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Oprah’s long and problematic history of embracing pseudoscience

Paul Drinkwater/Courtesy of NBC
Oprah Winfrey speaking after accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 75th Golden Globe Awards on Sunday.

As was made clear during the Golden Globe awards ceremony on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey is a powerful and inspiring speaker. She is also a highly successful businessperson, a talented actress, a generous philanthropist and, by all accounts, a warm and engaging person.

But over the years, Winfrey has also been a purveyor  — through her many media platforms — of dubious medical advice.

It’s that history that has scientists and others who believe in evidence-based medicine shaking their heads in disbelief as rumors circulate that she might make a run for the presidency in 2020.   

After all, we already have a president with a history of huckstering pseudoscientific nonsense

Dr. Oz: a ‘pariah in the medical community’

Since Sunday, several articles have been written about Winfrey’s past willingness to embrace people promoting junk science.

As all the articles point out, Winfrey was instrumental in launching the media career of Dr. Mehmet Oz — “Dr. Oz” — who has become “a pariah in the medical community” for endorsing nonscientific treatments, including a green coffee bean extract for weight loss.

“The product was peddled by supplement marketer and frequent show guest Lindsey Duncan, who had a financial stake in the companies making the extract,” writes STAT reporter Megan Thielking. “The study that Duncan cited as evidence was ultimately retracted, and an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission ensued. Duncan agreed to pay $9 million to settle with consumers who’d purchased the product.”

But the “magic beans” fiasco wasn’t the only dubious product or treatment featured by Oz. As I have reported here in Second Opinion, a 2014 study found that only 46 percent of a randomly selected group of health recommendations on “The Dr. Oz Show” were supported by any scientific evidence, and even fewer — 33 percent — were supported by believable, or high quality, evidence.

Winfrey did (finally) remove Oz’s radio show from her Harpo Radio network after a group of physicians accused him of “quack treatments.” But he remains a contributor to her magazine (“O, the Oprah Magazine), and she continues to appear occasionally on his TV show.

Risking the health of guests

Another controversial media career that Winfrey was instrumental in launching is that of Phillip “Dr. Phil” McGraw, who is now the highest-paid daytime TV personality.

McGraw presents himself as a crusader who rescues people from their addictions. But, as a recent STAT-Boston Globe investigation revealed, “in its pursuit of ratings, the ‘Dr. Phil’ show has put at risk the health of some of those guests it purports to help, according to people who have been on the show and addiction experts. Guests have been left without medical help as they face withdrawal from drugs … and one person said she was directed by a show staff member to an open-air drug market to find heroin for her detoxing niece.” (A spokesperson for the “Dr. Phil” show denies those charges.)

The investigative report also found that “treatment center operators are being offered valuable endorsements in exchange for buying a new virtual reality product that features ‘Dr. Phil’ offering tips and coping skills to people in treatments. Centers that buy ‘Dr. Phil’s Path to Recovery’ have been promoted on the ‘Dr. Phil’ show as well as a second program called ‘The Doctors’ that is owned by the production company founded by McGraw and his son, Jay.”

Other examples

Winfrey has willingly given a megaphone to several other well-known hucksters and/or pushers of medical charlatanism. Here are three examples from Slate reporter Ben Mathis-Lilley’s list:

Winfrey was also a not-so-skeptical promoter of the Brazilian faith healer John of God.

The ‘Oprah-fictation of medicine’

Winfrey may be — probably is — well meaning in her support of woo-woo medicine. But that support has contributed significantly to the scientific illiteracy of the American public.  

It’s the “Oprah-fictation of medicine,” bemoans Dr. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist who writes and edits for the Science-Based Medicine website.

As Washington Post reporter Avi Selk notes, if Winfrey were to run for president, opposition researchers would have a field day, for there are plenty of “awkward and potentially problematic issues that Winfrey might have to explain on the campaign trail.”

Those explanations would need to include her understanding — or misunderstanding — of science and scientific evidence.

FMI: If you want to watch Winfrey’s moving Golden Globes speech, you can do so below.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/10/2018 - 09:16 am.

    Thank you

    This was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this talk of her running for Pres. We already have too much magical thinking on the Republican side and combining that with magical thinking among liberals has already caused untold damage. Wrong direction entirely.

  2. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 01/10/2018 - 03:13 pm.

    Oprah has never been an intellectual

    But she had learned a great deal over the many successful years of her career. More importantly, she is a good, kind, fair and giving person who doesn’t have a fraction of the mental and emotional baggage Trump does. She lifted herself up; she lifts others up. She doesn’t try to destroy them. She believes in education and healthcare. She believes in rules and laws. She would be a good public servant because she’s a giver, not a taker.

    She has worked with a wide variety of people in many different venues, and left them all fans of hers. She makes moving, inspiring speeches. She, like Barack Obama, inspires HOPE in others. Not dread…..

    I do not believe tv personalities or others not qualified for the office should ever become president of the United States, There is simply too much at stake. There is a reason most candidates are lawyers who have gotten years of political experience before running.

    But given a choice b/n a raging, destructive psychopath like Trump, who leaves a trail of chaos and drama daily, and a strong female leader like Oprah – well the choice would be crystal clear and easy then: Oprah!

  3. Submitted by Curt Carlson on 01/10/2018 - 08:58 pm.

    Many thanks

    In a time of science denial, rampant conspiracy theories and general bullshit, our choice must not be between the likes of Trump and Oprah.

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