On Sunday night, like a lot of people, I was watching the Golden Globe Awards. To be honest, I was using the broadcast more as background noise than anything else, as I do for most award shows, as I did other things. During the ceremony, Oprah Winfrey accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award, which is given for for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Certainly no one can argue that Oprah hasn’t made major contributions to entertainment based on her long-running and enormously popular talk show, her movie roles, her TV network, and the entertainment empire that she built. She also gave what I though to be a very good acceptance speech that covered equality, sexual harassment and opportunities for girls, especially girls of color. After it was over, I didn’t think much more of it. Apparently, my reaction was not shared by many, who thought the speech so amazing that they thought she should run for President in 2020. Some think that, were she to run, she could dominate the Democratic field. Prediction markets even have her as the third most likely person to be elected President in 2020, after Donald Trump and Mike Pence:
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) January 8, 2018
Other news reports suggest that Winfrey is actively thinking about running. Others doubt that she will based on her own words:
NEW: A source close to @Oprah tells @tvkatesnow as of today, she has no intention of running for President in 2020:
“It’s not happening. She has no intention of running,” the source said.
Source says that’s from Oprah herself.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) January 8, 2018
Not surprisingly, I was underwhelmed. Those of you who’ve been following the blog already know why. Those of you who haven’t probably don’t because I haven’t written about Oprah in quite a while. The reason is quite simple. Once her talk show went off the air in 2011, there was a lot less reason for me to blog about her because her enormously popular and influential platform for spreading pseudoscience and quackery was gone.
Pseudoscience and quackery? Oh, yes. In the early years of this blog, Oprah was a frequent topic of Orac’s Insolence, and for good reason. She was one of the foremost promoters of pseudoscience, quackery, and general New Age BS in the world. If you think I’m exaggerating, just think of it this way. Oprah not only gave the world America’s quack, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and the foremost promoter of pseudoscience in mental health, Dr. Phil McGraw, who also stands accused of providing alcohol and drugs to addicts featured on his show in order to ramp up the drama factor. It would be bad enough if that were all she had done, but it’s not.
I first remember becoming aware of Oprah’s promotion of pseudoscience and mystical New Age nonsense more than ten years ago, when I learned of her promotion of The Secret. The Secret, if you’ll recall, is a spectacular bit of New Age woo that basically claims that, in essence, wishing makes it so. No, that’s not quite right, although it is close. Basically, the idea behind The Secret is the Law of Attraction, which states that you will attract from the universe the things you want. Basically, if you want something badly enough, the universe will manifest it for you. Of course, on one level, there is a grain of truth to this idea. Obviously, people who want things badly work hard to obtain those things and are thus more likely to get them. The Secret, of course, takes that simple concept beyond the reasonable and into the realm of wishing making it so. I find The Secret to be a particularly pernicious bit of wishful thinking because it is at the heart of so much quackery. Indeed, I have argued that the central dogma of alternative medicine is in fact The Secret, or the idea that wishing makes it so.
But that’s not all, either.
Let me tell you a story. It was a story that I began telling eleven years ago, and it’s about a woman named Kim Tinkham. That name might only sound familiar to you if you’ve been reading this blog longer than seven years, because that’s the last time I wrote about Ms. Tinkham. Basically, Ms. Tinkham was diagnosed with breast cancer. Unfortunately, she was also inspired by Oprah and her promotion of The Secret to pursue quackery. It wasn’t just any quackery, though. It was the quackery of Robert O. Young, whom you might remember as the man responsible for the “pH Miracle Living” quackery, where acid was The One True Cause of All Disease, particularly cancer but also sepsis and viral illnesses, and who is now in prison for practicing medicine without a license. Tinkham was fortunate in that she did fairly well for three years after diagnosis. During that time, she wrote a book about her story and promoted cancer quackery. During that time, even though she admitted that her cancer was still there, palpable as a lump in her breast, she convinced herself that Young’s treatment had rendered it harmless.
