Until recently, Dr. Mehmet Oz’s grip on the nation was firm. Indeed, America’s television doctor has charisma on his side. The handsome host’s demographic is composed largely of adoring women and young mothers, much like me. I’m a 32-year-old work-at-home mom smack dab in Oz’s target audience. I bristle at the unscientific misinformation he peddles.
In his response to a suggestion from ten physicians that Columbia reconsider the appropriateness of Mehmet Oz occupying a senior administrative and clinical post in the medical school’s department of surgery, Oz lashed out on his Thursday show and in an exclusive op-ed for Time with ad hominem attacks on the authors of the letter. Pulling a card from the Deck of Deflection pseudoscience pushers often use Oz wrote, “The lead author, Henry I. Miller, appears to have a history as a pro-biotech scientist, and was mentioned in early tobacco-industry litigation as a potential ally to industry. He also furthered the battle in California to block GMO labeling—a cause that I have been vocal about supporting.”
I’ve corresponded with Dr. Miller for a few months about our enthusiasm for continued advancements in biotechnology and our shared disdain for the organic food industry. We’ve co-authored a few pieces based on these shared interests, including a recent article criticizing Dr. Oz’s take on Arctic apples. Miller is far from the industry puppet that Oz and the media paint him as. He’s a self-described “nerdy gray-beard” who works in a small office at a university think-tank and doesn’t even have a secretary. He is a distinguished physician and columnist, and I’ve been devouring his articles on genetic engineering. Further, Dr. Miller is a kind man who has taken me under his wing despite our many differences in background, opinion, and political affiliation. Though he is conservative and I’m liberal, we joke, chat, and collaborate through our differences. I have learned much from Dr. Miller, so I was appalled albeit not surprised to see Dr. Oz’s vicious attacks against him.
I would certainly balk at Dr. Miller’s motives if he truly were a tobacco industry ally, but I know better. Dr. Henry Miller, the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has already responded to these accusations. “As a physician, I detest cigarettes and the carnage wrought by smoking,” he wrote in 2012. “In fact, I have written about the urgent need for government policies to reduce the risk from cigarettes.” Those who have claimed that Miller is a tobacco industry ally haven’t produced evidence. But I digress; after all this is beside the point.
While I agree wholeheartedly with Henry Miller and his co-signatories, I couldn’t have less in common with them. I’m not a scientist or a doctor, I’m just a youngish woman, and a science popularizer and writer. The letter’s content is paramount, and the signatories’ affiliations have little bearing on the fact that Oz’s advice is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. As such, Oz’s prestigious position at Columbia medical school undermines the institution’s credibility as well as the “do no harm” tenet of medical ethics.
On Thursday, Oz played a clip from his recent episode on Arctic apples in which he states, “I base this whole show on the fact that you can make smart choices for your health and for your family but you can only make those choices when you’re fully informed, so I stand by my opinion that all GMOs should be labeled so that consumers can decide for themselves.” He went on to say, “Sit back and think about that clip. I hope you can see from that show, contrary to what my attackers say, I take very seriously the idea of presenting all sides of any scientific argument that affects your health.”
Oz painted an us-against-them picture on Thursday, contending that only “Washington” and “companies” oppose GMO labeling. I disagree. I oppose GE food labeling though I’m not part of Big Government or Big Agrochemical, and not because I’m against consumer rights. Oz is a physician, but perhaps he doesn’t understand plant genetics. As I’ve said, genetic modification is a process. It refers to breeding method, not content. We have a “right to know” whether a food is a GMO the same way an employer has a right to know how a job applicant was conceived. Scientifically speaking, it doesn’t make sense.
Contrary to his claim that he doesn’t judge genetic engineering, Oz has proven his anti-GMO, anti-biotech stance time and again. He’s also demonstrated why anti-GMO zealotry is relevant to medical quackery. In a September episode titled “The New GMO Pesticide Doctors are Warning Against”, Oz featured anti-GMO activist Zen Honeycutt, known for claiming that eliminating genetically engineered food can cure autism. As millions of viewers watched, Honeycutt shared her bias without a hint of skepticism from Oz. Like many genetic engineering opponents, Honeycutt attempted to demonize glyphosate, an herbicide used in GMO and non-GMO farming, because some genetically engineered crops are used in conjunction with it. Honeycutt claimed that her son had been experiencing symptoms of autism, and she wanted his urine tested for chemicals used in farming. The doctor declined to test, so she used a private lab that supposedly detected glyphosate levels “eight times higher than found anywhere in Europe [in] urine testing.” Unfeasibly, she stated that within six weeks of going “completely [genetic engineering]–free and organic, his autism symptoms were gone, and the level of glyphosate was no longer detectable.” She didn’t clarify what European data was compared.
Providing an enormous platform for such erroneous claims is irresponsible and harmful. As a physician, Oz must know that the autism spectrum of disorders cannot be cured. Evidence is building that while autism has both environmental and genetic causes, a complex interaction of genetic loci plays a predominant role. This autumn episode not only perpetuated misinformation about both agriculture and autism in one fell swoop, but indirectly blamed parents for their autistic children’s disorder.
Oz lamented on Thursday, “I know I’ve irritated some of our potential allies in our quest to make America healthy. No matter our disagreements, freedom of speech is the most fundamental right we have as Americans and these ten doctors are trying to silence that right.”
Let’s keep this conversation on track and focus on the content of the physicians’ original letter. This passage says it all: “Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgements about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.”
Instead, since Columbia obviously has its hands tied, I agree with a statement from a group of its own physicians: “Dr. Oz might begin each program with a simple disclaimer: “The opinions expressed on this program may not be evidence-based or part of accepted medical practice and have no endorsement from Columbia University.”
As well-informed Americans, we don’t have to be one of the ten physicians to agree with the letter’s message. Nobody is trying to silence Oz’s rights. He’s free to claim whatever he chooses to claim on his show, but to do it under the pretense of giving sound medical recommendations is preposterous. Oz could simultaneously serve as a doctor and an entertainer if he gave evidence-based advice on his show. Instead, the television doctor known as “snake oil salesman” has proven that he can’t have his cake and eat it too.
Featured image © 2015 Celestia N. Ward, used with artist’s permission