I coined the term “America’s Quack” to describe Dr. Mehmet Oz as a riff on how Oprah Winfrey had branded him as “America’s Doctor.” (At least I think I did; it’s entirely possible that someone else thought of it first and I just popularized the term.) Whatever the case, it’s been a long time since I’ve written about Dr. Oz. Indeed, when last I wrote about Dr. Oz, it was in the context of how Oprah Winfrey, though her elevation of Dr. Oz and “Dr. Phil” McGraw, had a lot to answer for in terms of the current state of medicine in popular culture during the pandemic. At the time, which was quite early in the pandemic, both Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil were promoting COVID-19 minimization and denial, with Dr. Oz having gotten into trouble in particular for suggesting that we should open the schools again because “only” 3% more people might die, even referring to opening schools as a “very appetizing opportunity.” He did eventually apologize (sort of), but not before memes like this had popped up.
This happened in April 2020. No, seriously. It happened only a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Meanwhile Dr. Phil was going on and on about how the mental health toll of lockdowns would supposedly kill more people than COVID-19 would. Indeed, thinking back on these two that early in the pandemic reminded me how, when it comes to COVID-19 contrarian takes and minimization, certain messages were baked in very, very early, some with the help of Dr. Oz, who famously also enthusiastically embraced Dr. Didier Raoult’s bad science used to promote hydroxychloroquine as a miracle treatment for the coronavirus. It turned out to be the Black Knight of COVID-19 treatments and ineffective.
So I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised to have learned the other day that Dr. Oz plans to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania to become the new Senator Rand Paul, namely the quackiest physician to have been elected to the Senate:
Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and television personality, is running for the US Senate in Pennsylvania as a Republican, according to an op-ed published Tuesday in the conservative Washington Examiner.”During the pandemic, I learned that when you mix politics and medicine, you get politics instead of solutions. That’s why I am running for the U.S. Senate: to help fix the problems and to help us heal,” Oz wrote.The 61-year-old Oz will join a Republican primary field that already includes Philadelphia-area businessman (and 2018 lieutenant governor nominee) Jeff Bartos and Carla Sands, who served as US ambassador to Denmark in the Trump administration. Another potential Republican candidate is David McCormick, a former official in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush.
The race in Pennsylvania to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey has been shaken up in recent weeks, primarily by the departure of GOP candidate Sean Parnell, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump.
“Pennsylvania needs a conservative who will put America first,” Oz said in a 60-second video on his campaign website.
Even more consistent with Dr. Oz’s history, he doesn’t even live in Pennsylvania. For years, he’s lived in New Jersey, while his clinical practice and the studios where he tapes his show are both in New York City. Last year, though, he voted absentee thusly:
Yes, carpetbagging is entirely consistent with the Oz ethos, as he’s been a grifter through and through for a very long time, promoting all manner of quackery on The Dr. Oz Show. Indeed, over all the years that I’ve been writing about Dr. Oz, there’s one thing that’s always puzzled me about him, namely how someone who was such a promising young surgeon-scientist three decades ago could have fallen so far—from a scientific and medical standpoint, that is. He has been, after all, making a ton of money and enjoying incredible fame, thanks to his embrace of quackery. Even more frustrating, even though Dr. Oz has disgraced himself more times than I can remember, he remains faculty in good standing at Columbia University. Indeed, he’s more than faculty in good standing there. He’s actually a full professor in the department of surgery and even vice-chair! Unsurprisingly, he’s also been also the director of Columbia’s Cardiovascular Institute and Integrative Medicine Program since the 1990s. In other words, he does hold high ranking positions in Columbia University’s department of surgery and integrative medicine program.
Given the rigors of taping a daily TV show more than nine months out of the year, I’ve always wondered when Dr. Oz finds time to see patients and operate, especially given that cardiothoracic surgery is not a “low intensity specialty.” Cardiac surgeons deal with very sick patients, and it takes a great deal of dexterity and training to be able, for instance, to sew bypass grafts to coronary arteries, which are not exactly large vessels, and the postoperative care is a 24/7 thing, not for part time surgeons. I’ve speculated that he must have the most understanding partners in the world, because it’s likely they who have to care for Dr. Oz’s postoperative patients while he’s gallivanting about taping his shows, doing interviews, and just in general grifting. (Unsurprisingly, his faculty profile lists him as not accepting new patients, despite the long list of clinical interests included.) As brilliant as I’ve heard him described as a surgeon back in the day, today I don’t think I’d want Dr. Oz to operate on me or any of my family members, no matter how brilliant and talented he might have been a quarter century ago.