As you might imagine, although Kim Tinkham did better than expected for longer than expected, ultimately her story did not end well. Her cancer recurred in her liver, and, soon after it became known that Tinkham was dying, she passed away. There was a brief campaign to try to let Oprah Winfrey knowthat Kim Tinkham was dying, but it had no visible effect. In fairness, when Tinkham was on Oprah’s show, Oprah briefly looked appropriately startled and horrified when Tinkham related her plans to treat her cancer “naturally,” but also in the end didn’t do much to try to talk her out of it.
But that’s still not all.
The list of abuses of science and promotion of mysticism go on. Perhaps the most egregious example was Winfrey’s promotion of the faith healer known as John of God. This particular faith healer is a rather obvious fraud. Indeed, John of God uses rather obvious carny tricks, like the “forceps up the nose” and the “cornea scraping” tricks. Not surprisingly, investigators have been unable to find any evidence that John of God can heal anything.
Then, of course, there’s Jenny McCarthy. At the height of McCarthy’s “warrior mother” phase as a newly minted leader of the antivaccine movement, Winfrey had McCarthy on her show twice to lay down her characteristically scientifically ignorant nonsense about her son Evan having become autistic after vaccination and how she was treating him with all manner of “autism biomed” interventions (i.e., quackery) to “heal” him. You might remember this one. It was famous because McCarthy told Winfrey that her “mommy instinct” told him that it was the vaccines that were responsible for her son’s autism. In response, Oprah mildly “challenged” McCarthy’s view, as even friendly hosts sometimes do in order to give their guests a chance to respond to criticism in a safe environment. In this case, Winfrey read a response from the CDC about how science does not support the idea that vaccines cause autism. McCarthy, full of her usual arrogance of ignorance, scoffed, speaking of Evan, “He is my science.” During the show, she also said:
The universe didn’t mean for me to do anything else besides what I did. But if I had another child, I would not vaccinate.
It was so bad that the pro-vaccine group Every Child By Two (ECBT) wrote a letter to the producers of the show and urged its supporters to do the same, asking that credible scientists and physicians be featured on the show to discuss vaccines. At the time, I thought this was a very bad idea because I knew where it would go. Pisanti would have been paired with antivaccine advocates and perhaps an antivaccine pediatrician, and there would have been a useless “debate” stacked in favor of the antivaccine side. Indeed, antivaxers were salivating over the possibility that Oprah Winfrey might actually do this. None of this stopped Winfrey’s Harpo Studios from inking a deal with Jenny McCarthy to do a talk show. Fortunately, not much came of it.
Besides her support of faith healing and antivaccine pseudoscience, examples of Oprah’s lack of concern for science include:
- Oprah’s friend is Christiane Northrup, who promotes breast cancer quackery.
- She also featured Suzanne Somers and her various forms of quackery on her show.
- More nonsense about psychics being featured on her show than I care to remember.
Oh, and did I mention that she foisted Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil on us? It’s worth mentioning again. The list goes on. Through it all, Winfrey justified having quacks on her show by basically disavowing any endorsement of guests’ ideas. For example, here’s what she said regarding the Jenny McCarthy deal:
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.
Overall, Oprah had a malign influence on the science of medicine, driven by the “Oprah effect,” an observation that anything featured on Oprah’s show would suddenly sell quite a lot. Meanwhile, her show went out of its way to minimize skepticism and, whenever a skeptic was on her show, to make it difficult for him to be taken seriously. An excellent example was recounted by James Randi himself. It was the story of Oprah basically using selective editing, timing, selection, and staging of a “debate” over psychic abilities to make the psychics seem more credible and the skeptics look stupid. Indeed, so pervasive was the Oprah effect that I once referred to it as the “Oprah-fication” of medicine and even got an op-ed published in The Toronto Star making that same point.
So you’ll excuse me if I don’t jump on the Oprah Winfrey bandwagon for 2020. Even if there wasn’t all that credulity towards New Age bullshit like The Secret, I’d still say that replacing one celebrity with no government experience with another celebrity with no administrative experience is not the way to get out of the era of Trump. (The same goes for you, too, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson!) That Oprah is not a hateful person compared to Donald Trump is not enough, particularly given that she’s almost as bad on science and critical thinking as he is. There’s a reason I feel the bile rising in my throat whenever I see someone on Twitter or other social media using Winfrey’s Golden Globe acceptance speech as a reason to hope that she runs in 2020.