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How Dr. Oz came to turn his back on science — and what it says about the rest of us

Dr. Mehmet Oz
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Dr. Mehmet Oz

In a long, in-depth article published online last week in Vox, health reporter Julia Beluz examines “how an award-winning doctor” — Dr. Mehmet Oz — “turned away from science and embraced fame.”

Oz is undoubtedly the United States’ most famous and influential doctor. Each day, his TV show — “The Doctor Oz Show” — reaches an average of 4 million viewers in 118 countries. But that’s only part of his media empire, which also includes a magazine (The Good Life), many books, regular radio segments, a popular website and millions of followers on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

As Beluz describes in her article, Oz began his career as a highly skilled and respected heart surgeon who also dabbled in alternative medicine. But once he began appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2004 and was dubbed “America’s Doctor” (a moniker he soon trademarked), he began to embrace alternative medicine more tightly, “even if it meant,” writes Beluz, “slowly shifting further away from science and closer to wizardry.”

Dubious health claims

Oz has promoted a host of alternative “medical” practices that have been shown in evidence-based studies to have no impact on the human body beyond the placebo effect, such as homeopathy and Reiki. (These practices also defy the basic laws of science.)

He’s also had guests on his TV show that have made dubious health claims without revealing that they are paid spokespeople for products related to those claims. Tennis star Monica Seles, for example, went on his show to talk about binge eating, but failed to mention that she was a paid spokesperson for Shire Phramaceuticals, a drug company that markets a drug for the treatment of that condition.

Oz also famously (or infamously) invited onto “The Dr. Oz Show” a so-called doctor (his naturopathic medical degree is apparently fake) to discuss research the man said showed supplements made with green coffee beans (and marketed by the man’s dietary supplement company) could help people lose weight — research that has been since exposed as fraudulent.

In addition, “at the height of the Ebola panic last year, Oz suggested the virus could go airborne — even though there was universal agreement among virologists that the pathogens have never behaved that way,” writes Beluz.

‘An egregious lack of integrity’

Despite his promotion of dubious and often outright ridiculous medical practices and products, Oz has kept, as Beluz notes, his medical license and faculty position at Columbia University, where he is vice chairman of the university’s department of surgery and performs about 100 surgeries a year.

Last week, a group of physicians from various institutions around the country, including Stanford University, the University of North Carolina and the American Council on Science and Health in New York City, wrote a letter to Columbia University, asking it to sever its ties with Oz.

"Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops," states the letter. "Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain."

The university responded with a statement that said it was “committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members' freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion." As for Dr. Oz, the New York Times reported this morning that he plans to respond to the recent criticism in a segment of his show on Thursday.

Tapping in to the public’s need

As Beluz stresses throughout her article, “the making of Dr. Oz says more about America's approach to health than it does about its most famous doctor.”

She explains:

Dr. Oz, early in his career, identified that something was missing from mainstream medicine: that people longed for more than the cold, scientific approach. They wanted, in my mother's words, "hope and renewed faith." It's in our human nature to desire those things. We want to be heard. We want to be healed — not only physically but emotionally. Health care in America doesn't address this longing, and it certainly doesn't alleviate the deep anxieties many Americans have about the limitations and flaws inherent in medicine and science.

Oz was one of the first highly credentialed doctors to tap into this longing, a longing that far-less-educated quacks had seized on for decades. From the TV faith healer Peter Popoff to the "psychic surgeon" John of God, from star fitness gurus to celebrity diet peddlers, people have long been profiting off our willingness to buy into miracles — especially when they make us feel good, provide simple answers to our most vexing health issues, and offer alternatives to Big Pharma.

Oz arrived on the national stage at a time when the American public was beginning to accept the role some nontraditional therapies, such as yoga and meditation, have in promoting health. The tragedy of Dr. Oz is that he was perfectly placed to help people navigate this tension in medicine — acknowledging their longing and their suffering, studying viable alternative therapies, and helping people understand and appreciate all that science has to offer.

But Oz hasn't done that. Instead, he seized on the surging interest in alternative medicine, embraced an "open-minded" approach to healthcare, and replaced science with quackery.

