Oprah and Jenny McCarthy: A woo too far

OprahLast week I wrote a bit about what I’ve been tempted to call Oprah’s War on Science but settled for the title of a documentary called The Oprah Effect. The reason, as I have mentioned before, is that arguably there is no single person who does more to promote pseudoscientific and dubious health practices than does Oprah Winfrey. I was happy to learn that more people are questioning Oprah’s promotion of outright quackery than I recall ever having seen before.

It wasn’t always so. Oprah Winfrey is an extremely powerful media figure, having been the host of the highest rated syndicated talk show in television history, her self-named The Oprah Winfrey Show. The show has been running for nearly 23 years, with over 3,000 episodes. Winfrey is so famous that she is one of those rare celebrities who is known instantly by just her first name. Say “Oprah,” and virtually everyone will know to whom you’re referring, and her show is often colloquially known as simply Oprah. Given this unprecedented level of success, which has made Oprah a billionaire and a ubiquitous presence on TV, her own magazine, her own satellite radio station, and, soon, her own cable channel, Oprah has developed a media empire that few single individuals can match or beat. Indeed Rupert Murdoch is the only person that I can think of who likely has a wider reach than Oprah. Personally, I have no problem with Oprah’s level of success. Clearly, she is a very talented and savvy TV host and businesswoman. What I do have a problem with is Oprah’s frequent promotion of of woo in general and antivaccine views in particular.

Unfortunately, a frequent topic of this blog has been the anti-vaccine movement, personified these days by celebrity spokesmodel for Generation Rescue Jenny McCarthy and her dimmer than dim boyfriend comedian and actor Jim Carrey. Together they spew antivaccine nonsense so ignorant and stupid that it represents a burning black hole of dumb, which simultaneously sucks all intelligence past its event horizon and burns out the neurons of anyone with any intelligence forced to be exposed to it. Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement is a topic that is unlikely to go away. I’ve often wondered and speculated why the anti-scientific emotion-based notion that vaccines somehow must cause autism persists in spite of mountains of evidence to the contrary, but I think the question goes much deeper than that because it’s not just about vaccines. The anti-vaccine movement is but one of the most visible components of a much deeper problem in our public discourse, a problem that values feelings and personal experience over evidence, compelling stories and anecdotes over science. These tendencies reached their apogee since the fall of 2007, when Oprah invited Jenny McCarthy on her show to promote her first book about “curing” autism. Since then, McCarthy has become a frequent guest and, most recently and disturbingly, Oprah has inked a deal with McCarthy to do various media projects and her own television show. Unfortunately, McCarthy is only the latest and most visible example, however, Oprah’s promotion of pseudoscience.

Over the years, Oprah has promoted a wide variety of dubious medical practices, pseudoscience, and mysticism on her show. Indeed, just this week, NEWSWEEK ran a long article (excerpts of which I will quote but which you should read in its gloriously lengthy entirety) entitled Live Your Best Life Ever! Wish Away Cancer! Get A Lunchtime Face-Lift! Eradicate Autism! Turn Back The Clock! Thin Your Thighs! Cure Menopause! Harness Positive Energy! Erase Wrinkles! Banish Obesity! Live Your Best Life Ever! It’s an awesome title for an awesome article in that it reveals just how forcefully Oprah and her credulous belief in New Age nonsense are reflected in her show. The article starts with the example of Suzanne Somers, whom I’ve mentioned before because of her belief that alternative medicine cured her of her breast cancer:

In January, Oprah Winfrey invited Suzanne Somers on her show to share her unusual secrets to staying young. Each morning, the 62-year-old actress and self-help author rubs a potent estrogen cream into the skin on her arm. She smears progesterone on her other arm two weeks a month. And once a day, she uses a syringe to inject estrogen directly into her vagina. The idea is to use these unregulated “bio-identical” hormones to restore her levels back to what they were when she was in her 30s, thus fooling her body into thinking she’s a younger woman. According to Somers, the hormones, which are synthesized from plants instead of the usual mare’s urine (disgusting but true), are all natural and, unlike conventional hormones, virtually risk-free (not even close to true, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

Next come the pills. She swallows 60 vitamins and other preparations every day. “I take about 40 supplements in the morning,” she told Oprah, “and then, before I go to bed, I try to remember … to start taking the last 20.” She didn’t go into it on the show, but in her books she says that she also starts each day by giving herself injections of human growth hormone, vitamin B12 and vitamin B complex. In addition, she wears “nanotechnology patches” to help her sleep, lose weight and promote “overall detoxification.” If she drinks wine, she goes to her doctor to rejuvenate her liver with an intravenous drip of vitamin C. If she’s exposed to cigarette smoke, she has her blood chemically cleaned with chelation therapy. In the time that’s left over, she eats right and exercises, and relieves stress by standing on her head. Somers makes astounding claims about the ability of hormones to treat almost anything that ails the female body. She believes they block disease and will double her life span. “I know I look like some kind of freak and fanatic,” she said. “But I want to be there until I’m 110, and I’m going to do what I have to do to get there.”

