Oz, the Great and Gullible

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Dr. Oz (Credit: David Shankbone, via Wikipedia)

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the heart surgeon, popular talk show host and Oprah protégé sometimes hailed as “America’s Doctor,” has been lambasted in the past for touting some remedies sorely deficient in scientific validity. He advocates unabashedly for reiki, one of the Eastern energy healing practices (that is, faith healing) least reconcilable with medical science. Orac at Respectful Insolence and Dr. Steve Novella at Science-Based Medicine have discussed Dr. Oz’s repeated promotion of holistic quackery and his coddling of anti-vaccination arguments. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff at Weighty Matters points out that earlier this year, Dr. Oz contradicted his own previous advice and shilled for the HCG diet, a dubious and potentially dangerous weight-loss regimen. (Travis Saunders at Obesity Panacea discussed what’s wrong with the HCG diet in one of his first posts here at PLoS Blogs.) Journalist Trine Tsouderos also looked into Dr. Oz’s more dubious proclamations for The Chicago Tribune in 2010. Open-mindedness is an admirable trait, but gullibility is not, and the old saw about not keeping your mind so open that garbage blows into it still applies. Physician, heal thyself.

John Edward (Credit: Nachturne, via Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, on the episode scheduled to air today (Tues., March 15), Dr. Oz’s credulousness flies to new heights, and reason can only wave sadly to him from a distance. Because on today’s show, Dr. Oz brings on “psychic medium” John Edward to discuss how communicating with the dead can be therapeutic for those in mourning. And it’s clear that Dr. Oz is utterly beguiled—not just by Edward but by his own misplaced self-confidence that he is smarter than stodgy old science.

From the interview that Dr. Oz gave to TV Guide:

TV Guide Magazine: What specifically about Edward did you find so believable?
Oz: That’s the exact word — he’s specific. When he started [his readings] with our audience, I expected him to say things like, “I feel a white light behind you. A masculine light. Is there anyone in your family that might represent?” Well, of course! We all have someone male who died. But that’s not what John did. He wasn’t vague. He wasn’t fuzzy. In one case he said, “Someone very near you had a loved one who died on Valentine’s Day. I get the feeling they were run over by a car or a truck.” At first John was saying this to one particular woman in the audience, and she kept insisting she didn’t know anyone who died that way. It was really awkward. [Laughs] We must have sat there three or four minutes — which in TV time is an eternity — while John badgered this poor woman. He was so certain he was in the right part of the audience. But this woman just would not cop to it! Then all of a sudden, just to this woman’s right, was this other young woman who whispered, “It’s me.” She was completely ashen and almost couldn’t speak. It turns out, her best friend’s brother was run over by a truck and killed on Valentine’s Day. John had all the details absolutely right. And he didn’t do this just once. He did it on our show, like, five times!

But as anyone who has read about debunkings of mediums knows, there is nothing astonishing about any of what Dr. Oz describes. Bunko artists in flowing robes, billing themselves as spirit mediums, have performed such tricks at least as far back as Victorian times and probably far longer.

Of course, in that same interview, Dr. Oz asserts that Edward “seems authentic, not at all like a charlatan.” And he congratulates himself over and over for his own perspicacity, experience and wisdom in these matters:

I’ve learned in my career that there are times when science just hasn’t caught up with things, and I think this may be one of them…. 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.

But in his 2001 Skeptical Inquirer article “John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved,” veteran debunker Joe Nickell gives good reasons not to take the spookiness of Edward’s shtick at face value, including instances of Edward claiming that information gleaned from earlier conversations had been revealed by the spirits. Nothing that Edward does confounds such explanations.

What “psychics” like Edward count on is that most people are willing to fool themselves if given the chance. And contrary to their own expectations, scientists can often be easier to fool than other people, as James Randi has written:

They think logically, from a cause-and-effect paradigm.  A trickster supplies all the misdirection, the elements expected by logical inference, the necessary aspects that identify a situation as normal – then he uses a different approach, a set of actions, a scenario that leads the dupe to accept that the expected situation is being fulfilled – but it’s not.  The scientist’s conclusion is that nature – which he/she knows does not change the rules to deceive – has been abrogated in some way. In other words, it’s magic…. [Scientists] assume that someone not thinking logically, cannot deceive them because he’s not their intellectual equal.  They think they’re smarter than the con man, not recognizing that such deception is the strength of the con man, his only profession.

Some might still try to rise to Oz’s defense (if not Edward’s) by saying, “But even if no one can really speak with the dead, maybe the useful fiction of helping the bereaved think they have had a chance for a last goodbye could still be therapeutically useful.” Perhaps. I can similarly believe that allowing people to believe they can speak with invisible elves or that their dogs know how to read or that a lucky rabbit’s foot will bring them luck could be beneficial—up to a point. That does not mean Dr. Oz should be encouraging them to do so and knocking legitimate science in the process.

Moreover, I think that Harry Houdini—who was a noted scourge of spirit mediums in his day—offered a useful rejoinder in explaining why he stopped performing such tricks:

…I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.

—from Houdini’s book A Magician Among the Spirits (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924), as quoted by Joe Nickell

“First, do no harm” is one of the oldest tenets of medical ethics. By having someone like Edward on his program, Dr. Oz is failing to live up to it.

Update: Only after I posted did it occur to me to see how “The Dr. Oz Show” itself is promoting Edward’s appearance on its web site. The reality lives down to expectations.

Are Psychics the New Therapists? Losing a loved one can be devastating. Can talking to those who have passed away heal your grief? Hear why psychic John Edward believes you can talk to the dead.

Harness Your Psychic Power. John Edward reveals his tips for developing your intuition. Find out how to unlock your psychic potential.

Dr. Oz says frequently on his show that he wants his viewers (and beyond them, their physicians) to think more about their medical care and health. But where is the evidence of any critical consideration given to this claptrap? How does presenting this stuff as medically (or even realistically) reasonable help?

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