Dr. Oz defiantly embraces The Dark Side

Stick a fork in Dr. Oz. He’s done.

I know I’ve been highly critical of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Vice Chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Program (i.e., Columbia’s quackademic medicine) program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Those are his academic titles. More important, in terms of his promotion of pseudoscience, is his role as daytime medical show host. Dr. Oz’s television show, called, appropriately enough, The Dr. Oz Show, is a direct result of his having been featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show on numerous occasions as one of her regular medical experts. Because of his popularity, Dr. Oz became Oprah’s protégé and ultimately got his very own popular TV show, which has been quite successful.

So what has led me to conclude that I’ve finally had it with Dr. Oz?

The final straw occurred yesterday, but this has been building up for a while. Of course, I always knew that Dr. Oz has a weak spot for “alternative medicine.” A decade ago, he was known for bringing reiki masters into the operating room do their mystical magical gestures during cardiac surgery, the better to channel the healing energy of the “universal source” into his patients before they went onto the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. Even so, even though I always knew Dr. Oz was into some woo, most of the times I ever saw him on Oprah’s show and the rare occasion that I’ve seen his show, the worst I could say about him was that he is too prone to mixing perfectly valid, science-based information with the “softer” forms of “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM) modalities, such as acupuncture and reiki. Even so, CAM didn’t seem to be a large part of his show. That seems to have changed in 2010.

As 2010 dawned, I became aware of a show in which Dr. Oz promoted reiki completely uncritically, beginning the year with a show entitled Dr. Oz’s Ultimate Alternative Medicine Secrets. It wasn’t too long before Dr. Oz did it again, delivering a two-fer of “quantum” quackery coupled with just plain quackery, inviting Deepak Chopra and Joe Mercola on his show. He also hadn’t had his children vaccinated against H1N1 and seemed to be sympathetic to the concept that vaccines might somehow cause autism. None of this was good, but, as disturbing as it was, it didn’t quite cross a line. Quite.

As 2011 dawns, there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Oz has now inevitably crossed the Woo-bicon, gone over to the Dark Side, betrayed the cause, gone woo, or whatever you want to call it. I say again: Stick a fork in him. He’s done, as far as science-based medicine goes. That’s because he featured one of the biggest promoters of quackery on the Internet on his show in one fawning segment after another. I’m referring, of course, to Dr. Joe Mercola, who was the main guest on The Dr. Oz Show yesterday in segments entitled The Alternative Health Controversy (part 1, part 2, part 3), coupled with another segment entitled The Surprising Supplement You Need. Let’s just say that Dr. Oz’s journey to the Dark Side is now complete. He has controlled his fear but released his woo, and it is strong woo indeed.

To give you an idea of just how bad this is, take a look at the introduction to the show before the credits. Dr. Mercola is described as a “pioneer in alternative medicine” and “a man your doctor doesn’t want you to know.” I don’t know about you, but hearing that made me think instantly of Kevin Trudeau and his now-infamous book of quackery Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You To Know About.

And Dr. Oz is defiant right out of the box. Describing Joe Mercola as a “pioneer of holistic treatments” and a “lightning rod,” Dr. Oz says that plenty of his fellow doctors are going to be angry at him for having invited Mercola back. I don’t know about angry, but my opinion of Dr. Oz has hit an all-time low over this. Particularly nauseating is the taped segment that follows, which lionizes Dr. Mercola as someone who has made a career out of “challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs.” I suppose that’s true in a trivial sense in that Mercola has been well known to promote all manner of quackery, whether it be Tullio Simoncini’s cancer quackery that claims cancer is a fungus and that the cure is baking soda; his teaming up with Barbara Loe Fisher to promote anti-vaccine misinformation in November; his belief in raw milk faddism; and even his selling of homeopathy. Peruse Mercola’s website, and it won’t take you very long to find health information that is pure pseudoscience and quackery. He even fell for a dubious study that claimed that, because investigators couldn’t find cancer in Egyptian mummies, cancer didn’t exist back then and is therefore a “man-made” disease.One depressing tidbit of information, if it’s true, is that Dr. Mercola’s website is the fourth largest health website on the Internet. If that doesn’t show how bad health information on the Internet is, I don’t know what does.

