When faith healing isn’t woo enough for Dr. Oz

There are times when I’m wrong again and again.

No, I’m certainly not referring to my writings about vaccines which, as much as anti-vaccine loons like to claim they’re wrong, are not. Nor am I referring to my writings about “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” (IM). While it’s possible that I’ve made mistakes here and there, I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about being utterly and demonstrably wrong, something that, although it might happen in my real life with distressing frequency, is pretty rare on the blog.

Then came Dr. Oz.

You remember Dr. Mehmet Oz, don’t you? How can you escape him? He is, after all, Oprah Winfrey’s protege, and of late he’s really been living up to his television mentor. I first noted this nearly a year ago, when I pointed out that Dr. Oz’s embrace of woo was a profound abdication of professional responsibility. And so it was, as Dr. Oz had just invited a man whom I consider to be one of the foremost purveyors of quackery on the Internet, Dr. Joe Mercola. Prior to that, he had done an episode touting the glories of that form of faith healing known as reiki. Unfortunately, back when I asked whether Dr. Oz had “crossed the Woo-bicon” or not, little did I suspect that Dr. Oz had so much more in store for his viewers in his next season.

In the next season, in particular over the last couple of months, Dr. Oz showed me just how wrong I had been when I had previously been saying that Dr. Oz seemed to be mostly science-based but with a soft spot for certain kinds of woo. First, he not only invited Joe Mercola back on his show, but he did it defiantly, defending Mercola against what I consider to be much-deserved charges of being a seller of quackery and calling him a “pioneer of holistic treatments.” A couple of weeks later, Dr. Oz pulled the classic “bait and switch” of alternative medicine, bringing a yoga instructor on who also advocated all sorts of Ayruvedic quackery. Then, a mere few days later Dr. Oz, not satisfied at his transformation from nominally science-based to being based solely on whatever would bring him higher ratings, Dr. Oz completed his journey to the Dark Side of quackery by credulously featuring a faith healer on his show and hosting what has to be the lamest faith healing that I’ve ever seen. After that, I didn’t think Dr. Oz could go much lower; even his anti-vaccine-sympathetic episode on autism in which he featured Dr. Robert Sears.

That’s where I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong that I wasn’t even wrong. It turns out that Dr. Oz could go lower, oh so much lower! How much lower? Even my jaw dropped as you, my readers sent me notices about just how low.

As I found out from all of you, Dr. Oz’s guest on his show yesterday was psychic scammer John Edward, whose show Crossing Over with John Edward ghoulishly featured Edward convincing bereaved guests that he could speak with their departed loved ones. My first reaction was to wonder if Sylvia Browne wasn’t available or something. How low can a physician go to feature someone like Edward, who claims to be able to talk to the dead but in reality is nothing more than a so-so cold reader. My second reaction was intense nausea at the title of the segment, Are Psychics the New Therapists (part 2 and part 3). Dr. Oz even helpfully features a segment in which Edward gives his audience advice on how to harness your psychic power and a chapter from John Edward’s latest book. As I watched, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I guess that means I just haven’t become cynical enough yet, because Dr. Oz’s trajectory has been so obviously leading to something like this for several months now. I mean, after you’ve had a faith healer on your show, there really aren’t any boundaries left to justify not having someone like Edward on the show anymore, are there?

Perhaps the most telling part of the show happened right at the beginning of the John Edward segment, telling about Dr. Oz’s audience, that is. Dr. Oz introduces the segment by saying:

We’ve had more requests to join this show than any other we’ve ever done before, more than weight loss, more than cancer, more than heart disease. The topic? Do you believe we can talk to the dead?

Yes, apparently Dr. Oz’s audience was clamoring to be on the show when John Edward was being featured, and throughout the show the audience was completely enthusiastic and fawning, just like the show’s host, who asks the question: Is talking to the dead a new kind of therapy? People, I wish I were kidding, but I’m really not, and Oz even goes one step beyond by saying that “psychic medium John Edward believes it can be” and asking: “Could it help you someday?” What follows is a taped segment about grief from “devastating loss” and how some people even resort to trying to talk to the dead, for which, we are told, they need a person like John Edward. Edward then describes grief as an “energetic form of cancer” that will, if not treated, “metastasize. He even assures us that speaking to a psychic medium can be very therapeutic if you’re suffering from grief due to the death of a loved one. Then, after that, Dr. Oz comes back on and finishes the introduction by saying:

Now as a heart surgeon I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain and that science can’t study.