Tim Caulfield, a health law professor and author of  Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, pointed out that this pattern isn't common in other disciplines: "We don't adopt this ‘open-minded' approach in other realms of science — physics or engineering or chemistry." Yet even the most reasonable among us — Oz's Columbia colleagues, my dear mom — are vulnerable to magical thinking when it comes to the desire for health and healing. Oz knew that weakness, and he exploited it.

You can read Beluz's article on the Vox website

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Comments (19)

Dr. Oz...

is a creation of Oprah Winfrey. Or is he the second coming of the Wizard of Oz?

Disclosure: what is American Council on Science & Health?

I've never watched the Dr. Oz show, but since Ms. Perry purports to value integrity, perhaps it's worth a look at one of those source whose opinions she asks us to support.

The American Council on Science and Health, which Perry calls the " American Council of Science and Health, certainly sound prestigious and trustworthy, and Ms. Perry certainly asks us to trust it.

But what is it? Mr. Google can help us out, unless of course, readers want to be Minnesota Nice and simply take Perry at her word.

In 2013, Mother Jones reported in Leaked Documents Reveal the Secret Finances of a Pro-Industry Science Group:

he American Council on Science and Health bills itself as an independent research and advocacy organization devoted to debunking "junk science." It's a controversial outfit—a "group of scientists…concerned that many important public policies related to health and the environment did not have a sound scientific basis," it says—that often does battle with environmentalists and consumer safety advocates, wading into public health debates to defend fracking, to fight New York City's attempt to ban big sugary sodas, and to dismiss concerns about the potential harms of the chemical bisphenol-A (better known at BPA) and the pesticide atrazine. The group insists that its conclusions are driven purely by science. It acknowledges that it receives some financial support from corporations and industry groups, but ACSH, which reportedly stopped disclosing its corporate donors two decades ago, maintains that these contributions don't influence its work and agenda.

Yet internal financial documents (read them here) provided to Mother Jones show that ACSH depends heavily on funding from corporations that have a financial stake in the scientific debates it aims to shape. The group also directly solicits donations from these industry sources around specific issues. ACSH's financial links to corporations involved in hot-button health and safety controversies have been highlighted in the past, but these documents offer a more extensive accounting of ACSH's reliance on industry money—giving a rare window into the operations of a prominent and frequent defender of industry in the science wars."

The article is worth a read, especially as it notes how the ACSH went from an anti-smoking champion to an advocate of e-cigarettes.

Read the rest at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/10/american-council-science-hea...

I'd no more blindly accept this group's word than I would the nincompoopery of Oz defenders like Natural News.

But the debate seems more to be about dueling talking points and messaging than science, while the ACSH coming out against the tradition of academic freedom.

Your comments explain something I found very strange,...

...namely, that a group of PHYSICIANS would complain in writing to Columbia about anyone's "baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops".

I wondered: since when are physicians lining up as defenders of the genetic engineering of our food?

Thanks for your drill-down on the ACSH, apparently the organizer of this writing campaign's chicanery. That isn't to say anything positive or negative about this Dr. Oz.

A very valid point

Sally,You raise a very valid point — and one I should have raised myself in my original post. I have criticized the American Council on Science and Health elsewhere for essentially being a lobbying arm of various corporate interests.I don't think their involvement in the criticism of Dr. Mehmet Oz should take away from the general message of Beluz's article, however — that Oz promotes a lot of junk science. Susan

I agree.

I agree that ACSH is in a questionably suitable position for criticizing Dr. Oz. However, Dr. Oz certainly does deserve criticism as someone who is exploiting the low information public in order to sacrifice their actual health for personal gain. While I don't know that the university is doing the right thing by championing his "freedom of speech," certainly, it is unethical enough to suspend or revoke his medical license.

What a horrible human being.

What a horrible human being. Sounds more like the second coming of Jenny McCarthy...but far, far worse.

Re: airborne Ebola

It's worth noting that the quacks didn't have the monopoly on stoking the fear. Michael Osterholm did his part -- in the august pages of the "pro-science" NY Times, no less:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/12/opinion/what-were-afraid-to-say-about-...

Viruses are known to mutate

and the point was made by many medical spokespeople in the news that just because it could be transmitted one way today doesn't mean that couldn't change tomorrow.