That was apparently good enough for Oprah. “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” she said. “But she just might be a pioneer.” Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims “have been met with relentless criticism” from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn’t quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”

I was actually amazed to read this. I’ve known for a while that Suzanne Somers promotes so-called “bioidentical hormones,” which is the sort of nonsense quack-friendly journals like JPANDS publish. I also warned that it is the height of stupidity for a woman who has survived breast cancer to pump herself full of estrogen in the futile and pathetic quest to reclaim her lost youth. It’s just begging for a recurrence of her breast cancer, and Somers epitomizes the cliche of “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Either that, or her cancer was estrogen receptor-negative, but even in that case it’s definitely pushing her luck to be bathing in “bioidentical” estrogens. Be that as it may, “good” Somers is not with respect to science and medicine, but lucky she is. Although I was aware of Somers’ promotion of bioidentical hormones at doses designed to boost her estrogen levels to what they were in her 20s, but I had been blissfully unaware of all the other quackery she promotes, including the multiple supplements, the “nanotechnology patches,” the vitamin C drips, and the chelation therapy. Perhaps it is because I’ve never read any of her books or watched any of her videos and somehow I was fortunate enough to miss her appearance on Oprah, mainly because I don’t watch Oprah.

More recently, Somers has been promoting stem cell quackery. (Yes, indeed, when I want to learn about the latest stem cell science, Suzanne Somers is exactly the person to whom I’d look.) In any case, Suzanne Somers promotes medical advice and practices that could be dangerous to women, and Oprah is totally down with them. Moreover, it’s her show. She is the star and the driving force behind it. Her opinion is all that matters:

On Oprah’s show, there is one opinion more equal than others; and by the end of the program there was no doubt where Oprah herself stood on the issue. She told her audience that she found Somers’s bestselling books on bioidentical hormones “fascinating” and said “every woman should read” what she has to say. She didn’t stop there. Oprah said that although she has never had a hot flash, after reading Somers she decided to go on bioidenticals herself. “After one day on bioidentical estrogen, I felt the veil lift,” she wrote in O, The Oprah Magazine. “After three days, the sky was bluer, my brain was no longer fuzzy, my memory was sharper. I was literally singing and had a skip in my step.” On the show, Oprah had her own word of warning for the medical establishment: “We have the right to demand a better quality of life for ourselves,” she said. “And that’s what doctors have got to learn to start respecting.”

That statement epitomizes the attitude that infuses The Oprah Winfrey Show when it comes to medical issues and science. Anecdotes trump science, and scientists should “respect” pseudoscience because of feelings and a desire for “quality of life.” Indeed, thees are exactly the attitudes that permeate the CAM movement and the antivaccine movement. It’s therefore not surprising that Oprah would be drawn to them, especially since she clearly does not have the critical thinking skills necessary to recognize that what Somers offers is a risky false promise. What’s especially sad is that it doesn’t take sharply honed critical thinking skills recognize Suzanne Somers’ woo for the quackery it is. Clearly, critical thinking and science do not matter to Oprah.

Here’s also what matters to Oprah:

Somers says it’s mainstream doctors who need to get their facts straight. “The problem is that our medical schools do not teach this,” she said in a February interview with NEWSWEEK. She believes doctors, scientists and the media are all in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. “Billions are spent on marketing drugs, and these companies also support academic research.” Free from these entanglements, Somers can see things clearly. “I have spent thousands of hours on this. I’ve written 18 books on health. I know my stuff.”

No, Somers most definitely does not “know her stuff.” In fact, she “knows her stuff” about as much as Jenny McCarthy does. Every bit as much as Jenny McCarthy, Suzanne Somers is to science and critical thinking what Torquemada was to heretics. Indeed, Suzanne Somers is so ignorant and stupid that she gives Jenny McCarthy a serious run for her money in the brain dead department. Writing books is no guarantee that she “knows her stuff,” particularly given that she clearly does not understand science and cherry picks references to support her viewpoint, ignoring those that do not. Like Jenny McCarthy (more on her later), Somers also suffers from the arrogance of ignorance, in which she thinks her Google University and self-taught knowledge trump the understanding of scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying such questions deeply. Again, Oprah is drawn to this sort of thinking because it reinforces her message of “empowerment” and her apparent distrust of medical authorities. Truly, she is the perfect representative for the science-free attitudes that have allowed the rise of so much pseudoscience in medicine.