Worse, Mercola is portrayed as having alerted the world to the importance of vitamin D and the “dangers of high fructose corn syrup” (which is not nearly as dangerous as Mercola would have you believe). In reality, appreciating the importance of vitamin D has come out of medical science, not Dr. Mercola, and in actuality the science behind the role of vitamin D is in evolution. What Dr. Mercola is most responsible for, along with Mike Adams, is promoting vitamin D as some sort of miracle supplement that will prevent heart disease, cancer, and aging. His “alerting the world” about HFCS consists mainly of overblown fear mongering that blames HFCS for virtually all modern human health problems. It’s the very antithesis of a reasoned weighing of risks versus benefits based on science. Worse, right out of the box, Mercola spouts his same old nonsense in which he represents himself as a bastion against the evil pharmaceutical companies, a champion of the concept that “we can take control of our health” using “natural lifestyle approaches,” castigating medicine as “treating only the symptoms.”

Yawn.

Annoyingly, Dr. Oz asks Dr. Mercola, “What makes people so angry at you?” Dr. Mercola then invokes his criticisms of Vioxx (of all things) and then cites Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous saying, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” I’ve always hated this saying because it’s so trite, and it’s not even true itself. But even if it were true, untruth wouldn’t make it to the third stage. Purveyors of pseudoscience, like Dr. Mercola, never make it to the third stage but desperately want to. So they reassure themselves when they get stuck at the ridicule or opposition stages that it’s all because they are promoting a “truth” that is so threatening and that they will eventually get to the third stage.

But it gets worse. Dr. Oz even goes so far as to describe modern medicine as being in a “civil war,” which makes me wonder if the criticism of his embrace of pseudoscience is starting to get to him. Be that as it may, Dr. Oz claims that he wants to “get the two sides talking to each other.” In all fairness, I will say that Dr. Oz does get some minor points for citing criticism of Dr. Mercola as a supplement hawker who is no different from pharmaceutical companies in that he says what he needs to say to sell a product. Actually, that’s a spot-on description of Mercola. That’s exactly what he is–a salesman–who will say whatever it takes to sell his product. True, the best salesmen actually believe in the products they’re selling, but that doesn’t excuse Mercola if he does believe in his products (I’m not always sure that he does) or excuse him for peddling medical pseudoscience.

Mercola’s reply is priceless and sad. First, he says that he sells only “natural” products, as if that matters one whit to the accusation of his having a massive conflict of interest every bit as bad as that of any pharmaceutical company. Second, he states that he didn’t sell anything the first three years of his website’s existence, as though that mattered at all either. His excuse? Publishing his newsletter and keeping his website going was costing him a half a million dollars a year, leaving him the choice of selling things he “believes in” or selling advertising. Then, he states that no one has ever died taking his supplements, as though that matters when it comes to his massive conflict of interest, contrasting it to the “drug model.” Mercola has no way of knowing that no one has ever died taking his supplements, and I do know that at least one person has died as a result of quackery featured on Mercola’s website, namely a woman who died after Tullio Simoncini tried to treat her breast cancer by injecting it with baking soda. He then goes on and on about how he promotes “healthy natural supplements.” Dr. Oz eats this up, playing the world’s weakest “skeptic” by saying that he “doesn’t always agree” with Dr. Mercola. That’s just a prelude to Dr. Oz planting his lips firmly against Dr. Mercola’s rectum by calling him “so far ahead of us” and asking him where he finds out all this wonderful information that he provides. If there is one brief moment that is the most nauseating of all, that most characterizes Dr. Oz’s fall from grace.

