4 Times Oprah Made The World Worse With Junk Science
Oprah Winfrey is back on television thanks to The Ted Lasso Streaming Service, otherwise known as Apple TV. For those too young or indifferent to have seen the Oprah Winfrey Show before it ended its 25-year run in 2011, it was kind of a big deal. The highest rated daytime talk show in history launched a media empire, was credited with helping Obama win the 2008 primaries and making mainstream America comfortable with LGBT people on television, and Oprah herself offered an inspirational rags-to-riches story of a high-profile Black woman who made a hell of a lot of money and wasn’t shy about giving it away to good causes.
And that’s all great! But Oprah was also a conduit for junk science, and America just stumbled through the nasty consequences of indulging scientific illiteracy. So let’s remember that …
Oprah Inflicted Dr. Phil Upon The World
The Dr. Phils of the world feel like they get produced in a greasy factory, but he needed the same breaks as many entertainers. After years of practicing as a psychologist, Phil McGraw cofounded a trial consulting firm where he helped with the mental side of trials, like preparing witnesses. In 1995, Oprah faced a food libel lawsuit from a Texas beef company after she told America that a mad cow disease scare had turned her off beef, and McGraw’s firm was brought on to help. Oprah won the lawsuit, and was so impressed by McGraw’s contribution that she invited him onto her show.
You'll recognize the unknown law dude walking behind her in the clip.
Dr. Phil was such a hit that his folksy advice on love and life became a weekly feature. In 2002 he got his own show, with Oprah as executive producer. Dr. Phil made McGraw a multimillionaire, and only Oprah herself pulled better ratings. So it’s too bad the show was riddled with bullshit.
Recounting Dr. Phil’s scandals would take its own article, but let’s recap a few lowlights. He crashed Britney Spears’ hospital room to cash in on her breakdown, he aired a special that exploited Shelly Duval’s mental health issues (ads used a clip of Duval insisting that the deceased Robin Williams was “shapeshifting”), he used the “Dr.” part of his name in a conflict-of-interest riddled promotion for a diabetes drug the FDA only recommended as a last resort, he called a nine-year-old a “serial killer in the making,” a guest with substance abuse issues was given a bottle of vodka and a Xanax in his dressing room, his weight loss products and rehab centers have faced litanies of lawsuits, and his whole pop psychology shtick has generally been derided as simplistic, ineffective, and predatory. Yes, that was the short version.
In Phil’s defense, a study suggested that his show can give viewers the confidence they need to seek out professional therapy, an approach he often recommends. He’s a man people listen to … and so of course he just had to go full COVID-denier. His show kept filming as other productions shut down amid surging L.A .case numbers, and in April 2020 he went on Fox News to compare coronavirus deaths to automobile fatalities and pool accidents, citing inaccurate statistics before veering off to opine that lockdowns would destroy lives “for years.” Fox contrasted Phil, who is no longer licensed to practice psychology and has never been a medical doctor or economist, with Dr. Fauci, like they were just two colleagues having a disagreement.
Oprah herself took COVID seriously, but she’s had nothing to say about the monster she created. She just cashes the checks and moves on, while Dr. Phil gets sleazier and sleazier. In 2021 he demonstrated a complete lack of self-reflection by letting a drunken shoeless woman stumble around his set in a supposed attempt to discuss her alcoholism. That’s the kind of person who got to sound off about COVID on cable news, because he’s famous and has “Doctor” in his name. And that’s the culture Oprah helped create, one where the fame of the person giving an opinion is more relevant than the opinion itself.
And Then Oprah Gave Us Dr. Oz For Good Measure
What, you think Oprah only inflicted one crackpot celebrity on the world? Dr. Mehmet Oz also started his career as an actual professional. He was an excellent heart surgeon, winning prestigious postings and developing several new tools and procedures. Then he was welcomed onto Oprah as a health expert before launching The Dr. Oz Show in 2009. There, as one of the Oprah Empire’s satrapies, he rapidly abandoned the stuff he was qualified to talk about and moved into random gibberish. So buckle up for another paragraph-o-scandal.
