Dr. Oz descends further into psychic quackery

Regular readers have probably noticed that I’m taking it easy this week, at least compared to my usual ridiculous level of output. It is, after all, the holidays, and last night I even went to see my cousin’s son play basketball and then hung out at the local Knights of Columbus hall. (No, it didn’t spontaneously explode upon my entering it.) I’ll get back to regular blogging after the 1st of the year. Between now and then I’ll be uncharacteristically mellow and brief, because even a clear Plexiglass box of blinking lights needs a break now and then to recharge the ol’ Tarial cells. Not that it’s actually much of a rest, but a redistribution of effort to grant writing, from which blog posts are a brief respite.

None of this stops me, however, from being annoyed by certain things even now. For example, I was sitting there, as so often happens, an ad for Dr. Oz’s TV show popped up. It’s been a while since I’ve paid much attention to Dr. Oz, who basically jumped the shark when he declared über-quack Dr. Joe Mercola a “pioneer” in alternative medicine when from my view the only thing Mercola is a “pioneer” in is using the Internet to make money off of credulous marks with more money and distrust of science than sense and then let the shark eat whatever scientist was left in him when he decided that faith healing actually works and that John Edward could really talk to the dead.

Apparently Dr. Oz, not satisfied with having become the biggest and richest supporter of quackery in existence, his fame given a jump start by Oprah’s woo-infused empire and then sustained by his apparent decision to “integrate” pure quackery, pseudoscience, and mysticism with his vanishing focus on real medicine, has decided to embrace nonsense ever the more tightly, the better to provide more bread and circuses to his addled viewers. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but this surprised even me, and in a way I was happy that I missed this when it aired the first time around. I’m referring to the episode set to air today in which Dr. Oz features the “Long Island medium Theresa Caputo. As if this weren’t bad enough, Dr. Oz promotes her as somehow being able to help his viewers deal with anxiety by communicating with dead relatives on “the other side.” Yes, in this case, Dr. Oz goes beyond dipping his toe in the water of pure nonsense to diving right in and swimming to the bottom of the cesspit of psychic scams.

Caputo describes herself thusly:

I began seeing spirit at age 4. I suffered from anxiety for years until my mom suggested I go to a spiritual healer/teacher. I went to see Pat Longo and that’s how I found out that I had the ability to communicate with spirit. I have been a practicing medium for over 10 years and a certified medium with the Forever-Family Foundation – an organization dedicated to connecting science with the afterlife. People ask me to describe the process of receiving information. It’s hard for me to describe because I see, hear and feel things differently than we do in the physical world. My wish for every person I come in contact with, is that they receive a message that will give them healing and closure to embrace life without their loved ones.

Yes, Caputo appears to follow in the footsteps of a long line of “psychic” scammers and mediums like John Edward and, of course, the ever-vile (or at least viler than most self-proclaimed psychics) Sylvia Browne. None of this stops Dr. Oz from entitling his segment, Can talking to the dead help end your anxiety? I could have made this the world’s shortest episode of The Dr. Oz Show by answering this simply, No.

Not Dr. Oz, who states multiple times in this segment that “medicine doesn’t have all the answers” or “doctors don’t have all the answers.” This is, of course, true. Doctors don’t always have all the answers, just as science doesn’t know everything. But as Dara O’Briain puts it, “Just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.” Yet that’s exactly what Dr. Oz is doing here: Inserting a belief that a cheesy Long Island woman with bleach blond helmet hair and a fake tan can talk to the dead for science and reason.

As has become the formula for Oz shows that feature psychics and various claimants to paranormal powers, Dr. Oz starts off with a purely credulous segment introducing her, chats with her a bit. This time around, he doesn’t seem to express even the perfunctory claim of “skepticism” that he normally does (and did, for instance, with John Edward). He simply declares her “amazing” and wonders if she can help cure anxiety with her claimed ability to speak with a person’s dead relatives.