Stoking the fear

Dr. Oz reported that it was a certainty that the Ebola virus was transmitted through the air. That's a big difference from saying it could ,some time in the future, mutate and be transmitted through the air.

There has been some scientific criticism of Mr. Oserholm's article: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2014/09/30/ebola-will-not-become-airbo....

GMO and glyphosate

From what I am reading, the big push against Dr. Oz has come about because of his program on the problems with GMO's and the glyphosate that is in the Round-Up that is used on the GMO crops. I guess whether or not you agree with Dr. Oz on this depends on whether you trust independent scientists or the science that is produced by corporate funded research.

Although I don't watch TV in general, I have seen a few Dr. Oz shows and thought that he did a fairly good job of getting out some new and alternative health care ideas. If the current medical and food system was doing such a great job, maybe we wouldn't be looking for alternative ways to maintain our health.

In addition to the likely human health hazards from glyphosate and Round-up ready GMO crops, the planting of such crops is ruining our soil and eliminating/killing off valuable pollinators such as bees.

Monsanto and Dow have some big money in this game. However, they really need our consumer dollars. In such a consumer-driven society, one would think that we would become smart consumers--and not buy junk products or junk food...

Susan Perry and Doctor Oz

Susan Perry has absolutely no credibility to write about or discuss Dr Oz or the medical field itself. Looks like she is funded by Ucare and big pharma. She is critical of homeopathy and
Reiki. From personal experience I have been helped by these practices where conventional medicine was not successful. And NO it was not the placebo effect. I have seen other people have success with both homeopathy and Reiki. I ask her to do her research before she makes such outlandish statments.

And also Dr Oz. Ms Perry is very wrong and your accusations are false. She should do her research again His critics are funded by big pharma and corporations, like Monsanto, which is an evil greedy corp. The medical staff at Columbia University totally supports Dr Oz. But that is not how it looked when this recent accusation unfolded. Susan Perry has no integrity in my book.

Oh dear god

Please dear sir, come back when you have something outside of " I seen it with my own eyes", before attempting to discredit hundreds of years of medical research which has saved untold millions of lives. I am glad you feel better after your "energy" is manipulated, or you ingest some unknown substance that you cannot really prove did anything to you at all. It means nothing in the overall scheme of healthcare in this country or the world. While it would be lovely if magic were real, it simply isn't.

Simply put, reiki and

Simply put, reiki and homeopathy don't hold up under scientific examination. The results are not reproducible.

Do you have any facts at your disposal that you can use to back up your claims that criticisms of Dr. Oz are not valid because they are all 'funded by big pharma? Or Monsanto?

I do not work for 'big pharma' or Ucare or Monsanto or ADM, and I am highly critical of Dr. Oz's junk science and crass pandering.

The fact that companies like Monsanto and Dow

Refuse to even agree to label foods that contain GMOs is enough for me to ignore them and shut them down. I certainly have a right to know what is in the food that I eat. There should be a criminal investigation into this industry. As for the mainstream medical industry, after many trillions of dollars spent, there is no end in sight for cancer, diabetes, cerebral palsy, etc. and you wonder why people search for answers. And the drug companies, who produce just as many horrific prescription drugs as suitable drugs for the U.S. at a higher cost than Europe, are the worst component of a lousy healthcare system in the U.S. Instead of spending time on criticizing alternative medicine, solve the continual medical diseases and problems

