Oprah Retires and Science Breaths a Sigh of Relief
Posted by Ethan Clow on June 3, 2011
On may 25th the world was forever changed when Oprah Winfrey finally retired after doing her show for 25 years.
While many people will remember Oprah for her humanitarian work and her book club and her positive attitude, others will remember her as the “queen of woo” as notable skeptics have characterized her.
Over the past 25 years Oprah has amassed a media empire, unlike anything seen before. In 2001, CNN and Time Magazine called her “arguably the world’s most powerful woman.” Forbes has listed her as the most powerful celebrity of the year in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. These are all familiar honours for Oprah, she has consistently proven herself to be one of the most influential people in the history of media. It’s no wonder that skeptics tremble every time Oprah praises the benefits of alternative medicine or promotes some quack.
Her ability to influence millions of people has resulted in cases where she’s actually been sued by companies because they’re worried that Oprah’s opinion can affect their business.
Such was the case when she was sued by meat industry companies when she made comments about eating meat after the mad cow scare.
Relevant to skeptics though, is over the course of her career Oprah has promoted all manner of pseudoscience, including dozens of dubious health treatments and bogus scientific theories.
The most obvious example is the anti-vaccination movement. Oprah has brought on the spokesperson for this campaign, Jenny McCarthy many times to promote her disproven allegations that vaccines cause autism and are dangerous. Oprah’s unique position as a household name and marketing force gave the anti-vaccination movement more momentum then they ever should have had. Oprah eventually sighed up Jenny McCarthy for her own show on Oprah’s network, a further sign that she was oblivious to the science behind vaccines.
Oprah’s constant promotion of dubious alternative medical treatments earned a strong condemnation from Newsweek, even fellow skeptics were surprised to see a mainstream news outlet harshly criticize Oprah.
But surely, just promoting anti-vaccination isn’t on the same level as actually saying it herself, right? According to the Jenny McCarthy body count website, a site that keeps a tally of all the deaths from vaccine preventable illnesses that have occurred in the US since McCarthy began her crusade against vaccines, that number is currently at 727, the number of preventable illnesses is at 79,365. One would imagine those numbers to be down quite a bit if Oprah hadn’t given McCarthy a spotlight to promote her anti-science.
Oprah’s demographic was mostly women, many of whom are mothers. The added problem was that Oprah marketed a lot of pseudoscience towards these mothers. Jenny McCarthy is especially guilty of this, she often promoted her “mommy instinct” over “scientific evidence” and really created this notion that a mother somehow knows more about medical issues than a doctor would. It also didn’t help that this played right into the stereotype that women are more spiritual and intuitive and magical than men.
When we chatted with Rebecca Watson (check out the interview) she described “woman’s intuition” as sort of the equivalent of male logic. Men have evidence and math and complex science and woman have emotions and feelings and spiritualism etc.
Oprah’s view of the world is that spiritualism is good. Which, by itself, isn’t a harmful assertion per say. However, Oprah doesn’t seem to have any kind of filter of what kind of spiritualism she promotes. In the past, she has given platforms to self-proclaimed psychics like John Edwards, Allison DuBois, and Dean Radin. The giving of such platforms encouraged Rebecca Watson to send this letter to Oprah.
In addition to psychics, she frequently would have on her show people like Deepak Chopra or John of God, who is a con man faith healer who uses sleight of hand tricks to make people think he’s doing some kind of magical healing. These are tricks that were debunked by James Randi on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson a few decades ago.
Now Chopra and John of God both promote dubious treatments that could defraud you of money and endanger your life. So why does Oprah promote them? Does she even care? Does she believe them? We can’t know her true motives, What’s clear though is that Oprah is willing to promote bogus treatments because she has decided that spiritualism is a good thing (even when the stuff she’s promoting doesn’t work or is an elaborate con)
Oprah has also created quite the legacy for herself. She helped launch the careers of two other talk show hosts including Dr. Phil McGraw and Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Dr. Phil, as his show is called, practices a kind of pop psychology of down to earth psychobabble with a charming Texas accent. I had a psychology professor in college who hated Dr. Phil, the big issue she had with him was that its not made clear just what Dr. Phil is a doctor of. Psychology sure, but not all psychology degrees mean you’re qualified to give out advice.
“I find Dr. Phil to be not unlike Jerry Springer in that he brings usually lower economic class people suffering from difficulties onto his show and then takes the role of the father figure dishing out stern but simplistic “answers” to their problems.” – source
McGraw has also promoted things like weight loss medicines (which he’s not qualified to advise on since he’s not a physician)
Perhaps worse of all, Oprah catapulted Dr. Oz into his own show where he’s gone to promote virtually every dubious alternative health product that exits. Skeptics might have seen a recent episode where Dr Steven Novella appeared on the show to discuss alternative medicine, Dr Novella of course is a big defender of science based medicine.
Oz has proven himself to be something of crank over the years, the worst blow might have been when he had on his show the self proclaimed psychic John Edwards.
While Oprah has retired, skeptics still must deal with her long lasting legacy, her protégés will continue to dish out bunk that will need to be countered as its likely that mainstream media will continue to give Oprah and her anti-science a free pass from scrutiny. In addition, the so called “cult of Oprah”, the mass of readers and listeners and followers who flock to buy the latest book Oprah recommends or try the latest recipe Oprah loves, will most likely continue to sing her praises for years to come.
Her legacy of spiritualism will likely be just as difficult to counter. It’s very unfortunate that Oprah chose to embrace and promote stereotypes of women as overly emotional, mystically intuitive, and ignorant of science because, heck, who needs science when