Alternative Medicine: The Magic of Oz

Dr. Oz (left) speaks with Dr. Novella.

Dorothy: You’re a very bad man!

Wizard: Oh, but I’m a very good man! I’m just a very bad wizard.

—The Wizard of Oz (1939)

That snatch of dialogue comes to mind whenever I think about Dr. Mehmet Oz, whom I previously pilloried for his credulous and harmful coddling of self-proclaimed psychic John Edward. Dr. Oz may be a well-intentioned man at heart, but as a reliable source of trustworthy medical information, he’s no wizard.

But recently, Dr. Oz did offer some exceptionally sound information on the subject of alternative medicine—by having Dr. Steven P. Novella on his show. Steve, whom I consider a friend, is a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, founder of Science-Based Medicine, president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog. In short, Steve is an anti-woo wizard, and one who has been highly critical of Dr. Oz in the past. Even so, to his surprise, he was invited to participate in a segment entitled, “Why Is Your Doctor Afraid of Alternative Medicine?”

That title is all too typical of the framing that Oz used throughout the show to flatter viewers into thinking that embracing unproven remedies made them brave, independent thinkers. Consider these words with which Oz started the show:

Today I’m taking on a controversial issue in medicine that has everything to do with helping you take control of your health. There are a lot of doctors, including me, who are putting their reputations on the line because we’re using alternative therapies in our traditional practices. But many doctors claim that these therapies are nothing more than junk science and may even be dangerous. Your doctor could be one of them. Why are they so afraid of alternative medicine? Should you be too?

Of course, when Steve pointed out that “alternative medicine” was a label so broad and vague that it conferred legitimacy on treatments like acupuncture that had been empirically tested and found wanting, Oz punted. He accused Steve and other science-based physicians of being “dismissive”—a great way of evading the point that the alt-medicine he’s promoting doesn’t seem to work when evaluated objectively. Personally, I would want my doctor to be dismissive of treatments that have been shown not to work. Why wouldn’t Oz? I think the Wizard from the movie might have been addressing this TV doctor when he said:

You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking.

Oz couldn’t actually even dedicate the entire hour of his program to a critical discussion of alternative medicine, even one that would be as hopelessly slanted as this one was. The segment in which Steve appeared—during which Oz “moderated” a discussion pitting his views against those of Dr. Mimi Guarneri, a cardiologist who embraces alt-med—was only 15 minutes out of the show, the rest of which was given over to Oz talking up various sorts of dubious nonsense. (I particularly liked the hard hitting part in which Oz emphasized that he doesn’t endorse any specific brands of naturopathic remedies; he does the responsible thing and implicitly endorses whole categories of them while telling his viewers to use their own intuition and sense about whether they’re working.)

Go read Steve’s own even-handed account and analysis of what happened during his appearance (including links to video of the program), along with the thoughts of Science-Based Medicine’s David Gorski about it. They jointly cover almost everything there is to say about Oz’s shameful spectacle.

I’ll additionally note just one example of the one-sided discussions of alt-remedies in the show. During the second segment, Oz brought on Catherine Ulbricht, chief editor of Natural Standard, a site that Oz repeatedly hailed as a source of information on alt-medical remedies that he and his staff frequently used. Among other things, Ulbricht said that echinacea was an as effective as a treatment for upper respiratory problems. No, it is not. No warning about such, umm, ambiguities in the evidence from Dr. Oz, however.

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9 Responses to Alternative Medicine: The Magic of Oz

  1. Pingback: Science-Based Medicine » Dr. Oz on alternative medicine: Bread and circuses

  2. Pingback: Science-Based Medicine » A Skeptic In Oz

  3. Pingback: Blog Posts List: Dr. Novella vs Dr. Oz | SkeptiCare-Bear

  4. medveduga says:

    Dr. Novella is cool doc!

    мне на кризис наплевать, вылез в топе гоу бухать

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  5. Rob says:

    “Among other things, Ulbricht said that echinacea was an effective (sic) as a treatment for upper respiratory problems. No, it is not. ”

    Yes, at least according to this 2007 meta-analysis, it is:
    http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(07)70160-3/fulltext

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    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks for catching my typo.

      Yes, that 2007 meta-analysis did conclude that echinacea was effective for preventing and treating colds. The 2010 study to which Steve Novella and I pointed specifically cited that meta-analysis and others to show that meta-analyses have reached several different conclusions on the subject. The 2010 study was therefore designed to try to answer the question more conclusively, and it did not support echinacea’s effectiveness.

      People can sometimes reasonably disagree over which published papers prove points more convincingly, but in this case, I think I’ll support the later study. Moreover, note that the meta-analysis you cited concluded that echinacea was good both for treating and preventing colds. But Catherine Ulbricht, who made the recommendation on Oz’s show, specifically said that echinacea was not good for prevention, which leads me to think that either she doesn’t know about that study or that she doesn’t find it convincing, either.

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  6. Rob says:

    Personally, I don’t think a meta-analysis (at least the ones that have been published so far) is all that meaningful for echinacea – I was just pointing out one that had come to the opposite conclusion as the single trial you linked. Meta analyses so far have looked at different species of echinacea (E.purpurea, angustifolia, and pallida), different plant parts (leaf and root), and different dosages and they can’t all be treated as the same. The different species have very different chemical constituents for starters. There is a very good analysis of this whole issue by the American Botanical Council here:
    http://cms.herbalgram.org/press/2010/ABCClarifiesEchinaceaTrialinAIM.html

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    • John Rennie says:

      Fair point. So much less reason, then, for anybody to utter a blanket endorsement of echinacea’s curative powers for colds on a TV show.

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  7. Rob says:

    I suppose – but I wouldn’t expect a TV talk show to offer anything other than a general sound byte on any topic – I would take just about anything offerred as “knowledge” on TV with a grain of salt. Saying echinacea is good for colds is pretty minor in the grand scheme of TV messages – at least it has some basis in reality – even if studies are inconclusive/mixed at this point. My work and background is very involved with research in herbal medicine so this is why I’m focusing on this point so much. When it comes to Dr. Oz, I feel like he has enormous power in his recommendations becoming gospel overnight. He says the word “Noni juice” and the next day it’s flying off the shelves of health food stores across North America. I wouldn’t look to him as a good source of evidence based herbal information necessarily, but, like I said, that’s more to do with the medium in general (if I can evoke Marshall McLuhan a little there…).

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