Speaking of bioidentical hormones, another favorite and frequent guest on Oprah is Dr. 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. Supposedly a bit of qi in one’s cooch will also result in most excellent orgasms, at least, if we are to believe Dr. Northrup. Dr. Harriet Hall has done a detailed examination of Dr. Northrup’s views. It turns out that Dr. Northrup is also very much “skeptical” of vaccination, in particular the HPV vaccine. She’s even gone so far as to parrot antivaccine propaganda about the VAERS database, as I’ve detailed earlier. Not only that, but she is a germ theory denialist, who has credulously also parroted the myth that Louis Pasteur “recanted” on his deathbed. But I had no idea of just how into woo Dr. Northrup is until I read this NEWSWEEK article:

Northrup holds a special place in Oprah’s constellation of regular guests. A Dartmouth-educated ob-gyn, she stresses alternative therapies and unseen connections between the soul and the body that she believes conventional doctors overlook, but that she can see. She has written about how she has used Tarot cards to help diagnose her own illnesses. (On her Web site, she sells her own “Women’s Wisdom Healing Cards.”) In other words, she gets right to the center of Oprah’s search for hidden mystical meanings. Oprah says she reads Northrup’s menopause book “just like it’s the Bible. It’s the book next to my bed. I read the Bible. I read that book.”

Oprah found Dr. Northrup when she “blew out her thyroid,” and Dr. Northrup promotes a wide variety of pseudoscience with regard to thyroid disease:

But Northrup believes thyroid problems can also be the result of something else. As she explains in her book, “in many women, thyroid dysfunction develops because of an energy blockage in the throat region, the result of a lifetime of ‘swallowing’ words one is aching to say.”

Until most recently, the low point of Oprah’s malign influence came when she fell under the spell of The Secret. I’ve already castigated The Secret before, as have others. Of course, 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. In other words, if you get cancer, AIDS, or other serious and possibly fatal diseases, it’s your fault for not being “positive” enough. If you’re not rich, it’s your fault for not being “positive” enough. If you are a failure in life, it’s your fault for not “believing” hard enough.

The NEWSWEEK article describes how this sort of magical thinking came to its toxic conclusion when people started actually believing Oprah’s advice:

The message got through. In March 2007, the month after the first two shows on The Secret, Oprah invited a woman named Kim Tinkham on the program. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and her doctors were urging surgery and chemotherapy. But Tinkham wrote Oprah to say that she had decided to forgo this treatment and instead use The Secret to cure herself. On the show, Oprah seemed genuinely alarmed that Tinkham had taken her endorsement of The Secret so seriously. “When my staff brought this letter to me, I wanted to talk to her,” Oprah told the audience. “I said, get her in here, OK?” On air, Oprah urged the woman to listen to her doctors. “I don’t think that you should ignore all of the advantages of medical science and try to, through your own mind now because you saw a Secret tape, heal yourself,” she said. A few weeks earlier, Oprah could not say enough in praise of The Secret as the guiding philosophy of her life. Now she said that people had somehow gotten the wrong idea. “I think that part of the mistake in translation of The Secret is that it’s used to now answer every question in the world. It is not the answer to all questions,” she instructed. “I just wanted to say it’s a tool. It is not the answer to everything.” The Law of Attraction was just one law of many that guide the universe. “Although I live my life that way,” Oprah said, “I think it has its flaws.”

Actually, it’s wrong to think that Tinkham tried to use The Secret to heal her breast cancer. I’ve discussed Kim Tinkham’s case twice before, and it turns out that she is under the care of a quack named Dr. Young who believes that tumors are all an “acid” and that “alkalinization” will cure all disease. However, it’s clear that The Secret did have quite a bit to do with Tinkham’s rejection of conventional therapy, and Oprah’s promotion of The Secret definitely influenced her. Either Oprah doesn’t know her own power, or she does not want to take responsibility for the promotion of quackery. Yet, promote quackery is what she does. Moreover, she is now promoting it through her surrogates.

One area where the NEWSWEEK article gets it wrong is here:

Right about now is when you might be asking, is there anything Oprah gets right? In fact, there is. For one, she gives excellent diet and fitness tips. Two of her longest-serving resident experts, Dr. Mehmet Oz and trainer Bob Greene, routinely offer sound, high-quality advice to Oprah and her audience on how to lose weight and improve overall health. For the most part, it is free of the usual diet-industry hype, perhaps because so many of her viewers are on to those scams by now. Oz’s and Greene’s philosophy amounts to: eat nutritious foods, and exercise.