Mercola then goes on to hawk coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Personally, I was curious; so I did a PubMed search. Actually, I did quite a few PubMed searches, and I had a hell of a time finding anything linking the use of coconut oil to the treatment of any form of dementia rather than just Alzheimer’s. Maybe I didn’t get the right search terms; so I tried Google Scholar as well. I found a few animal studies, but that’s about it. Oddly enough, although there are quite a few articles about coconut oil on Mercola’s website, but almost nothing that even mentions using coconut oil for treating Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and only three references looking at medium chain triglycerides as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Now, there‘s some seriously thin evidence. So I went to the almighty Google, and what I found are a lot of CAM websites touting coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, such as here. The concept seems to come from a physician named Dr. Mary Newport, who claims that her husband suffering from Alzheimer’s improved after the addition of coconut oil to his diet. Looking at this claim in more detail might make a good topic for a future post, but I must say that I wasn’t too impressed with what I could find. It’s hard to believe that Dr. Oz or his staff never bothered to look for the studies supporting the use of coconut oil for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. If that had been done, it would have been rapidly apparent how thin that evidence was. I also note that I’ve written about one of the other supplements Mercola hawked, namely L-arginine. Again, the evidence isn’t too persuasive supporting the claims for that one, either, even if a Nobel Laureate is out there hawking it as a supplement for Herbalife.

In the final segment of Mercola’s appearance, Mercola promotes a supplement I had never heard of before, astaxanthin. Surprisingly, there isn’t that much on Mercola’s website about it, although PubMed actually does have some interesting review articles on it. There actually is some evidence that astaxanthin might well have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health and other aspects of health. However, to date most studies are either cell culture or animal studies, with several smaller clinical trials. In other words, touting astaxanthin as some sort of miracle supplement is irresponsible and premature. The evidence just isn’t robust enough to recommend it to the general population. Not that any of this stops Dr. Oz from giving Mercola a platform or Mercola from taking full advantage of it.

Dr. Oz ends this segment by saying to Dr. Mercola:

You’re a lightning rod for controversy. I’m glad you’re on the show today, and I asked Dr. Mercola to be on the show today because you forced me, as you force all physicians, to think critically about what we’re offering you [faces the audience] as advice. And the alternatives you [faces Mercola] talk to us about and the questions that you force us to ask allow us to reevaluate what we’re doing, which helps you [faces the audience again] get get more truthful information. I thank you [faces Mercola] for that.

Anyone got any Pepto-Bismol around? My stomach is suddenly feeling very queasy.

There is no excuse for this. Dr. Oz, by featuring a noted quackery supporter as influential as Dr. Mercola, has done his viewers–nay, science-based medicine itself–a grave disservice. Worse, not only is Dr. Oz not skeptical of Mercola; he embraces him, with only a few minor quibbles where “I don’t always agree.” Add to that Dr. Oz’s enthusiastic promotion of the fallacy of the golden mean, in which he argues that optimal health care would be achieved by somehow melding woo with scientific medicine (or, as promoters of quackademic medicine like to put it, “integrating” CAM with science-based medicine–or, as I like to put it, “integrating” quackery with medicine), and Dr. Oz’s show can only be described as having utterly destroyed what little shred of credibility that Dr. Oz had left. In his quest to conquer television and become “America’s doctor,” it’s clear that Dr. Oz has left behind his scientific integrity. it’s hard not to liken this to the proverbial deal with the devil for his very soul.

Still not convinced? Then check this out:

The Dr. Oz Show was set to air a special show featuring Dr. Issam Nemeh and two of his patients who experienced miraculous healings on January 11, 2011. Due to the recent congressional shooting, the episode has been rescheduled for February 1.

That’s right. Nemeh is a faith healer. If it’s good enough for Oprah, I guess it’s good enough for Dr. Oz. The only difference is that Oprah gets John of God, and Dr. Oz has to go to the second or third tier of faith healers.