However Dr. Oz manages to pull off being a heart surgeon, administrator for his department, director of his university’s integrative medicine program, and host of a popular daytime medical talk show, ever since Oprah Winfrey found him nearly two decades ago and elevated him from a promising young academic surgeon with a penchant for woo to America’s Quack I’ve been pointing out how much dubious medicine and outright quackery he’s been promoting over the years. I’m not talking “soft” quackery either. I’m talking quackery as bad as The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy) and even faith healing, as well as the promotion of the antivaccine views of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and even psychic scammers like John Edward and Theresa Caputo. In addition, he’s promoted unproven (and almost certainly nonexistent) links between cell phones and breast cancer, GMO fear mongering, By 2014, Dr. Oz’s reputation for quackery had gotten so bad that he was increasingly facing less than adoring press and was hauled before Senator Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) committee for his unscrupulous boosterism for unproven weight loss supplements, where he was soundly humbled.
If you want an idea of just how low Dr. Oz had sunk as a doctor, I like to cite a hilarious misstep from several years ago. That’s when Dr. Oz’s social media people tried to do a an “Ask Dr. Oz” segment on Twitter under the hashtag #OzsInbox. Let’s just say that it backfired spectacularly and hilariously. In fact, even though it’s more than seven years later, I can’t help but post a couple of the fun Tweets that Dr. Oz’s hashtag inspired:
Good times, those were. Today, not so much. Here’s what I mean. Let’s take a look at Dr. Oz’s statement announcing his candidacy:
We are angry at our government and at each other.
We have not managed our crises as effectively as past generations. During the pandemic, I learned that when you mix politics and medicine, you get politics instead of solutions. That’s why I am running for the U.S. Senate: to help fix the problems and to help us heal.
Is Dr. Oz going to use homeopathy, crystals, psychics, or acupuncture to heal the nation? Inquiring minds want to know! I also can’t help but add a retort that when you mix—or, dare I say, “integrate”—quackery with medicine, you get quackery instead of medicine, which is what Dr. Oz has been peddling all these years. Of course, Dr. Oz is being disingenuous. It’s impossible to disentangle politics from medicine, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, because, while healthcare should be based in the best science (something Dr. Oz isn’t known for), how healthcare is paid for and administered is inherently political. Americans love to labor under the delusion that certain things, like medicine, should be “free from politics” even as seniors, for instance, denounce “socialized medicine” as they fiercely defend Medicare against anything that they perceive as potentially decreasing their benefits. It’s not just seniors either, although they are an easy target for this criticism (and, I note, I’m not nearly as far from being one of them as I’d like). It’s almost everyone, including those who labor under another delusion, namely that “free market” and “private sector” alone will ever be able to guarantee universal health insurance coverage.
Even school vaccine mandates have always been political. It’s just that they have until the last several years, generally been pretty nonpartisan, with a broad political consensus having existed that they are a good thing. Unfortunately, this political consensus behind them began to fray a decade ago and started to become increasingly politicized around five or six years ago, with antivaxxers succeeding more and more in making common cause with the right by opposing mandates based on “freedom,” “parental rights,” and opposition to government regulation. This tactic had been all too successful before the pandemic, too, and, worse, was turbocharged when COVID-19 hit. That’s when anti-“lockdown” and antimask protesters quickly made common cause with antivaxxers based on their shared antipathy to public health interventions, with all of them soon making common cause with the vilest conspiracy theorists, like QAnon, to the point that the Republican Party is now indisputably the antivaccine party. No wonder Dr. Oz fits in so well as a grifter and at least “antivax-adjacent” doctor!
Let’s go on to see what else Dr. Oz has to say announcing his candidacy:
Growing up as the child of immigrants, I witnessed my family’s sacrifices. My father grew up dirt poor (literally sleeping on a dirt floor) and loved this country as much as anyone already here. He saw the deep darkness of the alternatives. He taught me to study hard, enjoy the dignity of work, and serve others. My formative years were spent preparing for a lifetime of challenging operations.
I invented life-saving devices, trained young surgeons to save lives, and expected my days to be measured by countless people helped. But many patients came too late without appreciating their power to prevent chronic disease. I started changing this reality by leaving the safety of my medical practice to become the health expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show and, ultimately, the host of my own TV program. My training positioned me to make difficult decisions to help people in need and fight to empower my viewers.
You’ll excuse me if I have to stop typing briefly, so that I can make haste to the nearest toilet to vomit.
