Dr. Oz and My ‘Aha Moment’ on Oprah’s Quackery

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photos: Getty Images

If you need any further proof that The Secret is B.S., here it is: Dr. Mehmet Oz running for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania was most definitely not on my vision board.

My issue isn’t so much with the not-so-good doctor himself, though I’m certainly not thrilled about a known peddler of medical misinformation who entered the political arena by giving Donald Trump a bogus on-air health evaluation potentially becoming a senator. In terms of the me of it all, the bigger problem is that I know I’m finally going to be forced to reckon with Oprah Winfrey’s penchant for promoting pseudoscience that harms society.

Oprah fandom was thrust upon me at a young age. Like millions of American women, my mom was a big Oprah fan, so watching her daytime show was part of my after-school routine throughout the ‘90s. In many ways I’m thankful for that; messages promoted on her show had a significant positive impact on me and various other women in my life. I believe that her openness about surviving sexual abuse as a child and her ongoing efforts to shed light on mental health struggles had an immeasurable benefit on our society. Obviously, she broke numerous barriers for women and Black Americans. And I’m very much here for all her iconic TV moments, from her ridiculous “Favorite Things” car giveaway to her reaction to consuming prize-winning unseasoned chicken to her exquisitely-put query, “Who is having that conversation?”

But in a bizarre dichotomy, Oprah has also had an outsized negative influence on American culture, as Kurt Andersen summed up at Slate in 2018:

Perhaps more than any other single American, she is responsible for giving national platforms and legitimacy to all sorts of magical thinking, from pseudoscientific to purely mystical, fantasies about extraterrestrials, paranormal experience, satanic cults, and more. The various fantasies she has promoted on all her media platforms—her daily TV show with its 12 million devoted viewers, her magazine, her website, her cable channel—aren’t as dangerous as Donald Trump’s mainstreaming of false conspiracy theories, but for three decades she has had a major role in encouraging Americans to abandon reason and science in favor of the wishful and imaginary.

Andersen was reacting to speculation following Oprah’s Golden Globes speech that she might follow Trump’s path from TV to the White House. I never took the “Oprah for 2020 Democratic nominee” speculation that seriously, so I didn’t spend much time dwelling on the prospect that President Winfrey would let Surgeon General Suzanne Somers urge menopausal women to take 60 pills a day and inject estrogen into their nether regions.

But the events of the past few years have made it impossible to ignore the damage caused by Oprah, particularly on the medical front, even if you just want to watch the woman expertly extract royal family dirt from Prince Harry. Would we be living in a country where about a quarter of the eligible population is refusing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccination if Oprah hadn’t invited model/actress Jenny McCarthy on her show in 2007 to promote the false claim that vaccines cause autism? (As Vox’s Julia Belluz noted, McCarthy declared, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from” and Oprah remarked, “thank God for Google” — foreshadowing today’s anti-vaxxer rhetoric about “doing your own research.”) And what responsibility does Oprah bear when a man she dubbed “America’s Doctor” and helped get his own show uses it to promote bogus health advice and miracle cures so often that he winds up being grilled in a Senate subcommittee hearing on consumer protection? Or when he shares dubious advice on the COVID-19 pandemic during his regular Fox News appearances?

I don’t know exactly how much blame lies with Oprah, and how much blame lies with us for failing to question and call out the junk science she brought into our lives. But as Oprah recently said in a podcast interview with self help guru Deepak Chopra, “I worry about where we are as a country … I can see this kind of spiraling into the lack of truth on the part of a lot of individuals and you and I both know that can lead ultimately to no good.” And with Dr. Oz potentially headed to the Senate, I can’t ignore her role in creating that spiral.

Dr. Oz and My ‘Aha Moment’ on Oprah’s Quackery