The American magazine Newsweek set the internet abuzz last week ago when it published a detailed six page article discussing ‘Why Health Advice on Oprah could make you sick’, which it also ran as its front page story. The article in question was extremely critical of Oprah focusing on how she uses her remarkable amount of influence to promote various dubious health ‘experts’ who were guilty of promoting ineffective, and occasionally dangerous, pseudoscientific treatments.
A good example of this is her continuing promotion of Jenny McCarthy, the ex-playboy model turned staunch anti-vaccine advocate. Jenny McCarthy claims that her ‘mommy instinct’ trumps the scientific evidence in relation to whether vaccines cause autism (oh and by the way they don’t!) and Oprah not only gives her a platform to promote her views but also allows her arguments to be presented without any real challenges being made to her claims. Eugh…
Anyway, the article was in general excellent and I recommend everyone read it now if they haven’t done so but inevitably it did include one or two hiccups. Namely contrary to the articles claims 1) Oprah’s resident doctor ‘Dr. Oz’ does not always promote evidence based medicine in actual fact he quite frequently promotes dubious alternative treatments and 2) we do have a very good idea why autism rates have risen (wider diagnosis and increased reporting).
That is probably being too nitpicky though as the important facts about this article are 1) it was a critical and skeptical mainstream article about a popular show that reached a wide audience, 2) it illustrated all of its criticism of Oprah and her show with numerous forehead slapping examples and 3) all of the major issues with Oprah’s show that the article raised were entirely valid and explained very clearly.
Oprah’s official response to the criticism was less than overwhelming as she essentially attempted to absolve herself of any responsibility for any of the health advice that is offered on her show by suggesting that gushing over someone’s claims for an hour, in front of an audience of 40 million, does not equate to promoting or endorsing the treatment or the claims being made. If anyone has ever watched one of Oprah’s shows they will know why this defence is silly but for those who have not seen her show the short form is Oprah frequently openly and blatently endorses the position of her guest stating that their books ‘changed her life’ or criticising mainstream medicine for ignoring the incredible breakthroughs her guests are peddling. Why this ‘defence’ doesn’t hold up was also discussed at length in the original article so basically Oprah replied with a statement that did nothing to answer the criticisms but we really shouldn’t have expected any better…
The article and Oprah have already been discussed in great detail across the blogosphere and I would point readers in particular to Phil Plait’s coverage on Bad Astronomy and David Gorski’s detailed article on Science Based Medicine.
What I want to focus on in this post however is not Oprah but her equally infamous supporter Deepak Chopra- the spiritual guru and multi-millionaire- who promotes every kind of new age mumbo-jumbo and alternative medicine that he can think of. In a move, that was about as shocking as a rainy day in Ireland, he wrote a long article defending Oprah from newsweek’s “tiresome blend of gotcha journalism and selective-fact reporting” on the Huffington Post. The Huffington Post is now widely recognised in the skeptical community as a mouthpiece for anti-vacinne and anti-science-in-general advocates. Although aside from that rather major flaw it seems like most other sections are fairly standard news reporting so if you read it and enjoy it then just stay away from the health & medicine section and you’ll be fine.
Thus Chopra’s article was in its natural environment. Yet even by the standards of the Huffington post Chopra did a remarkable job. Cramming so many logical fallacies and so much outright nonsense into a single article that it almost deserves respect. Almost… but not quite.
I don’t have time right now to go through most of Chopra’s article but there was one point in particular which I think illustrates clearly the terrible standard of his arguments and his very poor grasp of science/basic logic. Quite early on in the article Chopra decides that to defend Oprah’s promotion of nonsense its time he laid bare “the dilemmas that official medicine hasn’t remotely solved” and the first item on his list is the following:
* In Seattle a recent study of 638 patients with chronic lower back pain were given either some sort of acupuncture or standard treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs and massage. On average, the acupuncture patients received twice as much benefit as those on standard treatment. The kicker is that some of the patients received fake acupuncture — they were pricked superficially with toothpicks — and received the same relief.
That’s right he is discussing the now infamous acupuncture trial I blogged about a few weeks back which revealed that patients receiving acupuncture treatments reported the exact same benefit as patients who thought they had acupuncture treatments but instead had simply received toothpricks pressed against their skin. Chopra, in a bizarre move, sees this outcome as a new dilemma for medicine that has not been remotely resolved or even properly understood. However, anyone familiar with medicine or even basic logic can see that in actual fact the findings present a huge problem not for ‘official medicine’ but for those who claim acupuncture is an effective treatment!
The result shows that acupuncture works no better than a fake treatment, aka acupuncture treatments are indistinguishable from a placebo, and this is exactly what clinical trials that include a placebo are designed to test! The result suggests that acupuncture works because people think the treatment will help and so they receive relief when they think they have received the treatment. This outcome is only a ‘dilemma’ if you have already concluded that acupuncture works via some mechanism other than the placebo effect and then have to try and explain why toothpicks touching the skin seems to be just as effective!
Chopra seems to be genuinely unaware of the placebo effect and how it functions yet he is certainly no stranger to debate over alternative medicine where discussions over the placebo effect are often central. His comments thus seem to reflect a profound lack of understanding of the basic concept of the placebo effect combined with an arrogant disregard for how science works. Had he asked any medical researcher (or heck even just spent a few minutes googling about the trial) he would have found the answer to this ‘dilemma’ in minutes but he didn’t and instead he decided to write an article and use a terrible result for acupuncture as an illustration of why modern medicine is critically flawed.
This lack of thoroughness and use of rhetoric over research is sadly all too common in alternative medicine circles and it is telling that this is the kind of logic you find in an article defending Oprah Winfrey’s promotion of nonsense.
Deepak Chopra & Oprah Winfrey are both deeply irresponsible individuals who promote alternative and pseudoscientific medicine and claims that are at best useless and at worst actively harmful to their readers. They deserve to be criticised and Newsweek deserve a round of applause for being brave enough to write such a critical article when popular opinion is currently so receptive to new age and alternative medicine.
One bright note to end on is that I am seriously considering becoming a tootpickologist as it seems I can count on Deepak Chopra’s support and I also don’t have to worry about all those messy needles. If your interested in paying me to push toothpicks against your skin please feel free to drop me a message in the comments section and maybe we can set something up. I have clinical evidence that my treatment will be at least as effective as acupuncture!