The Great and Powerful Dr. Oz: Humbled by Senator Claire McCaskill

I almost feel sorry for “America’s Quack,” Dr. Mehmet Oz. Well, not really.

Remember last week when I took note of an upcoming Senate hearing, specifically a hearing on weight loss scams in front of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Insurance, which is chaired by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). At the time, I wasn’t pleased, because I assumed that the reason Dr. Oz had been invited to testify was in order to bring some star power to the proceedings and get some television coverage, given that the rest of the witnesses consisted of representatives from government regulatory agencies, from supplement manufacturers, and from Internet advertising agencies. (Talk about self-serving testimony and lies.) Actually, that’s what happened today after the hearing this morning, but not in the way I had predicted. In fact, as I learned a few hours after the hearing over at The Consumerist:

Missouri Senator Clair McCaskill, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, went straight for Dr. Oz’s jugular in her opening remarks on this morning’s hearing about the false and deceptive advertising of weight-loss products.

“When you feature a product on your show, it creates what has become known as ‘Oz Effect,’ dramatically boosting sales and driving scam artists to pop up overnight using false and deceptive ads to sell questionable products,” the Senator explained. “I’m concerned that you are melding medical advice, news and entertainment in a way that harms consumers.”

I couldn’t wait until I got home to see the actual video of Dr. Oz’s testimony, which has been posted on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation website and on C-Span:

Now, I’m not a politician, but I do follow politics, and if there’s one thing I know about Congressional hearings, it’s that they are very much like a Kabuki dance. It’s highly stylized and constrained, reminiscent of the Kabuki style of Japanese stage play. Indeed, there is even a term, Kabuki dance, that is used in politics to describe an event that is designed to create the appearance of conflict or of an uncertain outcome, when in fact the actors have worked together to determine the outcome beforehand. The question I have is what the original outcome was intended to be.

In fact, I rather suspect that Dr. Oz didn’t see this coming. Otherwise he likely wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to testify, which is why I also suspect that skeptics had a bit to do with this. For instance, “Dr. Joe” Schwarcz had some of his writings about Dr. Oz forwarded to McCaskill’s staff. In response to my post last week, I know several people (at least) forwarded some Orac-ian “insolence” to McCaskill and other Senators on the committee, as well as some writings from one of my favorite blogs (for obvious reasons) Science-Based Medicine. The reason I suspect that is because Sen. McCaskill used a term I’ve never heard used by a politician before: “science-based medicine.” Yes, she used the term “science-based medicine,” not the usual term used by most doctors and most people who know a little about medicine, “evidence-based medicine.”

My guess is that originally McCaskill wanted Oz primarily for his star power and didn’t plan on grilling him so harshly. But then the reaction and negative publicity Sen. McCaskill endured after announcing that Dr. Oz was going to testify at this hearing led her to change strategy. At least, I like to think that. Quite frankly, at this point, I don’t care that much what her original motivation or plan for the ending of her Kabuki dance was. I just like what the ending ultimately turned out to be, Dr. Oz squirming in front of several Senators and showing up on national TV doing just that. And, of course, every play needs a villain. They often say about such hearings that there has to be at least one villain and one hero. However, usually the hero ends up being either the chair of the committee or one of the committee, with seldom room for more. I bet that Dr. Oz thought he was going to be one of the heros. He found out otherwise, much to his dismay. Every hearing needs someone whom grandstanding politicians can lecture and berate for their offenses and thus use as an example of why a new law or policy is needed. Dr. Oz, being the 800 lb. gorilla in the room, had an enormous target painted on his chest, right from the start. Only he didn’t appear to realize it.

Part of the Kabuki dance of these hearings is that each witness gets to read a prepared statement. Oz’s statement was full of self-serving blather, about how he got to where he was and his commitment to fighting obesity and promoting health. Particularly telling is this passage:

To make the Dr. Oz Show succeed in its mission, we have to overcome certain obstacles I learned in years of conversations with patients. We have to simplify complicated information. We have to make the material seem interesting and focus on the “wow” factor.

All of which is true, as far as it goes. This becomes more important later in the hearing, particularly the bit about the “wow” factor. More revealing is this:

In 2012, we aired a show on a little known supplement called Green Coffee Extract. This is the supplement that is so prevalent in all the ads that are being exhibited today.