I get it. Dr. Oz’s father was poor. So what? Dr. Oz’s childhood was not spent in poverty. His father, in fact, owned quite a bit real estate by the time he died in 2019. Also, Dr. Oz graduated from elite universities and completed an elite surgical training program. As for those “difficult decisions,” how hard was it to decide to start doing a segment on Oprah Winfrey’s show when it was offered? Who would turn down such an opportunity, or, having succeeded at the segment, an offer by Oprah to produce his own daytime TV show? Let’s just look at his rationale, expressed in an old interview with Dr. Richard Green, the associate chief of cardiac, thoracic, and vascular surgery, a colleague of Oz’s:
I asked Green whether he’d want to be Oz’s patient, and he said, “If you did a poll of the staff at Columbia and asked them, ‘If you needed a heart operation and Mehmet was there, would you want him?’ they’d say yes.”
He then added, “He’s probably a little rusty right now.” He said Oz seemed to be operating less and less — from several hundred surgeries per year at his peak to a maximum of about 100 now — as he entertains more and more.
When I asked Green whether he thinks Oz has been corrupted by fame, he said, “I don’t think he’s a charlatan.” Green added that in addition to being a top-notch surgeon with impeccable credentials, Oz had long embraced alternative medicine. “In his earlier days, he always believed there was more to getting well than just a pill or an operation. I think there was a period of time he thought music had healing power. I think he’s very sincere in his belief.”
The same article notes that Dr. Oz’s belief in quackery goes way, way back to the early 1990s at least, or, as it was put, “ten years before he ever went on TV.” I also can’t help but note that Dr. Green dodged the question and didn’t say if he himself would have let Dr. Oz operate on him if he needed a heart operation. Dr. Green can’t fool a fellow surgeon in his response to such a question; a surgeon who thinks another surgeon is great will answer that question enthusiastically in the affirmative, rather than dodging it.
As for “empowering his viewers,” again, Dr. Oz has promoted all manner of quackery, likely influenced by his wife Lisa, who is a reiki master, whose father was also a cardiothoracic surgeon who embraced alternative medicine and Eastern mysticism, and whose mother was a true believer in homeopathy.. By 1995 others were calling him out for his quackery for letting reiki masters into his operating room.
He’s also always been all about the branding and grift. For example, since Dr. Oz announced his campaign, Sony Pictures, which syndicates his show, has had to make contingency plans to take his show off the air in Pennsylvania and any TV station whose signal can be received over-the-air in Pennsylvania. They even have a succession plan in place, in case Dr. Oz actually wins the nomination and has to spend 2022 campaigning:
Sony has a long-term plan if Oz wins the Republican nomination and spends 2022 running in the general election. Starting in mid-January, Oz’s daughter Daphne — a chef, author and TV personality — is slated to take over Oz’s time periods with a program called “The Good Dish,” according to two people familiar with the plan.
“The Good Dish” would replace “Dr. Oz” for at least the rest of the 2021-22 TV season, said one person who does business with TV stations that carry “Dr. Oz.” A representative for Sony Pictures Television had no comment on its plans. Daphne Oz is a judge on the Fox reality series “MasterChef Junior” and was a co-host on the ABC daytime series “The Chew.”
Leave it to Dr. Oz to add nepotism to his grifting. Back to Dr. Oz’s reasons for running:
The reality of our challenges has crystallized during the pandemic. Over 750,000 in the United States have died from the virus, a devastating toll for families and communities. Many of those deaths were preventable. COVID-19 became an excuse for the government and elite thinkers who controlled the means of communication to suspend debate. Dissenting opinions from leading scholars were ridiculed and canceled so their ideas could not be disseminated.
“Leading scholars.” I wonder whom he means by that. If he’s referring to people like John Ioannidis, Jay Bhattarchya, Marty Makary, and the like, all COVID-19 contrarian academics who have consistently minimized the threat from the virus (sometimes even declaring the pandemic “over” as long as a year and a half ago) and cast doubt on mitigation measures like masks and lockdowns, I can only laugh. These people have had an incredibly prominent voice, not just on Fox News and right wing outlets, but all over the news, including CNN, MSNBC, and mainstream outlets. In reality, Dr. Oz, being a quack himself, identifies with his fellow contrarians, quacks, astroturfers, and grifters, because he’s used the same schtick when he was being criticized for promoting pseudoscience on his show.
Next up, Dr. Oz predictably appeals to freedumb:
Instead, the government mandated policies that caused unnecessary suffering. The public was patronized and misled instead of empowered. We were told to lock down quietly and let those in charge take care of the rest. When we tested positive for the virus, we were also told to wait at home until our lips turned blue and we got sick enough to warrant hospitalization. To be clear, this is not a typical medical protocol. Elites with yards told those without yards to stay inside, where the virus was more likely to spread. And the arrogant, closed-minded people in charge closed our parks, shuttered our schools, shut down our businesses, and took away our freedom.