Next comes the testimonial. we’re introduced to a woman named Deanna who discusses having crippling anxiety, which she attributed to not knowing what’s on the other side. Declaring herself a “skeptic” going in (don’t they all?), she tells her story, which is lame even by the usual lame standards of psychic tricks. Basically, she says that before her session with Theresa, she prayed to her dead uncle Tony, asking him to tell Theresa the name of a movie, so that she would believe in life after death. The name of the movie? Goodfellas. Amazingly, Theresa apparently managed to name the movie. Anyone want to bet that she did it after the usual psychic cold reading routine? In response, Dr. Oz repeated his mantra that “we don’t have all the answers in medicine,” adding, “and so, if there are other options that might be effective—and I don’t have to understand why they work as a doctor—but if there are things that could be helpful to you and particularly to get through a huge problem like anxiety, I think we should stretch our minds out.”

Apparently Dr. Oz has stretched his mind out to the point where its rationality has snapped. Either that, or he knows this is all nonsense and is pandering to his audience. Take your pick. I don’t know which is worse for a doctor: To be completely credulous or to be in on the con.

Next up, of course, are psychic readings, courtesy of Caputo. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?) It’s the usual cold reading drivel that we’ve seen time and time again from psychics innumerable. Caputo asks a woman whose sister died if it was something to do with the “heart, lungs, or breast.” All of these are likely to be the top three causes of death in a woman who is relatively young and didn’t die a traumatic death (which Caputo appeared to know in advance). Almost anything that causes death is likely to impact the heart and lungs before the end, and if the woman happened to have died of cancer then breast cancer is the most likely culprit. It turns out that the woman’s sister died of a severe asthma attack that apparently collapsed one or both lungs. Caputo then asks the woman whether her sister took her asthma medication, giving the reason that her sister told her that her passing might have been prevented because “we knew better.” Caputo then tells her that her sister said that her passing was “instant” and that she didn’t suffer, which sounds to me like complete nonsense. Caputo has obviously never seen someone die of respiratory failure due to asthma. It is almost never instant, and it frequently involves a long period of intense air hunger and shortness of breath. It is not pleasant.

Of course, what psychics are about is giving the living what they want, and that’s exactly what Caputo does. She tells the woman that her sister wants her to let go of her guilt over her sister’s death. That’s why she told the woman that her sister didn’t suffer when she died. That’s why she provides messages of love from beyond and assurance that there really, really is an afterlife. Consider this. When have you ever seen or heard a psychic tell someone like this woman that her dead relative is in hell, hates her, or blames her for her death? I’ve never heard that, although obviously just because I haven’t heard it doesn’t mean it doesn’t occasionally happen. If it does, though, it must be rare. That’s not what people want to hear from psychics. No! They want to hear that there is a happy, gauzy afterlife where their loved ones now reside, and that all conflicts, guilt, and anger that might have existed in life are now gone. They want to hear that the dead have forgiven them, and that’s what Caputo delivers, just like every other psychic medium scammer out there. She even goes on to tell this woman that her dead father, who apparently died several months before her sister did, knows that she was there with him when he died and that she held his hand as he passed away.

And Dr. Oz falls for it once again, jumping in to ask the woman if this experience was helping her or hurting her. Meanwhile, the second testimonial is a woman who was terrified to go to see a doctor because she was afraid of learning she had heart disease and whose father refused to see a doctor and ended up dying suddenly of heart disease. It’s more of the same, with Caputo empathizing and cold reading and assuring the woman that her father is “fine” and that her father is assuring her that she’s okay and will be okay if she takes care of herself. Later, during audience questions, Caputo reassures another woman that her father knew she was holding him as he took his last breath.

It’s sad, really. Whenever I think Dr. Oz can’t go any lower, he inevitably proves me wrong. The only thing that Dr. Oz is likely to have achieved here is to publicize yet another psychic scam (which is what Caputo is), such that Caputo will likely be able to increase her charges beyond the already exorbitant $400 for a half hour session that she already charges. I don’t think that it can be repeated too often: Either Dr. Oz is completely credulous and believes this stuff, or he knows it’s a scam and is cynically promoting it anyway, pandering to the lowest common denominator of his audience. I can’t think of a third option right now.