So, let’s see. Just because the great and powerful Dr. Oz can’t explain it, he assumes that talking to the dead must be real and that science can’t study it. It’s a massive argument from ignorance combined with special pleading, in which it is assumed that the methods of science are inadequate for studying this phenomenon. Dr. Oz lives that attitude as well, as he shows not even the slightest whiff of skepticism, nor does he offer anything more than the most perfunctory of challenges to what Edward is doing. Actually, he doesn’t even do that. Other than a brief question near the beginning about whether Edwards is taking advantage of the bereaved, Dr. Oz’s tone is more than just respectful. It’s fawning. He doesn’t even include a “skeptic” as he has with previous woo-filled episodes. The closest he comes to it is having Katherine Nordal, PhD of the American Psychological Association, who not really introduced on the show but is described on the APA website as “the executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association.” Her job is described as overseeing “the promotion of the professional practice of psychology” and ensuring “psychological services’ accessibility and availability through legislative and judicial advocacy, public education and marketplace initiatives.”

Actually, I’m not sure what purpose Nordal served. She didn’t really question whether Edward could speak to the dead, which makes her a pretty crappy candidate to play the role of token skeptic that is common on these shows. When Dr. Oz asks her whether finding a medium might be a form of therapy, rather than stating unequivocally that it is not, or at least not a good form of therapy, she says that it is. Some skeptic!

Then Edward goes into his routine. If you’ve ever seen his television show back when it was still on the air, nothing Edward does in his segment on Dr. Oz will come as a surprise. It’s nothing more than the old psychic medium trick of cold reading. This time around, he was actually a lot better at it than I remember him. His “hits” were more common and his “misses” fewer than I remember from the handful of episodes of his old show. In fact, there was one part that turned out so conveniently that I have to wonder if Edward’s people had managed to stage it. At one point, Edward insists that someone in the room has a death associated in some way with St. Patrick’s Day. (How convenient, given the proximity to St. Patrick’s Day of the day on which the show aired!) After badgering the audience, finally a young woman says that a friend of a friend had died in a car crash on St. Patrick’s Day. Predictably, Dr. Oz was awestruck. In fact, if you want to know just how lacking in skepticism Dr. Oz is, just check out this TV Guide article released before the show in which Dr. Oz Says Psychic John Edward “Changed My Life”:

I walked out of that studio thinking, “There’s something here. It’s bizarre. I don’t know what exactly is happening. But it’s definitely something.” I’m a heart surgeon. I can explain a lot of weird things. I’ve seen people who should have died who didn’t. Over the years I’ve had some pretty deep conversations with people who died and say they saw “the light” and came back with stories. I’ve heard many things that are not easy to reconcile with the western scientific mind, so you try to think of a reason for what’s going on. Could it be synapses short-circuiting in the brain that make people think they’re having an out-of-body experience? That’s what a doctor does. He tries to find a rational explanation. But I can’t make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.

Or, one could say that there are times when Dr. Oz’s knowledge hasn’t kept up with that of skeptics who actually pay attention to these things. Otherwise he wouldn’t be so amazed by Edward’s schtick. But he is, and once again he uses the argument from incredulity. Just because he can’t imagine a scientific explanation for what John Edward does, Oz assumes that there isn’t one:

But I can’t make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.

Which is, of course, what psychic mediums do. It’s what they do and have done for hundreds of years, if not longer. It’s not for nothing that John Rennie characterized Oz as the “great and gullible.” He was gullible when it came to faith healing and quackery, and he surpasses himself in gullibility in his treatment of John Edward and psychic mediums. What they do and how they do it are not mysteries to, for example, James Randi or Joe Nickell, who quite properly described Edward as “hustling the bereaved.” Both describe how Edward uses the technique of cold reading, and Nickell even describes how Edward was busted using “hot reading,” or having chatted up the audience before his show and presenting information thus gleaned as having come from the spirits. When he can’t guess right, Edward’s technique is to do this:

What separates John from other cold readers, is that John works with a sizable audience (the Gallery) and when his readings go like the above, as happens far too often, he will just say that he’s picking up the “energies” of two different or distinct families which is suppose to explain away wrong guesses. Enough wrong guesses or if the guest isn’t cooperating, he will just claim the “energy” is pulling back and then move on to someone else he hopes this time will be more volunteering of information.

After watching a sad spectacle like this, that of a once respected surgeon debasing himself with faith healers and psychic mediums, I asked myself what could possibly be going on here. My first thought was that reiki must be a powerful gateway woo, leading to the really hard stuff, like faith healing and psychic mediums. After all, Dr. Oz’s wife is a reiki master, and he got his start in the CAM world by famously allowing reiki masters into his operating room to work their magic (and I do mean the word “magic” literally) on his cardiac patients. (Ten or fifteen years on, that little incursion into woo seems very quaint now.)

In actuality, what’s going on here, I think, is more likely to be pure hubris. Dr. Oz has become so enamored with himself and his image as the iconoclast bucking the medical system, seeing beyond “Western medicine,” and being just so much more damned smart than any other doctor that it never occurred to him that he could be fooled by a psychic scammer just as easily as anyone else. Add to that his need to fill the insatiable maw of his TV show with new topics and new guests, coupled with the demands of his audience, who are clearly very much into this sort of thing, and it becomes easy for him to justify having a guest like John Edward as both evidence of his intelligence and open-mindedness and giving the people what they want.