The latest in medical diagnostic technology.  I do not recommend Googling tarot cards and cervix if you've eaten recently.

All this brings me neatly onto my last point - Oprah debases science, and not just medical science, though it does soil that on a more regular basis. In 2006 Rhonda Byrne collected a series of meaningless cliches, tautologies and dodgy pop science together, threw in a glob of pseudo-spiritual claptrap and released 'The Secret' which Oprah immediately championed. It became an ultra seller, and even spawned (for once, I think this word is exceptionally fitting) an equally vacuous DVD. The secret's central tenet is (stolen from Wikipedia) "focused positive thinking can have life-changing results such as increased wealth, health, and happiness". Basically, if you are not happy it's because your thoughts aren't happy. And if you want something, just think it and expect it and you'll get it. You're all intelligent people, I don't have to tell you this is not only gibberish, but frankly insulting - ever see those starving African kids on TV ? It's actually their own fault, they're not thinking positively enough. If they just wanted that food a little more than the universe would hear them! If your blood is getting a little hot, rest assured it only proves your brain is actually functioning.

A line from 'The secret' - "the discoveries of quantum physics … are in total harmony with 
the teachings of 'The Secret'.. I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read 
complex books on  quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them." 
Damn. If I had  ONLY known that before I did my undergrad and PhD I could have saved myself a lot
of time! I'll let the Chaser's war explain it in practice...

 This could all be dismissed as rubbish if Oprah hadn't sang it's praises. Oprah said about it "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." I could tell you more about various scientific concepts Oprah has either misunderstood, rubbished, or metaphorically slaughtered and then danced on it's grave singing 'I'm a little teapot' (again, metaphorically - I should hope) but I shan't do that - Instead, I'll complete this point staying with the secret with a sobering example of what happens when you exploit people's credulity and trust. In 2007 Kim Tinkham, deeply inspired by Oprah's love of the secret decided to forgo conventional treatment for her breast cancer and go with Oprah endorsed new age secret-esque crap. This was in the face of doctors pleading with her to get conventional treatment which would have almost certainly saved her life if not her breasts. But Kim Tinkham was a true believer, if it was good enough for Oprah, well why not for her ? She even appeared on Oprah's show, expounding her new treatment with Robert O Young, who claimed cancer was caused by excess acidity. He touted her as 'cured' of cancer, and had her on his website as a testimonial.

Kim Tinkham died of the same breast cancer in December 2010, at the age of 51.

Meanwhile, Oprah continues to expound the virtues of 'the secret' and alternative medicine, and pour doubt and scorn on conventional science and medicine. 

It is not my intention to point the finger of blame. But Oprah has a huge viewership. She is revered and respected, and has the clout to bring in any expert on any subject at the click of her fingers. She can change this, she can genuinely educate - she has the right of editorial, the power rests with her. Why then does she continue to chose such insincere, delusion, self promoting quacks ? This is a woman with the power to make a book a best seller with the so called Oprah effect. Even more sobering, Oprah's endorsement of Obama generated over a million votes and may have won him the election. The woman is a king maker, a self proclaimed educator - She in essence has the ear of a sizable portion of the western world.

Is it too much to ask that she gives people the real facts from real experts about the things that really matter ? If she really does care about human life, health and understanding as much as she claims it shouldn't even be a question.

For best results, take sparingly  with a large dose of salt


  1. The problem is that she intermingles her bad medicine with lots of good ways to reduce carbon footprint, get kids reading etc.
    Her medical bunk carries so much weight because of the other topics she covers well, it is similar to the fact that her book of the month is always an instant bestseller.

    On the idea of the vaccine nonsense, I agree that she is guilty of misguiding people but I think those that tell that lie deserve to be jailed for deaths of every child that dies of measles or every death that could be prevented by a flu jab.

    She actively undermines the public good with her naive pontifications. It's the same shortsightedness that made her African school to prevent young women being raped into somewhere that made an Irish brothers school seem like fun.

  2. great line,

    "rest assured it only proves your brain is actually functioning"

    very good!

  3. as a side note i wonder if Gillian Anderson (the shit smeller) has ever been on oprah!

