Combatting the Oprah Effect

I don’t much like Oprah Winfrey.

I know, I know, it’s a huge surprise to anyone who reads this blog, but there you go. Over the last four years, I’ve had numerous reasons to be unhappy with her, mainly because, as savvy a media celebrity and businesswoman as she is, she has about as close to no critical thinking skills when it comes to science and medicine as I’ve ever seen. Arguably there is no single person in the world with more influence pushing woo than Oprah. Indeed, she puts Prince Charles to shame, and Kevin Trudeau’s is a mere ant compared to the juggernaught that is Oprah’s media empire. No one even comes close. No one, and I mean no one, brings pseudoscience, quackery, and antivaccine madness to more people than Oprah Winfrey does. Naturally, she doesn’t see it that way and likely no one could ever convince her of the malign effect she has on the national zeitgeist when it comes to science and medicine, but that’s exactly what she does.

How does Oprah do it? Easy (for her, at least). She makes stars of woo-meisters by featuring them on her show and giving them her stamp of approval, that’s how. Indeed, there was a documentary on last night that I (unfortunately) missed called The Oprah Effect. While not specifically about Oprah’s promotion of pseudoscience, happily it appears not to shy away from it, either. The basic structure of the documentary is to examine what happened to three businesses after they were mentioned on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Not surprisingly, their business went through the roof, and apparently how they dealt with that sudden fame and influx of new business forms the basis for much of the documentary.

Speaking of the Oprah Effect, it is certainly operative for her proteges over the years; for example, Dr. Phil, who is not so much a woo-meister as profoundly annoying, sensationalistic, and self-righteous. Another of Oprah’s most famous pseudoscience-loving proteges is Mehmet Oz, whom I’ve castigated for his promotion of “complementary and alternative” medicine. Dr. Oz has been a frequent guest on her show, inappropriate scrubs outside of the O.R. and all, and is presently poised to get his own show, thanks to Oprah. Another is Christiane Northrup, a woo-friendly gynecologist who has some very strange views about the vagina and has advocated using qi gong to increase “energy flow” (i.e., qi) to the vagina and cure all manner of “female” ills, as well as providing fantastic orgasms. She also promotes bioidentical hormones (sheer nonsense), all manner of supplements, and a veritable cornucopia of other woo.

She’s also a frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Until most recently, the low point of Oprah’s malign influence came when she fell under the spell of The Secret. Yes that Secret, New Age nonsense so flaky that even most New Age types correctly view it as nonsense. Basically, The Secret postulates that there is a “law of attraction” that “always work” in which what you visualize can be yours. In other words, according to The Secret, well, let’s let Oprah describe it:

…the energy you put into the world — both good and bad — is exactly what comes back to you. This means you create the circumstances of your life with the choices you make every day.

This is taking the relatively easy to accept contention that your attitude and drive have a significant influence on how well you do in life and putting it on more steroids than Major League Baseball players have used over the last couple of decades, to the point of utter ridiculousness. As Peter Birkenhead put it:

“Venality,” because Oprah, in the age of AIDS, is advertising a book that says, “You cannot ‘catch’ anything unless you think you can, and thinking you can is inviting it to you with your thought.” “Venality,” because Oprah, from a studio within walking distance of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini Green Projects, pitches a book that says, “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts.”

The truly despicable aspect of The Secret is that a consequence of its teachings is not that people bring good things to themselves with their thoughts but the flip side, too: That people bring evil to themselves with their own thoughts and that it is their fault. Tell that to the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, or the millions killed by Stalin, or even the 3,000 who died on September 11, 2001. According to The Secret, they all brought that evil upon themselves with their “negative” thoughts.

I thought Oprah couldn’t sink lower than that, at least in terms of promoting woo. That was before she jumped on the Jenny McCarthy bandwagon nearly two years ago. Since then, Jenny has regularly been given a voice on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote her antivaccine views every time she’s released a new book. Then, earlier this month, it was announced that Oprah has inked a deal with Jenny McCarthy for various media projects, including her own talk show. And it is that most recent promotion of infectious disease by Oprah that leads to the most interesting part of this documentary:

In May, Winfrey, whose contract for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” expires in 2011, struck a deal with actress, author and Chicago native Jenny McCarthy, who emerged as an autism activist after her son was diagnosed with the disorder. The deal with McCarthy, who has been a guest on Winfrey’s show several times, calls for McCarthy to develop a variety of projects with Harpo, one of which could be a syndicated talk show.

McCarthy’s position on childhood vaccines, however, has kicked up controversy. McCarthy has said she is not “anti-vaccine” and that she is advocating for improved vaccines. But she said in an interview on Oprah.com that if she “had another child, I would not vaccinate.” She also told Time that “I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe.”

