On June 17th, 2014, something glorious happened. Something so wonderful, so astoundingly unlikely, so rare, that when I heard the news I was tempted to stand up and sing a hallelujah chorus. What was so wondrous and inspiring? A congressional committee held a meeting on an important scientific issue and actual was effective at conveying the science!!!!!! I know!!! This never happens! What was the occasion for this amazing event? Why it was a session of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on weight loss scams. And what has me so excited was they called in Dr. Mehmet Oz, probably the greatest purveyor of unscientific weight loss treatments of our day, and chewed him out!
For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Oz is a heart surgeon who has expanded far beyond fixing up cardiovascular systems. Through his nationally syndicated 45 straight minutes of woo he calls The Dr. Oz Show, he promotes all sorts of crank cures, weight loss scams, and a general malaise of fakery. Since the show premiered in 2009, he has racked up a true laundry list of sham medical treatments (just check out this article on just some of his stupidity over at Science Based Medicine, an excellent blog I highly recommend). Nearly every treatment he has ever pushed has been proven ineffective or even harmful, and yet like an unsinkable rubber duckie he keeps trundling along no matter how many times skeptics shoot him down. How does he do it?
In a word, Oprah. You see, it was Oprah Winfrey who first gave him his start by inviting him on her show in 2004 and declaring him “America’s Doctor”. Just to be clear because this is the second week in a row I’m ranting about Oprah: I don’t think she’s horrible. She has done great things for literacy efforts. She seems like a lovely person who genuinely cares. But I also believe that she promotes some very dangerous lies, and I feel people need to know. For the remainder of her show’s run, he was a regular, always popping up to talk about the next big thing that will make you finally lose that weight. In fact, The Dr. Oz Show is produced by Harpo Productions, Oprah’s personal production company. This is how Dr. Oz does it: he uses Oprah’s false credibility to shield him from whatever the medical community might say.
Given this magic Oprah shield, combined with the chronic incompetence of Congress—especially on issues of science—I had very low hopes for what would happen on the 17th. I expected softball questions with no real followup. I expected no one would mention his numerous kerfuffles where he supported a cure that ended up doing nothing. I, in effect, expected that it would be The Dr. Oz Show- Live from Washington!
Luckily, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri had different plans. You see, Sen. McCaskill is a very rare bird in Congress: she has no scientific background, but since her appointment to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, she has taken it upon herself to actually learn something about science. She does her homework, and it paid off; when Dr. Oz came to town, Sen. McCaskill paid very much attention to the man behind the curtain (I’m allowed one Wizard of Oz joke, right? The guy’s name is Dr. Oz!). When Dr. Oz tried to cover his trail of snake oil, Sen. McCaskill was ready and called him out on it. Just check out this back and forth:
Dr. Oz: I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about on the show. I passionately study them. I recognize they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact but nevertheless I would give my audience the advice I give my family all the time, and I have given my family these products. Specifically the ones you mentioned, then I’m comfortable with that part.
My job is to be a cheerleader for the audience, and when they don’t think they have hope, when they don’t think they can make it happen, I want to look and I do look everywhere, including alternative healing traditions, for any evidence that might be supportive to them.
Sen. McCaskill: The scientific community is almost monolithically against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called ‘miracles’. When you call a product a miracle, and it’s something you can buy, and it’s something that gives people false hope, I don’t understand why you need to go there.
BOOM!!! That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a Senate hearing SHOULD be like! Senators have done their research on the matter at hand, know what the scientific consensus is, and refuse to take any sort of backpedalling bullshit from the testifiers. People of the United States, this is your government in action. Let’s have a big round of applause for Claire McCaskill.
There’s still plenty of work left to do. Dr. Oz will not stop promoting shams until there is an FDA lawsuit forcing him to. That could take months or years. But last week was a milestone in science policy—a senator pulling out the stops to defend science. Until Dr. Oz can never step in front of a camera again, let’s keep rooting for Sen. McCaskill and others like her while wondering infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.