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Oprah’s long and problematic history of embracing pseudoscience

Over the years, Oprah Winfrey has been a purveyor — through her many media platforms — of dubious medical advice.

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

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.

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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.

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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.