Last week, ten doctors petitioned Columbia University's medical school with a public criticism of Dr. Mehmet Oz. The letter urged Columbia not to legitimize his TV show by allowing him to continue in his post as vice-chair of surgery. This week, Dr. Oz responded by questioning the doctors' motivations and affiliation with industry interests. Brooke speaks with Michael Specter, staff writer at the New Yorker, about his 2013 profile of Dr. Oz and what may come from this latest dust-up over Oz's misleading program.
BOB: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. This month, Dr. Mehmet Oz hosts his thousandth show. This week, he defended its existence.
OZ: You may have seen the headlines attacking me this past week after a brazen letter from ten mysterious doctors called for my removal from Columbia University medical school, where I have proudly been on the faculty for almost twenty years.
That letter urged Columbia to de-legitimize Oz by removing him from his post as vice-chair of surgery there, a post that faculty members say he fills with distinction. But on his show, the letter asserts “Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops.” The good doctor responds.
OZ: Now it’s ironic that I’m being accused of a conflict of interest by these doctors, when, as you’re about to see, some of them have their own conflict of interest issues - and some integrity ones also.
Some of the doctors, as the show described them, are industry shills against GMO labelling (which Oz supports) and have ties to a group with financial backing from agribusiness and big tobacco.
It’s not the first time that Oz has faced criticism for the way he leverages his platform and credentials. But this is the start of May sweeps for tv ratings, and the criticism of his show may only make him more popular. In an interview with NBC, he said:
OZ: It’s called the Dr. Oz show, we very purposefully on the logo have Oz as the middle and the doctor is actually up in the little bar for a reason….But it’s not a medical show.
Michael Specter , a New Yorker staff writer who profiled Dr. Oz, says its like saying the Yankees aren’t a baseball team.
SPECTER: He talks to people in a way that they can understand. he doesn't talk down to them, he doesn't use doctor speak.
BROOKE: He said that the doctors who petitioned Columbia have GMO industry interests.
SPECTER: Some of those doctors were ethically challenged, and there are many reasons to debate GMOs and to ask whether or not they should be labeled. But what they wrote in that letter was that this is a man who sells false nostrums as truth, and he should know better and he does know better.
GMO is a very small part of that. A much bigger part is having on people who say that you can cure cancer with baking soda, who believe in all sorts of things that we know not only don't work, but are dangerous. Oz is a very sophisticated politicians, so he focused on the messenger rather than the message. And in this case the messenger wasn't all that savory. But the message is true.
BROOKE: Let's have a taste of his GMO discussion.
OZ: Are GMO's a hazard to your health? Some health professionals say yes. That they are linked to increases in chronic illnesses, food allergies, digestive and reproductive disorders. Even autism. The FDA on the other hand, maintains they're safe.
BROOKE: I know that you have written yourself that fundamentally GMOS are safe
SPECTER: And I've talked to Oz about this, and he will not come out and say, 'i would never eat a GMO' in fact I think he said the opposite to me. He wants labelling. Labelling is a different issue, and it's a complicated one, and we can talk about it. But there is no data that exists on this planet to link autism and all the other things that Oz listed with GMOs. These lies are certainly not something that a well educated and sophisticated doctor ought to say for ratings.
BROOKE: You wrote that you don't think that Oz is motivated by money. And you don't think he's a fraud. And you don't think he's a liar, but you think he lies.
SPECTER: I think he gets caught up in the message and he does believe that he's helping people by spreading the word. He does these health fairs where he gives thousands of poor people all these sort of basic blood tests, he analyzes it for them for free, and it's great. Then he'll go on tv and say "take this pill because it's magical!"
BROOKE: You're talking about his calling "green coffee beans" a weight loss miracle cure
SPECTER: A couple companies subsequently 10s of millions of dollars worth of this stuff, because he recommended it. And the federal trade commission sued them. They ended up paying back millions of dollars to customers because there was no data to show that it worked, and oz knew that when he put it on. And he called it a miracle, and he calls lots of things miracles.
BROOKE: Oz has since said that he wishes he could take back words like miracle and magical. Evidently, after Claire McCaskill talks to him at a senate subcommittee and said this last summer
MCCASKILL: and when you call a product a miracle and it's something you can buy, and it's something that gives people false hope, I just don't understand why you needed to go there. You've got so much you do at your show that makes it different and controversial enough that you get lots of viewers.
BROOKE: he hasn't discussed weight loss supplements in over a year. Is that a lesson in how to get Dr. Oz to rein in his rhetoric?
SPECTER: He talked about being publicly shamed and he wouldn't be publicly shamed. In fact he has been and it's been effective. And I just want to point out that while he doesn't talk about weight loss products like that, he talks about any number of other treatments: prevention of colon cancer, all sorts of heart disease fixes -- in the same ridiculous way. he'll tell you that people are too embedded in the view of western medicine as solving all problems. And he's right about that. But the answer to that problem is not just to say "Hey let's try anything, whether there's any data or not to show that it works. And even if there's data to show that it's harmful. Let's just try it, because doctors don't use it, it might be better."
BROOKE: So, is the solution to just drag him before congress on every issue where he wanders too far off the reservation?
SPECTER: well, i think the solution is to write about eh things he does that are egregious. And I think it has made a slow bit of difference because, you know, you don't see him talking about miracle fat burning pills now anymore because he was shamed out of it, And I think we just have to keep that up, however we should be more judicious. I don't think calling for Columbia to fire him is realistic.
BROOKE: Also, it would be a lot better if you had people signing the letter that weren't taking money from the industries involved.
SPECTER: i think maybe it's true that these particular doctors were not helpful, however several of his colleagues from Columbia wrote a different letter that was published in USA Today.
BROOKE: And they wrote, quote, many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Oz-isms regarding metabolism game changers. Nevertheless, they wrote, the weakness in the professional balance sheet of Dr. Oz's pixel practice should not in and of themselves disqualify him from his day job as a professor in the department of surgery at Columbia University.
SPECTER: It didn't call for his resignation, but it made many of the same points. And I've talked to scores of these people: they are very disturbed that their perhaps most famous colleague believes that science is something you can use when you want to use it and ignore when you want to. So, does he have the right to say those things? Yes. But if he was just a charlatan it'd be easy to dismiss. The problem is that sometimes he says things that are really helpful, and sometimes he says things that are completely inane. And its' very difficult for a lot of people to tell the difference.
BROOKE: How important do you think that Columbia affiliation is for him?
SPECTER: He;'s the vice chair of surgery at one of the most important medical schools in the United States. So, when he tells you to swallow a pill, who are you sitting out in your barcalounger to say, "i'm not gonna do that because some other guy says not to. I'm gonna listen to the famous doctor." He told me his two great sources of authority and power are Oprah and Columbia. Possibly in that order.
BROOKE: Michael thank you very much.
SPECTER: Oh it was my pleasure.
BROOKE: Michael Specter is a staff writer at The New Yorker, He’s also the author of “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.” Dr. Oz declined our request for an interview, as did Dr. Henry Miller of the Hoover Institute at Stanford - the first doctor to sign the critical letter to Columbia.