Dr. Oz gave his seal of approval to a “psychic surgeon” turned material sex offender, John of God. He’s promoted homeopathy and warned that genetically modified food is toxic, both of which have as much scientific backing as asking your dog to scare your disease away by barking at it. In 2011, he randomly decided that arsenic in apple juice was poisoning kids. In 2014, he was hauled in front of a Senate committee on consumer protection to answer for his shilling of endless miracle “belly blasters” and “mega metabolism boosters.” And in 2015, the FTC dinged his show for doing so little research into its guests that any huckster with a bottle of diced rat fetuses and a dream could throw on a lab coat and tell millions of people that, as a Doctor of Doctorology, they know that only their overpriced supplements will melt the pounds away.
In a study of 40 episodes of The Dr. Oz Show, fewer than half of his recommendations had any scientific backing. Many were actively doing harm: Oz pals around with anti-vaxxers like the Food Babe, who says flu shots are priming you for cancer and Alzheimer’s and who used her blog to suggest that microwaving water makes it form the same ominous microscopic crystals that occur when you whisper “Hitler” and “Satan” to it. That is not a joke.
And yes, of course Oz sounded off on COVID, going on Fox News to promote the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine as a cure in defiance of all the FDA’s advice, and then suggesting to Sean Hannity that reopening schools would be worth the “2-3% of total mortality” because it would help America get its “mojo back.” Just don’t whisper naughty words to the mojo.
Dr. Oz was and remains an immensely talented cardiac surgeon, and in his earliest years on Oprah he was praised as an effective science communicator. But that doesn’t make him an expert on weight loss, virology, reopening strategies, or anything else that isn’t cardiac surgery. And yet, like Oprah, Dr. Oz now has a sprawling wellness dominion, one so riddled with snake oil that he’s distilled several entire snakes.
If Dr. Phil represents a decline into empty spectacle, Oz represents a crisis of easy answers, of wanting to believe that a few pills from one charming man can solve anything. Oz shot to fame for a reason; he put a friendly face on a cold and often brutally expensive industry. We don’t have this problem with other realms of science; we don’t ask our chemists to build our bridges because the engineers are a bunch of jerks. But health is personal and needs a personal touch, and Oprah gave the world a man whose touch is borderline poisonous.
Suzanne Somers Told Oprah You Can Biohack Your Way Out Of Menopause
Suzanne Somers spent a few years on Three’s Company before pivoting to health guru. For a while, she just sold Thighmasters and appeared on forgettable TV shows, but by the turn of the millennium, Somers had, with apologies to She’s the Sheriff superfans, become better known for books like Eat Great, Lose Weight and 365 Ways to Change Your Life.
And when she moved from fad diets to endorsing dubious hormone therapy and questioning cancer doctors, an appearance on Oprah was inevitable. In 2009, Somers told Oprah about the secrets of her book Stay Young & Sexy with Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement, which include a 60 vitamin a day regime and daily estrogen injections right in the hoo-hah. Supposedly, massive hormone doses will restore a woman’s estrogen levels to what they were in their younger days, thus tricking a menopausal body into thinking it’s still around 30.
Somers treated menopause as a cruel trick of evolution where the “brain perceives you are no longer reproductive tries to get rid of you, it usually activates the cancers” but said this assault—plus detoxifying “nanotechnology patches” and vitamin C IVs—will keep her disease-free for 110 glorious years. In this clip, she asks salesmen to explain the technology. They don't.
Oprah said “Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo, but she just might be a pioneer.” She wasn’t, but Oprah let Somers sound off on her magical brain-hacking anyway, and while doctors in the audience were occasionally invited to dispute Somers’ claims, Oprah made it clear who you were supposed to root for. “Suzanne … refuses to keep quiet, she'll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her,” might as well have been the slogan for COVID deniers. Oprah did as much as anyone in America to suggest that it’s heroic to debate medicine, that people with their fancy “training” and “experience” probably have ulterior motives.