In this show I used the word “miracle” when referring to how green coffee could melt fat and I explored a new study on the supplement. I was enthusiastic that it could be a tool to assist people in losing weight and I knew the audience wanted and needed this information. After the show aired an explosion of ads and marketing followed along with criticism that our characterization went to far in describing green coffee. My way of dealing with it was to construct a second show and answer the criticism of our original segment. While we covered Green Coffee in the show, we devoted about half of the hour to me explaining to viewers that they are being duped by unscrupulous people who are illegally using my name in ads. The entire discussion of Green Coffee was prefaced with a warning to the viewer in the interest of protecting them.

Most importantly, in this show I spent an enormous portion of the broadcast demonstrating the false ads and how the various retail scams work – again trying to protect the viewer. I also reexplored green coffee this time using the audience to reveal their anecdotal experience after trying the supplement for two weeks. Some had lost weight, others had not. It seemed to help some people in their weight loss efforts. The internet lit up again, the illicit ads proliferated, and we faced additional criticism.

Yes, indeed. As I’ve pointed out time and time again, however, whenever I saw segments with Oz discussing supplement scams, his concern seemed to be far more focused on protecting his name from being used by supplement hawkers than it was on protecting his audience, culminating in an “investigative” report in which he burst in on nefarious supplement scammers using his name to sell Garcinia gambogia weight loss products like a cut rate Geraldo Rivera opening up Al Capone’s vault. It’s as though he thought he were Morley Safer and Dan Rather in the glory days of 60 Minutes showing up with a camera crew to confront a ne’er do well.

In fact, it was all of that that got Sen. McCaskill started. She started out by showing a clip of Dr. Oz promoting the virtues of green coffee bean extract and then listed some quotes from Dr. Oz during his shows:

  • (On green coffee extract) — “You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found the magic weight-loss for every body type.”
  • (On raspberry ketone) — “I’ve got the number one miracle in a bottle to burn your fat” (raspberry ketone)
  • (On garcinia cambogia) — “It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

In other words, typical Oz hyperbole, the likes of which we’ve seen dozens of times. Here’s a key part of the exchange between Sen. McCaskill and Dr. Oz:

Just look at Oz’s reaction to the first barrage, in which McCaskill, who was once a prosecutor, shows those old skills as a prosecutor and berates Oz, basically calling him a liar to his face:

I don’t get why you need to say this stuff because you know it’s not true. Why, when you have this amazing megaphone, and this amazing ability to communicate, why would you cheapen your show by saying things like that?

It is a thing of beauty:

Ozgrilled

Oz’s response is, for once, not particularly slick, at least in the beginning. He was clearly taken off guard, and let his body language show it. After all, it’s not every day someone is called a liar to his face on national TV by a Senator. And, make no mistake, that’s exactly what Sen. McCaskill did: Called him a liar. (What else does it mean to accuse someone of saying things he knows to be untrue? By definition, that’s lying.) Dr. Oz starts out by disagreeing that green coffee beans don’t work and trying to cites multiple studies, but McCaskill had done her homework, even pointing out that the study he relied on was small and funded by the company. He then retreats into a highly disingenuous false equivalence by saying that many of the things we recommend with respect to diet are controversial and blathering about how medicine advances by embracing new ideas and challenging old ideas. It’s a huge load of fetid dingo’s kidneys, of course, because the controversies over these sorts of issues tend to be based in far better evidence on both sides than the evidence Oz has used to defend his green coffee bean extract show. Unwittingly, he basically admitted that the “clinical trial” he himself did with green coffee bean extract wasn’t a real clinical trial and admitted that it wasn’t done under “appropriate IRB guidance.”

In other words, Dr. Oz just admitted that he had performed human subjects research without proper ethical approval, as I accused him of lo these many months ago! Thanks, Dr. Oz!

He also points out that he has done shows on the power of prayer and was criticized for it, arguing that he does, contrary to McCaskill’s intimations, believe in the things he features on his show and says his show is all about “hope”:

Oz took great issue with the Senator’s assertion that he doesn’t believe in the treatments he endorses.