Respectfully

Where to begin. So, have you enjoyed your life free from worry of contracting smallpox, polio, measles, diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis, and a multitude of other debilitating conditions? The same medical and pharmaceutical industry you are so quick to demonize came up with vaccines and treatments for all of them. Do you wish return to the daysbof HIV being a certain death sentence? Who do you think makes the anti retrovirals that allow folks to extend their lives? Does the pharmaceutical industry have problems? Of course they do, corporate structures always will. Does that mean we turn our backs on hundreds of years of medical advancement in favor of snake oil updated for the modern world? I sure as hell hope not, because that would be lunacy.
On to GMOs, I never cease to be amazed at the energy expended on this topic in entirely tenwrong direction. You aren't ever going to win the fight by claiming this stuff is harming you directly, because it probably isn't. Evil though you might find the Monsantos of the world to be they have nothing to gain by killing their customers. Where the real threat lies (buried as it were by the tsunami of fear mongering and vitriol from the vast majority of the anti GMO crowd) is in 1. The patent rights the big seed companies hold on the vast array of altered crop varieties. They've monopolized the food supply in a way unthinkable even 2 decades ago, and it puts farmers in a tough position should they want to go another way. Furthermore, it sets a frightening precedent on what sort of things fall under ownership of corporations, especially given advancement in genetic medical therapies in the future. Not as sexy "my corn chips gave me cancer" but far more impactful, and far more actionable if we'd like to do something about it. 2. The environmental risks of cross species transfer of genetic material from GMO crops. What do you suppose might happen to the food supply (if not here then worldwide) should the weeds that are now currently controlled by things like glypohsate integrate the genes to make them immune? First and foremost we would see a massive increase in tilled acreage as farmers scramble to make up for the lost production, with all the environmental effects that would entail. Later we would see a switch to different chemicals, whose effects relative to what is used currently is unknown. Beyond this the environmental effects of billions of people scavenging what they can in the face of famine could be catastrophic. Like it or not, the world population at its current rate of growth is going to need ever growing supplies of food, barring catastrophe, nothing is going to happen in the next 100 years to make a meaningful dent in population growth, the will is simply not there. Instead of focusing on the as yet unproven boogeyman of health related GMO concerns, is it not better to accept that GMOs are here, necessarily, and instead put these companies feet to the fire on the environmental issues, which can be mitigated, instead of ignoring them.

Where to begin?

Well most of the diseases and conditions you mention were conquered many years ago and that's certainly good. You don't reference any of the diseases and conditions that I mentioned which have not been solved by the medical/big pharma coalition over a very long time period. My point was simply that without those solutions, people afflicted will naturally look for alternatives. Why bash them for that when conventional medicine has no solution.
As to GMOs, my position is that there is no basis for these food corporations not to divulge whether their products contain them by labeling. Your claim that this "stuff" is probably not harming people does not satisfy me. Corporate America has a long history of putting profit over protecting people and their health (eg asbestos, destroying water supplies by burying chemicals, faulty parts on cars). You certainly have the right the "stuff", but I have the right to avoid the "stuff". Respectfully

GMO's not only for the big guns

It is indeed too bad that the first successful GMO's were for glyphosate resistance. They would have received much more acceptance then. Since the science was worked out by big companies many others have made strides to improve our crops in ways that do not make a big company money. Those who say GMO's are all bad for us do not look at things like the ring spot virus in papaya that was fixed by genetic modification, nor at golden rice which has the power to save millions from the effects of carotene deficiency. If you come out to the farm, instead of just reading the leading GMO detractors on the internet, you will see that GMO's are leading the way in improving soil health and protecting valuable pollinators.
I've used glyphosate on my farm for over 30 years now and have seen none of the problems that we have been warned of. Glyphosate allows me to use less tillage and spend less for chemicals, while using fewer of the old pesticides that were really harmful to the environment.
Humans have been manipulating the genetics of the plants and animals around us since we first moved away from being hunter/gatherers. The fact that genetic modification speeds up and controls the result has allowed us to really open up the potential of agriculture's future.
Don't forget that there are hundreds of products used in medicine that are the products of genetic modification that no one thinks about. If you really dig into it, it is possible that genetically modified products may be keeping a loved one of yours in better health, and you didn't even know it.

I don't know why

I don't know why the comments turned almost entirely toward GMO crops. But this is just about the most reasonable post I've ever seen about GMOs, especially on MinnPost.

GMOs, Alt Medicine, etc.

Good comments on GMOs Mr. Wojahn. And I also feel that alternative medicine has a place alongside western medicine. But I do have a problem with Dr. Oz. I think the argument that the physicians who wrote to Columbia asking for it to sever ties with the doctor is flawed in that it seems to focus on GMOs. But Dr. Oz has often promoted supplements and treatments on his show that are dubious at best. He's also promoted products that he or his guests may have financial interest in without disclosing that fact. I think he needs to choose what he wants to be: a respected doctor at Columbia or a t.v. star. He's having problems doing both.