While most doctors haven’t guested on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, they’ll still point out that trying to turn back the clock with aggressive hormone therapy does little beyond increase your risk of strokes, heart attacks, blood clots, and cancer. Somers disputes this science, saying that they just don’t teach in medical school what they do on the set of Step-by-Step. She also accused her critics of being in the pocket of Big Pharma, no doubt as part of their evil plan to … tell consumers they don’t actually need to buy piles of drugs in this scenario.
Somers only made the one Oprah appearance, barely registering in the grand scheme of all the stupid science the show promoted. But that’s the point; this crap was routine. And Somers benefited from the Oprah bump that saw promoted products and books enjoy huge sales boosts. Which wasn’t super great considering that another one of her books, Knockout, declared that chemotherapy is usually useless or counterproductive. She’s also opposed water fluoridation, and said the Sandy Hook shooter was driven by the toxins in his diet. So, maybe not someone to take advice on what to stab into your genitals.
Whenever Oprah got called out on promoting BS she defended herself as merely presenting information without making a value judgement, as though Suzanne Somers had a Constitutional right to appear on the show. But that mealy-mouthed neutrally has real-world consequences; in 2018 Somers’ hormone therapy doctor was disciplined by California’s medical board for failing to spot cancer in one patient and convincing another to try a profitable but useless therapy.
Jenny McCarthy Fueled Anti-Vax Crap
The question of how about 14.5% of Americans have become vaccine hesitant is a complicated one, but it sure didn’t help that Oprah routinely embraced anti-vaxxers. In 2007 she let Jenny McCarthy opine that vaccines had given her son autism, at one point recalling a supposed instinctual maternal discomfort that made her ask the doctor “I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?” Presumably he said no and the rest of the checkup was super awkward.
McCarthy’s views were never challenged, and she got to plug a book that doubled-down. Oprah did read a CDC statement on why vaccines are actually good, but allowed McCarthy the final word to call those government jackboots on their bullshit. And a year prior, actress Katie Wright came on the show to say “The vaccine connection has not been refuted at all,” even though it has, a lot. Just so many times, you guys. If it was refuted any harder it would need a cigarette afterwards.
Guests disparaged other vaccines too. Oprah regular Christiane Northrup told a worried viewer that the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, made her “very concerned” and that HPV could instead be prevented with a good diet. Northup also told Oprah’s audience that thyroid problems in women develop thanks to an “energy blockage” caused by a lifetime of “swallowing words one is aching to say” before recommending iodine, which actually makes hyperthyroidism worse.
McCarthy used her many appearances on Oprah to become a talk show regular, spewing her nonsense everywhere from The Larry King Show to Ellen before hosting The View for a season, giving her a steady platform for anti-vax ramblings. Oprah herself appears to have no issues with vaccines, but she’s done as much as anyone to peddle the myth that the science is somehow still up for debate, that COVID and smallpox can be batted away with the power of good vibes.
Oprah called McCarthy a “mother warrior” and invoked the challenges of motherhood with Wright too, saying “She wanted to say it, and I wanted you to get it out there.” The implication was that it’s brave to stand up and declare “I may not have your fancy book learnin’, but anyone who disagrees with me probably wants my child dead.” No one wants to hear that something might happen to their child no matter how many precautions they take, but the irony is that in thinking you’re taking control by rejecting vaccinations, you’re really just giving it away. You might as well dare the universe to come take its best shot at your loved ones.
Letting anti-vaxxers equate their personal experiences with reams of data has consequences; aside from what America is going through with COVID, measles has quietly been making a comeback as more parents opt-out of having their children vaccinated. Words like “crisis” are starting to get thrown around, and anti-vaxxers have a worrying tendency to slip into other conspiracy theories like “It’s probably the secret Jewish cabals that are forcing vaccines on us.”
Medical science isn’t perfect. Doctors can make mistakes, rare adverse reactions can happen. There’s no conspiracy there; that, unfortunately, is just life. But on Oprah, individual stories of people heroically standing up against some supposed nefarious system made for good ratings, and now we’re all paying for it.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.