Yes, that’s the same remark that I ripped into so harshly. What I like is that the producers tried to get an answer from Oprah:

Asked if Oprah or her show endorses McCarthy’s views, a representative for Oprah’s program said, “We don’t take positions on the opinions of our guests. Rather, we offer a platform for guests to share their first-person stories in an effort to inform the audience and put a human face on topics relevant to them.” When McCarthy’s views have been discussed on the air, statements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics saying that there’s no scientific evidence of a vaccine-autism link have been read.

And this, I think, tells it all. ScienceBlogs’ resident ethicist Janet Stemwedel asks:

I’m curious to hear what you all think about this. Is it acceptable to give any guest you please a soapbox without taking a position on the opinions they voice from that soapbox? Is reading official statements from the CDC and AAP enough “balance” to Jenny McCarthy’s views on vaccines, or do you think the “Oprah Winfrey Show” needs to do more?

And, if Oprah and her producers are aware of the Oprah effect (which, really, they have to be, right?), should that awareness of their reach lead them to try to meet a higher ethical standard as far as the foreseeable consequences for giving Jenny McCarthy a soapbox?

I’ll give two answers to this: my answer in an ideal world and my answer in the real world. In an ideal world, my answers would be:

  1. No, simply reading an official statement from the CDC and AAP as “balance” to Jenny McCarthy’s idiotic and dangerous views on vaccines, which have led her to a know-nothing activism based on the arrogance of ignorance that is already eroding faith in vaccines, is not even close to enough. Jenny McCarthy’s ignorance and pseudoscience have the potential to cause suffering and death. Indeed, she has even admitted as much but, characteristically, refuses to take responsibility for her words and deeds, instead blaming it on the drug companies that to her don’t make vaccines that are “safe enough” for her liking. It’s also one reason why there is already a site called the Jenny McCarthy Body Count to chronicle deaths from infectious disease that can be partially attributed to her antivaccine zealotry. She uses emotion and her son to argue falsely that vaccines cause autism and that various quackery “cured” him (and, by inference, can cure other children with autism, too). Reading a dry and dull statement from the CDC is utterly useless in combatting this message. It’s even less effective than what I like to call the “token skeptic” who trots out the skeptical viewpoint briefly and is only included because it is expected to “tell both sides.”
  2. Yes, the awareness of the Oprah Effect should make the producers of The Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah herself realize that they have real power and, as the comic geek inside me can’t resist saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Indeed, adding more “balance” is not enough. If Oprah and the producers of her show were truly to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard, useful idiots to the antivaccine movement like Jenny McCarthy and the hucksters who barfed the bile of The Secret onto the world wouldn’t be allowed within ten miles of Harpo Studios. “Balance,” after all, implies that there is enough scientific validity to a view that it is somewhere on the same planet with science. “Balance” implies that there is a real scientific controversy (not a “manufactroversy“) and that the viewpoint being discussed is a legitimate alternative viewpoint. There is no “balance” of this sort between Jenny McCarthy and scientists. Jenny McCarthy is, quite simply, completely wrong about vaccines and autism. Science does not supporter, and it’s not even close to being close, so to speak. Similarly, there is no “balance” between promoters of The Secret and scientists; The Secret is nothing more than New Age nonsense based on prescientific beliefs that were prettied up to be sold to 21st century creduloids. There is no validity to them. When it comes to pseudoscience and mystical nonsense like The Secret, “balance” is nothing more than a sham used by promoters of pseudoscience and and anti-science to claim a legitimacy for their views that they don’t deserve based on science.

Those are my answers in an ideal world.

In the real world, unfortunately, my answer would be this: Oprah doesn’t care about science or accuracy. All she cares about is ratings and entertainment. If it gets ratings, it interests her. If it fits into her apparent “spiritual” world view (like The Secret does), it’s all good to her. If it fits in with the “alternative” medical beliefs of her audience (as Jenny McCarthy, Mehmet Oz, and Christiane Northrup do), she likes it. If it provides a message of “empowerment” (whether real or not), it is good. Those scientists and nasty skeptics are such downers, too. They harsh the happy buzz of all that “positivity.” None of this is new, either. After all, Oprah sandbagged James Randi when he was the skeptic on a show about psychics, and she was sarcastic and abusive to a woman named Laura McMahon who had agreed in 2007 to be the token skeptic on another episode about psychics.

The bottom line is that, whatever good Oprah may have done with her money, when it comes to medicine and science, she is a force for evil. Her intentions may be the best in the world, but that is only why she is the living embodiment of the cliche that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That’s especially true when that same road is also paved with no mental filter of critical thinking to keep out nonsense, and Oprah clearly has no mental filter when it comes to pseudoscience and quackery.