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.