Red palm oil. Green coffee beans. Raspberry ketone. Some of you are wondering what the heck I’m making for dinner, but some of you will recognize the common characteristic: all of these have been promoted by Dr. Mehmet Oz, the most famous physician in the country.
I’m prompted to write about him by this New Yorker profile, which is excellent reading. It author, Michael Specter, tries his best to figure out why a talented, well-trained cardiac surgeon is sitting down on his own television show with psychic healers, fad-diet pushers, and the likes of Joseph Mercola. (In case you haven’t run across him, consider yourself fortunate. His eponymous web site, which I will certainly not link to, is a trackless fever swamp of craziness. If you want to hear about how vaccines are killing you, or how cancer is actually a fungus, or how to heal your ulcers with vinegar and your melanoma with baking soda, well, Mercola is your man).
When Oz says that Mercola is “challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs,” it’s hard to argue. “I’m usually earnestly honest and modest about what I think we’ve accomplished,” Oz told me when we discussed his choice of guests. “If I don’t have Mercola on my show, I have thrown away the biggest opportunity that I have been given.”
I had no idea what he meant. How was it Oz’s “biggest opportunity” to introduce a guest who explicitly rejects the tenets of science? “The fact that I am a professor—one of the youngest professors ever—at Columbia, and that I earned my stripes writing hundreds of papers in peer-reviewed journals,” Oz began. “I know the system. I’ve been on those panels. I’m one of those guys who could talk about Mercola and not lose everybody. And so if I don’t talk to him I have abdicated my responsibility, because the currency that I deal in is trust, and it is trust that has been given to me by Oprah and by Columbia University, and by an audience that has watched over six hundred shows.”
Well. . .I’m not sure that that’s much of an answer. In fact, if the currency that Dr. Oz deals in is trust, then you’d think that he has a responsibility not to abuse that trust by giving his imprimatur to lunatics. To his credit, the New Yorker‘s Specter also finds this response lacking, so he tries again. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s traveling up the river to the heart of darkness:
I was still puzzled. “Either data works or it doesn’t,” I said. “Science is supposed to answer, or at least address, those questions. Surely you don’t think that all information is created equal?”
Oz sighed. “Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”
Chilling is right. The man’s a nihilist. Here we have a massively famous doctor, the public face of medicine to millions of television viewers, and he apparently believes that well, it’s hard to say what works, because everyone has their own facts, you know?
A word with you, Dr. Oz, if I may. I know that you’re very busy, and that your TV show takes up a lot of your time, and that whatever time you have left is probably occupied with being famous and everything. This won’t take long. I only wanted to remind you that you got to wear your scrubs and your stethoscope by virtue of an excellent medical education. But the people who provided it to you (and the people who provided the knowledge that they were passing on) did not get there by assuming that everyone had their own facts. If we’d stayed with that attitude, we’d still be waving bags of magic chicken bones over the groaning bodies of cancer patients. But then, you’ll probably have that on your show next week. Why not?
I say all this as someone who has spent his career digging for facts and searching for insight. I’m a scientist, Dr. Oz, and I actually don’t think that medicine, at least my end of it, is such a religious experience, at least, not the way you’re defining one. My colleagues and I spend our days in the labs. Our facts had better be the same for everyone who looks at them, every time, and if they’re not, well, we go back to work until they are.
We can’t just go on TV right after we’ve dosed a few rats, you know. We’d go to jail. The FDA won’t listen to anything we come up with unless it’s been done under rigorously defined conditions, unless it’s been repeated (over and over), and unless we tell them every detail of how we did it all. We can’t come in waving our hands and telling everyone how great we are – we have to spend insane amounts of money, time, and effort to put together enough data to convince a lot of very skeptical people. Thank goodness you’re not one of them. You’re either the easiest person to convince that I’ve ever seen, or (more likely), you don’t worry much about being convinced of anything. Why should you? It would limit your opportunities. That TV show isn’t going to produce itself – if you stuck to people who could actually back up their assertions, what would your guest list look like?
But here’s a suggestion: get someone on your show who actually knows where medicines come from, and what it takes to find one. Instead of telling people about magic beans, tell them the truth: discovering anything that will treat a sick patient is hard, expensive work. The reason we don’t have a Cure For Cancer isn’t because there’s a conspiracy; it isn’t because the Powers That Be are too stupid and greedy to recognize the wonderful healing powers of the latest miracle berry. It’s because cancer is really hard to figure out. That would be a lot more of a public service than what you’re becoming, which is this:
Most days, Oz mines what he refers to as his go-to subjects: obesity and cancer. . . Cancer, Oz told me, “is our Angelina Jolie. We could sell that show every day.”
I’m sure you could, Dr. Oz. But what you’re really selling is yourself. How much is left?
Update: John LaMattina actually did get the Oz experience, as recounted here. And he certainly knows what drug discovery is like, but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the show, or on Dr. Oz. . .