If you’ve wondered whatever happened to the snake oil–peddling celebrity physician Dr. Oz, and whether he’s still going strong, look no further than this news nugget today: President Donald Trump just announced he’ll appoint Oz to his Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.
Along with other sports and health celebrities — including the New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick — Oz is expected to serve on the council, created in 1956 with the aim of promoting “regular physical activity and good nutrition.”
According to Axios, the administration is concerned that “youth sports participation has declined over the last decade, particularly among young girls and children from economically distressed communities.” And of all the health experts to turn to, the president chose Oz.
Trump did this presumably not only because he has a penchant for celebrity and showmanship, both of which Dr. Oz has in droves. He did this because, despite Oz’s years of misuses and abuses of science, his years of misleading the public on health, Oz remains “America’s doctor.”
As I wrote after Oz gave the candidate Trump a surreal, made-for-TV physical exam in 2016, the men have something in common: They are the personification of bullshitting to the public, of getting away with bullshitting to the public, and of profiting from it.
Oz is still selling magazines. He’s still selling books. He’s nearly a decade into his highly popular TV show. And now he’s been validated once again — by the highest office in the land. That should make us uneasy.
Oz has a long history of drawing from pseudoscience to mislead the public
As I’ve reported, Oz is a longtime purveyor of medical misinformation. Once a gifted researcher and cardiothoracic surgeon, after a few years on TV he went rogue, trumpeting everything from homeopathy to bogus diet supplements and discredited research about GMOs.
He’s also given his platform to vaccine deniers and fearmongering pseudoscience purveyors like the Food Babe Vani Hari (known to scientists as “the Jenny McCarthy of food”).
At his nadir, in 2014, Oz was called before a Senate subcommittee on consumer protection and asked to explain his use of “flowery” language to champion weight loss fixes that don’t actually work. As Sen. Claire McCaskill put it, “The scientific community is almost monolithic against you in terms of the efficacy of the three products you called ‘miracles.’”
The Federal Trade Commission also found that Oz’s producers did the scantest research on the show’s guests, which allowed modern-day snake oil salesmen to appear on air hawking bogus products. In April 2015, a group of professors, scientists, and doctors argued the show was so misleading that Oz’s position as a Columbia medical school professor was incompatible with his on-air work.
But revelations about these misdeeds apparently did not have much of an impact. While there was some evidence that he was turning away from pseudoscience for a brief period following the criticism by colleagues (even debunking bogus health claims), lately he’s gone back to his pseudoscience staples, including promoting crash diets and detox regimens. In April, he even won an Emmy Award for outstanding talk show.
And now he’ll be advising the president on how to improve health in America’s school systems:
I've been supporting children’s health programs with @HealthCorps and appreciate the need to improve lifestyle opportunities for our youth. Serving on @FitnessGov offers a platform to amplify the best practices shown to work across our school systems. https://t.co/dOgapXQinI— Dr. Mehmet Oz (@DrOz) May 4, 2018
How to improve the health of the nation’s children
I have a modest proposal that might actually work to improve the health of the nation’s children and help them avoid falling prey to the Dr. Ozes of the world: We should teach kids how to think critically about the information they receive from a very early age.
As I’ve written before, researchers from Europe and Africa recently worked to develop curricula — a cartoon-filled textbook, lessons plans — on critical thinking skills aimed at schoolchildren. In 2016, they tested the materials in a big trial involving 15,000 schoolchildren from Uganda’s central region. The results of the trial, published in The Lancet, showed a remarkable rate of success: Kids who were taught basic concepts of how to think critically about health claims massively outperformed children in a control group.
This work is the closest thing we have to a recipe book for how to stop health bunk, like the stuff Oz peddles, from spreading. The takeaway from the research is clear: We must stop trying to change people’s beliefs with facts, as all the Dr. Oz debunkers (myself included) have attempted to do. Rather, we need to teach people to spot bunk in the first place. If we did that, people like Oz, who mislead the public on health, would not hold the position they do in society. They would not be advising the president on important matters like children’s health.