“I don’t think this ought to be a referendum on the use of alternative medical therapies,” said the doctor. “I’ve been criticized for having people coming on my show to talk about the power of prayer. As a practitioner, I can’t prove that prayer helps people survive an illness.”

Countered McCaskill, “It’s hard to buy prayer… prayer’s free.”

“I do personally believe in the items that I talk about on the show,” responded Dr. Oz, who acknowledged that statements he’s made in the past have encouraged scam artists and others looking to make a quick buck on people looking for an easy way to lose weight.

And so it went. Oz tried to defend himself. He admits that he uses flowery and over-the-top language to express his enthusiasm for the products he discusses on his show and regards himself as a cheerleader for weight loss and health, although he was forced to admit that none of his recommendations besides diet and exercise have actually been proven to work. He also kept saying that those shows that McCaskill was harping on were two years old and that he “doesn’t use that kind of language any more,” having become a lot more conservative. (Actually, one of them was less than a year and a half old, but let’s not quibble too much.) McCaskill, wily old prosecutor that she onces was, had done her homework, however. She called Dr. Oz out on his lies—and, yes, I do believe that Dr. Oz was lying—by listing examples of language just as “flowery” from a mere three weeks ago and a couple of months ago. Indeed, I went over Oz’s website earlier today and I found many such examples in just the last few months, more than I could list (for example, his show about forskolin).

Oz also kept repeating that he himself doesn’t sell any supplements. That is obviously true, but so what? As I’ve pointed out, he’s had many, many people on his show who do sell supplements, worst among them Joe Mercola and Mike Adams. It’s as though Oz lends his name to certain “approved” supplement sellers. Indeed, Oz went straight into one of the more nonsensical defenses I’ve ever seen, in which he claimed that he did his audience a disservice by not giving his audience a list of “reputable” companies that sell the products he’s featured on his show. Yeah, right. He doesn’t admit that the products he’s been pushing don’t work for weight loss, and the worst things he can find to “confess” about are using too much flowery language and not doing right by his viewers by telling them where to buy these products. Anyone wonder whether Dr. Oz will soon be coming out with a list of “Oz-approved” companies and products? I don’t. He will. He even basically said as much. Never mind that there is no supplement that has been demonstrated to result in reliable long term weight loss.

McCaskill saw right through that as well:

I know you feel that you’re a victim, but sometimes conduct invites being a victim. I think that if you would be more careful, maybe you wouldn’t be victimized quite as frequently.

Or, as I put it, if you promote “miracle weight loss” supplements on your show, like Garcinia gambogia, why are you surprised that companies making Garcinia gambogia think you recommend it and want to take advantage of your recommendation for marketing purposes?

At the end of the Kabuki play, McCaskill gave Oz the required chance at redemption, saying:

We didn’t call this hearing to beat up on you but we did call this hearing to talk about a real crisis in consumer protection, and you can be part of the problem or you can be part of the police.

At this point, the Great and Powerful Dr. Oz, chastened and chastized, promised to be a good boy from now on and promised that he wanted to be part of the police. After all, there must be a repentance at the end of these proceedings, and Oz delivered. In addition to telling his audience what supplements meet his exacting standards, use less “flowery” language in the future. We’ll see. If he does that, though, his show’s ratings are going to tank, and I bet he knows that. It’s also why I bet that Dr. Oz will clean up his act for a little while—but just a little while. Meanwhile, right on queue, Mike Adams amps up the crazy, accusing Sen. McCaskill in a gut-bustingly funny post of “unleashing an Orwellian thought crimes attack on Doctor Oz for trying to help Americans overcome obesity.” I leave the deconstruction of his rant as an exercise for my readers. (Why should I have all the fun?)

In the meantime, it looks to me as though a bit of skeptical activism had an effect, although I can’t prove it. I hope it did. This is the sort of thing that can make a difference.

ADDENDUM: Apparently Dr. Oz really was blindsided:

A production source close to the 54-year-old cardiologist — full name Mehmet Oz — said he was perplexed.

“We were invited down to Washington to testify at a hearing about scams and instead it became all about how much we hate your show,” the source told the Daily News.