  4. It's funny, because I often feel the same way about Oprah. There is a certain level of conflict in my emotions towards her. On one hand she is such a wonderful humanitarian and has worked wonders for literacy, but on the other, she is promoting dangerous ideologies through the action of supporting some of these charlatans. Oprah's audience has an unflinching faith in her and takes everything she says as gospel. As far as the Secret goes, I can't thank you enough for stating what i've been thinking for years.

    While I do not personally believe in faith healing, there is something to be said about the power of the mind in certain situations (see: the placebo effect). I do, however, have faith in certain non-traditional and Eastern medicines. People need to stop looking at alternative medicines as a replacement for Western medicine and start thinking of it as an adjunct treatment. Just because accupuncture works on some ailments, doesn't mean you should forego chemotherapy for it.

    Keep up the entertaining, yet educating good work, David. I look forward to the future insights into the brain of a mad, yet brilliant scientist.

  5. I would agree with the first poster - the very reason Oprah is so trusted is because she tends to cover a range of sensible topics sensibly. I was particularly angry with her when she endorsed Senator Obama.

    She has created a strange niche for herself - she's not a journalist, and is thus not bound by journalistic ethics. She's some form of spiritual leader/your-best-friend-at-yoga-class.

    Having said that, I'm not crazy about blaming Oprah for the actions of Kim Tinkham - I haven't read The Secret, but if at any point the book said "this cures cancer!", we have a problem. But if Kim decided out of desperation and a strong dislike for chemo that she wanted to "leave it to the universe", Oprah and the book aren't exactly to blame for one woman's absolute refusal to follow doctors' advice. People do that every day.

  6. Just because Oprah supports good causes does not excuse her lending her considerable weight (I mean this in the rhetorical, before anyone has a connuption) to practices and beliefs that belittle science and medicine; I can't think of any medics, scientists or technicians with a media empire at their disposal. And lest we forget, Oprah's fortune has been made as presenting herself as everyone's helpful friend. She has made her money off this, and indeed, she can pick ANYONE she wants to come on her show. Yet this is what she picks?

    To just make reference to what a few of you have said - Adrienne, eastern medicine can refer to Ayurveda (Hindu), zhōng yī (Chinese), Kampo (Japanese), Unani (South Asian) and some Korean traditional; without exception they all rely on inaccurate understanding of the human body from antiquity which has not been updated and is utterly wrong. This is in part because western medicine only began to get scientific during the renaissance with dissection - cutting up bodies to figure out how things worked and overturn previous theories. Eastern medicine, by contrast, still considered it impure to cut up a cadaver, and in essence, they just guessed that the body had 'energy' problems (urgh, misuse of that word again!). I would recommend you don't have faith in their treatments, as those that have been tested have been found to be ineffective or even dangerous. Even acupuncture, which people implicitly accept as useful has failed ever major test as a genuine medicine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acupuncture#Scientific_basis_and_research_on_efficacy) with effects beyond mere placebo.

    Kate, I didn't mean to point the finger of blame solely at Oprah for the death of Kim Tinkham. Kim was ultimately the architect of her own undoing. But she was exactly the kind of demograph that Oprah aimed at, the exact sort that bought into that nonsense Oprah expounds. And usually it works in Oprah's favour; some idiot has a cold, gets a homeopathic 'remedy', and totally ignornant of placebo effects / regression to the mean, decides it was the homeopathic remedy that cured her rather than her own bloody immune system and time. Oprah nods sagely, and then tut tuts doctors for being so close minded and demanding pesky evidence. Only this time, it wasn't a triffling inconvience - it was a deadly condition that required medical intervention, not rubbish. And tragically, she placed her faith in what Oprah expounds over traditional medicine. Sure, Kim may have cut her own life short. But she was naive, and trusted this rubbish - she trusted Oprah, she even came on her show to say that. And know she's dead. Does Oprah have some blood on her hands ? I think so.

    And just a point on that - even in the triffling cases where Oprah is recommending something whacky for something minor, it may seem harmless - but it's all corroding understanding of how medicine and science and cause and effect actually work, and thus contributing to scientific ignorance. That is what I charge Oprah with, and that is my chief annoyance with the woman.

    Good comments though, keep 'em coming :)

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