Should pro-vaccine advocates try to get on The Oprah Winfrey Show?

Oprah Winfrey supports quackery.

That has been richly demonstrated over the last few years, particularly with her gauzy, praise-filled segments featuring such pro-woo luminaries as Jenny McCarthy, her frequently having physicians boosters of “alternative medicine” like Mehmet Oz and Christiane Northrup on her show, and her tight embrace of New Age “spirituality.”

Alarmed at the antivaccination nonsense being pushed on Oprah’s show, Every Child By Two has been circulating an e-mail:

Please Take The Time To Contact The Oprah Winfrey Show

It has been quite some time since Every Child By Two (ECBT) has asked you to take action on an issue related to immunizations. I write to you today with an urgent request for your assistance in reaching out to the Oprah Winfrey Show to urge that she dedicate a show to the science behind the question of whether vaccines cause autism.

More than fourteen credible studies have been conducted worldwide exonerating vaccines and yet the media and entertainment industry continue to frame this as a debate. ECBT and our public health partners have reached out to Oprah’s producers countless times without success. However, I recently had a lengthy conversation with one of the producers who recommended that we initiate a letter writing campaign by commenting within the feedback section of the website. This information is tabulated to determine whether there is enough interest to conduct follow up shows.

I urge you to take five minutes to fill out the Oprah Winfrey Show online form by following the link below. In your comments, please request that Oprah invite credible scientists and/or physicians to explain the science of vaccines to her viewers. We also would like her to invite parents who have suffered the loss of a child from a vaccine-preventable disease, and a parent of an autistic child who can speak on behalf of the many families that are frustrated over the continued focus on vaccines and their supposed link to autism and the therapies that focus on “repairing vaccine damage”. Please relate any personal experiences you may have with vaccine-preventable diseases or autism. In addition, please refer the Oprah Winfrey Show to Amy Pisani, Executive Director of Every Child By Two, for any follow-up questions. My phone number is (860) 443-1166.

And finally, please forward this to your family and friends and request that they also reach out to the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Amy Pisani
Executive Director
Every Child By Two
(860) 443-1166

A number of readers have been asking for my reaction to this. Before I try once again to end yet another streak of posts about vaccines, I thought I’d give it to them and you. My reaction may surprise you. Or not.

I think this is a very, very bad idea and a waste of time. I’m sorry, but I do. ECBT should put its efforts into other P.R. campaigns than this, because it’s far more likely to blow up in its face.

I realize I’m probably in the minority in this viewpoint. Indeed, Kevin Leitch, whom I greatly respect, for instance, is strongly supportive of this move, and several other blogs have also weighed in supporting this effort. Also, I hate to criticize ECBT because it’s doing good work. Even so, trying to get a pro-vaccine advocate on Oprah’s show is far more likely to backfire than it is to do any good.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the infamous account published on James Randi’s website about what happened when one skeptic appeared on the show. Because she had no real media experience, she was completely blindsided by woo-friendly producers and Oprah’s disparaging attitude towards skeptics. Consider that Oprah is clearly a believer in The Secret, that horrible mish-mash of New Age mumbo-jumbo that tells people that they can have anything if they just want it badly enough. Then there’s also her friendliness towards dubious “alternative medicine” as demonstrated by her frequent invitations to Drs. Christiane Northrup and Mehmet Oz.

Let’s not forget, too, that Oprah’s had anti-vaccine bubble brain Jenny McCarthy on her show (twice!) spewing nonsense about vaccines and autism, as well as pushing biomedical quackery for autistic children. Now that Jenny has claimed magical religious healing powers over autism, it wouldn’t surprise me to see her on Oprah’s show again, perhaps teamed with the same woo-meisters who brought us The Secret.

No, I really do think that trying to get a pro-vaccine celebrity and/or group on The Oprah Winfrey Show is almost certainly a complete waste of time and effort. Even if ECBT succeeded, very likely the pro-vaccine contingent would be paired with Jenny McCarthy or even Dr. Jay Gordon, and if they didn’t like it, well…they could just take a hike. After all, science-based medical advice is not what Oprah’s audience wants, and Oprah always caters to her audience.

I understand the desire to want to believe that Oprah is not beyond hope when it comes to turning away from woo and anti-vaccine fringe celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. I understand the potential positive outcome in the unlikely event that Oprah could be pulled back from the brink of antivaccine pseudoscience. It’s a beautifully optimistic viewpoint, all full of wanting to think only the best of people. In the real world, though, things rarely work out that way. Oprah has demonstrated time and time again that she is not science-based and most definitely not a critical thinker. Worse, at least when it comes to “alternative medicine” and New Age gibberish, she shows no signs of even wanting to hear a science-based viewpoint. Given that, the audience she’s attracted is about as science-based as she is (in other words, not science-based at all). It’s highly unlikely that, even if Oprah did give a platform to ECBT, it would end up promoting vaccination in the way that ECBT desires.

ADDENDUM: If you want to see what a “very special” episode of Oprah’s show about vaccines would look like, look at these two posts by antivaccine bloggers, who are salivating at the prospect of a “debate” with provaccine scientists moderated by Oprah:

I urge Ms. Pisani to let this misguided attempt to get on Oprah to drop. It’s exactly what the antivaccinationists want. They know Oprah won’t be able to resist bringing David Kirby or other spokespersons from the antivaccine side, and they know that in any such “debate” the deck will be stacked. They’ll get to rant at whatever poor sacrificial lamb (I mean pro-vaccine scientist) agrees to appear, and they’ll be able to give the impression that there is a real scientific debate when there is not. It’ll be the Gish gallop applied to vaccines.