America should have been the world leader on how to beat the pandemic. Although we had some moments of brilliance, such as the gift to the world of mRNA vaccines made possible by President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed, many great ideas were squashed. That’s not the America my parents came to. That’s not the one I grew up in. That’s not the one I want to leave behind.
First off, his accusations leave out important context. Dr. Oz’s version of “empowering” the public early in the pandemic consisted of promoting unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin (plus zinc, I suppose) as miracle cures for COVID-19 while pointing to the “appetizing” possibility of a tradeoff between opening schools and suffering “only” 3% more deaths. Dr. Oz clearly wants you to forget his misdirection and grifting since the very beginning of the pandemic.
Note the nod to Donald Trump, who is portrayed as promoting a “moment of brilliance” that led to the development of mRNA vaccines, despite how many times he minimized the pandemic, promoted unscientific ideas about it, and generally promoted a “don’t worry, be happy” approach to the virus that emphasized the economy over public health. I also can’t help but point out that Dr. Oz himself has supported antivaccine hucksters, featuring, for example, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on his show in 2014 to hawk his antivaccine book with “functional medicine” quack Dr. Mark Hyman. (He’s had Joe Mercola and Mike Adams on his show as well.)
In 2010, Dr. Oz gave an interview with Joy Behar that went thusly:
BEHAR: Well first of all, someone want to know there`s a rumor that your kids did not get flu shots or swine flu shots is that right?
OZ: That`s true, they did not.
BEHAR: Do you not believe in them for the kids or what?
OZ: No, I would have vaccinated my kids but you know I – I`m in a happy marriage and my wife who makes most of the important decisions as most couples have in their lives.
OZ: Who absolutely refuses. And listen the kids are pretty healthy. We actually think two of them caught swine flu very early on anyway. So there`s no point vaccinating them again. And you know –
At the time, reading between the lines, I gathered that Dr. Oz’s wife was almost certainly vehemently anti-vaccine and that there might have been a bit of tension in the Oz household over the issue of vaccinating their children. I also said that he needed to grow a backbone and admit his responsibility too; throwing his wife under the bus by blaming her for the decision and washing his hands of it on national TV was cowardly, and, worse, he gave the impression that he’s not involved in the health decisions for his children. Either way, a doctor who is not sufficiently pro-science to risk some unpleasantness with his wife to at least try to get his children vaccinated is not a good physician.
Then there was this part of the interview:
BEHAR: What do you, on that same subject, what do you think about this controversy that`s going around about vaccinations and autism and other little things that happens to kids?
OZ: I think kids like the canary and the coal mine. That they are more susceptible to some of the toxins maybe our generation was able to overcome. That`s why we have a lot more allergies now. Perhaps one of the reason why we have more autism. But I don`t think it`s just the vaccine.
These were standard antivaccine talking points that were embraced not just by antivaxxers but the “antivax-adjacent” or “antivax sympathetic,” as I call them. Dr. Oz tried to portray himself as “not antivaccine” by saying it’s not “just the vaccine,” implying that the vaccines are part of it.
Given all of that plus Dr. Oz’s having been active in Republican politics in New Jersey, it shouldn’t surprise anyone in the least that his lips are firmly clenched on Donald Trump’s posterior. First, it’s now pretty much impossible to get a major GOP nomination if you aren’t sufficiently obsequious to Donald Trump, but also, Dr. Oz’s relationship with Donald Trump has long been what I like to call a “huckster bromance,” exemplified when Trump appeared on The Dr. Oz Show. By April 2020, even New York Times columnist Frank Bruni was writing about the relationship as an “unholy alliance” of pandemic partners, even referring to them as a “match made in ratings-obsessed heaven” as he remembered:
I’ve written about him a few times and kept an eye on him over the years, because back in 2010, when I was a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, I was assigned an in-depth profile of Oz as a one-man wellness industry. He had just begun his TV show, and I spent hours hanging out with him on the set at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan and elsewhere. I even stood just a few feet from him in an operating room at the NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan as he performed open-heart surgery on a 74-year-old woman. I remember that the white pages of the notebook in which I was scribbling ended up splattered with little red dots.
I also remember thinking again and again that the values of serious science and the values of television were perhaps incompatible. As I watched Oz and his producers try to sex up medicine for what they hoped would be many millions of daytime viewers, I watched him travel toward silliness.
Silliness, indeed. I’d say that his journey is complete. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing that Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Representatives Louie Gohmert, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—not to mention Donald Trump himself—have shown, it’s that being ridiculous does not mean you will lose. In fact, in the age of MAGA, it seems to be a superpower, particularly when they are sufficiently nasty and science-denying.