Is Dr. Oz a fraud or a fool? I can’t know for sure, and I don’t care.
I do know this: He sure doesn’t seem like much of a scientist to me.
And I am also pretty damned sure that he is a hazard to America’s health. And probably the greatest hazard on network television today. And that’s saying something.
When was the last time that a revolutionary, historic, scientific breakthrough was first demonstrated and announced on an afternoon television talk show?
The correct answer: NEVER.
One of the signature signs of “pathological science” is when scientists operate outside of their areas of special expertise. Another is when they skirt peer review and go directly to the media or the public. One textbook example is the pseudoscientific claims of cold fusion made in 1989 by the chemists Pons and Fleischman, and quickly discarded by the legitimate scientific community, following repeated failures to replicate their claims and results.
These attributes apply to this past Thursday’s episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” – all the more so, in fact, since Dr. Mehmet Oz is not a scientist. He’s a heart surgeon.
Oz seems to be an accomplished surgeon, which means he’s good with scalpels and sutures. But beyond that, I wouldn’t let him near me or any loved one I know. Dr. Mehmet Oz is a truly dangerous man.
On Thursday’s show (May 9, 2013), Dr. Oz presented Theresa Caputo, the so-called Long Island Medium, in a repeat appearance on his program. He also brought on the best-selling author and psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen, who operates the Amen Clinics. Dr. Amen has made a name for himself in books and frequent television appearances, particularly for his promotion of SPECT brain imaging as a supposed tool in psychiatric diagnosis for conditions ranging from ADHD to depression. The scientific evidence for such claims appears to border between questionable and nonexistent. (For a skeptical look at some of Dr. Amen’s claims, see this article by Dr. Harriet Hall: and more here.
Dr. Oz, insisting that the events presented on Thursday's show were “historic” and “ground-breaking,” then had Dr. Amen hook up Ms. Caputo to a SPECT scanner, and then give a reading to a studio audience member.
According to the Mayo Clinic website:
A single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) scan lets your doctor analyze the function of some of your internal organs. A SPECT scan is a type of nuclear imaging test, which means it uses a radioactive substance and a special camera to create 3-D pictures.
While imaging tests such as X-rays can show what the structures inside your body look like, a SPECT scan produces images that show how your organs work. For instance, a SPECT scan can show how blood flows to your heart or what areas of your brain are more active or less active.
Notice that last part – it tells you what parts of your brain are “active.” There is no evidence it can tell you if that brain is psychic. Before it could do that, you would need to determine, it seems to me, that such a thing as “psychic” exists. Parapsychology has been working on that for about 150 years. Results to date: zip, zilch, zero.
Ms. Caputo, the self-styled psychic, was asked to “remain very still,” but to hold up one finger to indicate when she was receiving the voice “of spirit,” while Dr. Amen observed the brain scan activity.
I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take a PhD to notice that this demonstration – regardless of whether a SPECT scan can tell us anything remotely relevant about what is going on in a psychic’s brain – is not only not double-blinded, it’s not even single-blinded. The subject indicates when she claims something is happening, and the observer looks to find a match. This isn’t science. It’s non-science and nonsense.
Not to mention that nagging little question about what a SPECT scan can actually tell you about the brain.
Not to mention that if you want to test a psychic, one should probably start with testing what a psychic claims to be able to do.
Not to mention that the JREF has a million dollars for any psychic who can demonstrate their abilities under test conditions.
As for that, Ms. Caputo – although she seems to have impressed the hell out of Dr. Oz, albeit based on his record this doesn’t seem to take much – didn’t seem to be able to do much of anything. She began her first reading (a demonstration prior to the “experiment”) by looking for something from a “father or a daughter.” She managed to find someone in the audience who had lost their father, but as soon as she asked who the daughter was – who was the “female spirit” – the subject drew a dead blank.
Ms. Caputo had to extend out to the studio audience, fishing for a “hit.” Finally she found one. Sort of.
But she had a bucket of bullshit to cover her tracks, immediately talking about “what I call piggybacking,” when two or more souls, “even though you don’t know one another,” both try to connect at the same time. And then of course, for extra measure, she added this caution about anything she had to say: “My interpretation could have a different meaning for you.”
Pardon me while I puke.
If Ms. Caputo is genuinely psychic, then she sure doesn’t appear to be very good at it. I appear to read minds in my performances; Ms. Caputo seems to take a lot of guesses, and not very successfully.
Dr. Oz appears to be a fool, as well as a genius self-promoter and alternative medicine pitchman. Dr. Amen appears to be a successful practitioner of what looks to me and others to amount to pseudo-neuroscience.
But Dr. Oz follows in a long line of the duped. In the heyday of 19th-century spiritualism, prominent scientists (which Dr. Oz is definitely not) like Sir William Crookes were taken in by spirit mediums, attempting to confirm their spiritual beliefs by scientific method. Dr. Oz declared that the circus demonstrations on his show offered ground-breaking proof of psychic phenomena, and of the afterlife.
What he presented is neither. Is he a fool, or just a clever marketeer? I’ll say it again: I can’t know for sure, and I don’t care. I care about the results, and the impact.
At the start of the show, Dr. Oz thanked Ms. Caputo “for your bravery.” Really? He then immediately added that coming on the show to do this demonstration was her own idea. Bravery? To submit herself to free publicity in front of millions?
How brave, indeed. One could almost hear the cash register bell ringing. KA-CHING!
Studies show – I’m talking now about actual scientific studies, not television nonsense – that when an article or presentation is accompanied by images of brain scans and the like, regardless of the subject matter, people find such materials more convincing than when such technological graphics are absent. Dr. Mehmet Oz is misinforming the American public about how science works and what science is – and he’s using powerful tools to make sure his misinformation sticks.
And Dr. Amen declared it all “fascinating!”, and added, “You know, there’s a lot more that’s real than scientists believe that’s real.”
When it comes to medical care and claims – I don’t think so. I think Dr. Amen is practicing pseudo-science and making extraordinary medical claims with insufficient evidence. His work is laden with assertions and slender on studies. I think Dr. Oz is dangerous self-promoter. I think the chances of Theresa Caputo being psychic are at about zero.
I think Dr. Oz is fundamentally undermining how people think about medical science and medical care, and how to make judgments about what is medically and scientifically true and untrue. If the skeptic movement is about helping to teach people how to think, Dr. Mehmet Oz is the anti-thinker. He is reversing his responsibility as medical practitioner and weakening the public’s ability to make informed judgments.
He is a hazard to American heath.
Recently, “The New Yorker” ran a lengthy piece about Dr. Oz that you can read here. In it, Dr. David Rose, a professor of surgery at Mt. Sinai medical school, noted heart surgeon, and a professional colleague of Oz’s, was asked by the journalist “… if he would send a patient to Oz for an operation… ‘No,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t.’”
If you ask me, my answer wouldn’t just be no – it would be, Hell, no!
Want to improve America’s idea of medical science, and maybe even save a life? Turn the Dr. Oz show off – and get a friend to do the same.
Jamy Ian Swiss is Senior Fellow at the JREF. He blogs regularly at randi.org.