Advertisement

What Dr. Oz Teaches Us About Americans’ Uneasy Relationship With Science

Dr. Mehmet Oz CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE
Dr. Mehmet Oz CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE

The man who calls himself “America’s doctor” has recently found himself at the center of a considerable controversy over his scientific credibility. Dr. Mehmet Oz, best known for his very popular television show and his enthusiastic endorsements from Oprah Winfrey, recorded a special episode of his show this week to speak directly to his critics. Oz wants his detractors to know that he “will not be silenced.”

The forthcoming episode, which is set to air on Thursday, is a direct response to a group of doctors who have raised concerns about Oz’s affiliation with Columbia University. Last week, ten physicians from around the country wrote a letter to the university saying that they’re “surprised and dismayed” that Oz retains a faculty position, accusing him of an “egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”

Oz has become infamous for promoting unproven natural remedies and weight loss products that aren’t necessarily grounded in scientific evidence. Observers are increasingly raising questions about whether Dr. Oz, who is one of the most recognizable celebrity doctors in the country, is doing more harm than good.

Last year, Oz was hauled before Congress to testify about potential weight loss fraud, in a tense hearing during which Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) slammed him for giving scam artists a platform for “false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products.” Soon after, a study published in the British Medical Journal found that half of the medical advice on his TV show is either baseless or incorrect. More recently, WikiLeaks released a series of emails that suggest Oz makes decisions about which products to promote based on business considerations — and the financial backers who support his show — rather than on the best medical evidence.

Advertisement

“Members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable,” the group of physicians wrote in their letter to Columbia.

In a preview clip for Thursday’s show, Oz retorts that his critics are trying to tread on his First Amendment rights. “I know I’ve irritated some potential allies in our quest to make America healthy. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans. And these 10 doctors are trying to silence that right,” he says.

The unfolding drama on the Dr. Oz show comes amid larger policy discussions about how the government should regulate untested treatments and unproven supplements, as these products are gaining popularity among the American public.

According to a recent study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), nearly one out of three people in the United States seek out so-called “alternative” forms of medicine that aren’t regulated as tightly as “traditional” medication. Dietary supplements — a category that includes some of the discredited pills that Dr. Oz has helped promote — are among the most popular natural health remedies among Americans, despite the fact that many of their purported benefits aren’t backed up by scientific evidence.

What’s behind Americans’ affinity for these treatments? It could partly stem from the fact that some people are growing increasingly skeptical of the scientific establishment. Incidentally, that’s something that public figures like Dr. Oz are well-positioned to capitalize on.

Advertisement

Surveys have revealed that Americans don’t trust the medical profession, an attitude that aligns with their general distrust of institutions. They’re also skeptical of where scientists stand on health issues that have recently captured headlines, like whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. (Scientists say that it is, but there’s a staggering 51 percent gap between the percentage of doctors who take this position and the percentage of the public who agree.) Misinformation about health remains widespread, and about half of the U.S. population subscribes to at least one medical conspiracy theory, like the idea that the FDA is deliberately hiding the evidence about effective “natural” cures for cancer in order to maintain profits for major pharmaceutical companies.

It’s not that Americans don’t value science as a whole. They just tend to selectively believe its findings, especially if they’re wary of potential corporate influence (which is certainly a valid concern when it comes to nutrition in particular). Americans are savvy about the fact that major companies work to control the narrative and have an invisible hand in public health policy, and they know that government institutions have a checkered history of unethical medical experiments. That helps explain why some people worry that the government is currently colluding with Big Pharma to hide the truth about alternative medicine, or GMOs, or vaccines.

In that light, it also makes sense that people are most likely to trust the health information that comes from their own doctor and their own social circles. Those personal connections are less likely to seem like shills who will mislead you about the truth because they’re pursuing a bigger agenda.

Dr. Oz, who has marketed himself as a warm and open-minded medical expert who has simple solutions for people eager to avoid Big Pharma, taps into those dynamics. As Vox’s Julia Belluz noted in a recent feature story about the rise of his celebrity career, Oz effectively “identified that something was missing from mainstream medicine: that people longed for more than the cold, scientific approach.” He explains things in ways that people can easily relate to, and he offers suggestions to ease Americans’ anxieties about navigating a medical field that may appear to be filled with distortions and downplayed risks.

“I want no more barriers between patient and medicine,” Oz explained to a New Yorker reporter in 2013. “I would take us all back a thousand years, when our ancestors lived in small villages and there was always a healer in that village — and his job wasn’t to give you heart surgery or medication but to help find a safe place for conversation.” He described a “civil war” between conventional doctors and people like him, who are more receptive to alternative treatments that fall outside of Western medicine.

It’s a pitch that appeals to a lot of Americans; the Dr. Oz Show has a daily viewership of about four million people.

Physicians who are critical of Oz’s practices, meanwhile, argue that their profession isn’t as divided between doctors and alternative medicine as Oz would have Americans believe. Instead, they say, the real division emerges between people who want treatments to be subject to scientific scrutiny and people who resist the findings from that research if they deliver results they don’t like.

Advertisement

“There’s no such thing as alternative medicine,” Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the author of a book about pseudoscience, once wrote in the Washington Post. “If clinical trials show that a therapy works, it’s good medicine. And if a therapy doesn’t work, then it’s not an alternative… In many case, though, when natural products have been put to the test, they’ve fallen short of their claims.”