Dr. Mehmet Oz is, of course, another of Oprah’s famous pseudoscience-loving proteges is Mehmet Oz. Regular readers may recall that I don’t think too much of him because of his elsewhere promotion of CAM as “prevention” and his advocacy for hijacking President Obama’s agenda for health care reform to get the government to pay for CAM. His advice on Oprah tends to be mostly sound, but Oz, like Andrew Weil, frequently mixes science-based medicine with woo. He’s also a very famous advocate for CAM who has shown up with Dean Ornish, Mark Hyman, and Andrew Weil at the recent Institute of Medicine woo-fest designed to influence the Obama Administration’s health care policy. He also–surprise! surprise!–is a pitchman for a company that sells information from a dubious test its readers take to pharamceutical companies in order to allow them to send targeted ads to them.

He is also presently poised to get his own show in the fall, thanks to Oprah.

It may well be that McCarthy is, to paraphrase the title of an excellent book about Operation Market Garden during World War II by Cornelius Ryan (later made into a movie), a woo too far. For it is Oprah’s inking of a deal with Jenny McCarthy to develop a number of media efforts, including one of the most inane blogs I’ve ever seen and a television show that has focused the attention of the mainstream media on Oprah’s promotion of quackery. McCarthy’s promotion of antivaccine propaganda and pseudoscience is, quite simply, so egregious and such a threat to public health that even the Oprah-friendly media (or perhaps the Oprah frightened media) have become alarmed, given her statements that, if she ever had another child, she would not vaccinated. The NEWSWEEK article even notes her statement 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. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

In both of the recent articles criticizing Oprah for her promotion of pseudoscience, reporters tried to get a statement from Oprah. This is what they got. First, I reiterate her response from the article on the Oprah Effect:

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 from the NEWSWEEK story:

She declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement she said, “The guests we feature often share their first-person stories in an effort to inform the audience and put a human face on topics relevant to them. I’ve been saying for years that people are responsible for their actions and their own well-being. I believe my viewers understand the medical information presented on the show is just that–information–not an endorsement or prescription. Rather, my intention is for our viewers to take the information and engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners about what may be right for them.”

The first-person story that, as Oprah says, puts “a human face on topics” is an important part of the show’s success. Perhaps Oprah’s most attractive quality, and one that sets her apart from other daytime hosts, is that she abhors the celebration of victimhood. She succeeded despite a childhood of abuse, and her own experience left her with very little tolerance for people who indulge in self-pity or blame cruel fate for their troubles. She often features regular people or, even better, celebrities, who have met challenges in their lives.

In other words, Oprah washes her hands of any responsibility for spreading misinformation. She also values “self-empowerment” apparently above all else. That would be all well and good, except that she mistakes the story of someone like Jenny McCarthy, who claims to have, through being a “warrior mother,” to have overcome her son’s autism and turned herself into an “autism advocate.” It matters not to Oprah that McCarthy’s claims are based on pseudoscience, autism quackery, and anti-vaccine pseudoscience. All that matters is that Jenny McCarthy appears to have “triumphed” over the odds for the sake of her son. The compelling personal story of empowerment trumps science, and the only “balance” she feels compelled to provide is a dry statement from the CDC and AAP.

But it’s more than just anti-vaccine advocates, Suzanne Somers, and Dr. Northrup. As the article points out, there is much, much more that is wrong about the medicine discussed on Oprah:

All this dreary talk of measles and cancer and thyroids. Wouldn’t you rather “Stop the Clock on Aging!” Hear about “The Latest Age-Defying Breakthroughs!” Get the skinny on the miracle “Lunchtime Face-Lift Which Means No Cutting and No Down Time!” These are all teaser lines Oprah has recited on her show. Oprah hasn’t had plastic surgery herself, and she has aired the cautionary tales of desperate, youth-obsessed women who ruined their faces with too many procedures. Yet she seems fascinated with the subject and has been among the first to promote the newest treatments. In 2004, Oprah debuted a new “groundbreaking” procedure on the show called a thread lift. Her guest, dermatologist Karyn Grossman, called it “pretty much as close as you can get to a face-lift without actually cutting.”

It turns out that this procedure doesn’t work and rapidly fell into disrepute among plastic surgeons.

The bottom line is that, whatever good Oprah may have done with her money, when it comes to medicine and science, on balance she does far more ill than good. Her intentions may be the best in the world, but that is only why she is the living embodiment of the the belief that feelings trump science, and as such she has no mental filter of critical thinking to keep out pseudoscience and quackery. Couple that with her great influence and power, and the result is the Oprah-fication of the popular discourse about medicine in the media, as epitomized by the “tell both sides” imbalance seen on shows like The Doctors. Indeed, Oprah is one of the most potent forces in American for the undermining of critical thinking and science-based medicine in existence. The Huffington Post may promote a lot of quackery, but when it comes to influence in the media Oprah is the Queen of All Media.

Unfortunately, given the infiltration of quackery into academic medicine, I’m having a hard time determining if Oprah is a symptom or one of the causes of the rise of pseudoscience and quackery over science-based medicine. Perhaps it’s equal measures of both, each feeding off of the other.