A few nights ago, Oprah Winfrey, billionaire media personality, gave a speech during a Hollywood award show, where fellow millionaires and billionaires get dressed up in ten thousand dollar gowns and tuxes to pat each other on the back. Within nanoseconds of her admittedly powerful speech, desperate liberals and Democrats were suddenly chanting “Oprah for President.”
Of course, Ms. Winfrey has sent some mixed messages as to whether she will run for president, but as I’ve long ago observed in politics, denials have all the value of “a bucket of warm piss.” But if she did decide to run, I get the feeling, from reading posts across social media, she’d move to head of the class of Democratic candidates for President of the United States. She’d surpass more highly qualified progressive Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, who both would get my unconditional support for president (as if anyone would care).
So, why am I commenting on potential presidential candidates two years before the election? I’m sure some of you readers are mumbling, “stick to science you dumb feathered dinosaur. That’s why I’m here.”
But kind madam, it is about science. And based on science, a push for “Oprah for President” will not get my support.
Science and politics
I am not a one-issue voter, and I generally don’t utilize litmus tests for progressives. For example, I’m pragmatic – I know that for a Democrat to win in North Dakota, she has to be a lot more conservative than I am. A moderate or conservative Democrat in North Dakota is infinitely better than your standard unpatriotic right-wing Republican.
However, I brook no argument when it comes to science. For me, it’s a line in the sand. You do not get to pick and choose the science that you want to accept. You do not get use your preconceived conclusions to state what is real or fake science.
The important science issues of our day, in no particular order, are:
- Climate change
- Alternative medicine
The scientific consensus constitutes a huge body of scientific studies that all agree with and support one another. Scientists come to this consensus as a result of consistent published evidence. It is not a result of personal opinions or an a priori conclusion.
The scientific consensus tells us that vaccines are relatively safe and very effective in preventing deadly diseases. And they are not linked to autism.
The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.
Evolution is an observable scientific fact, no different than observing gravity or light. The theory of evolution, which describes the mechanism of evolution, is supported by bodies of published evidence that is so overwhelming that it is close to impossible to imagine any scientific experiment that could refute it.
The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe … The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.
Alternative medicine is unsupported by robust scientific evidence – it is called “alternative,” because any alternative medicine that is supported by substantial scientific evidence is just called “medicine.” Acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractic, homeopathy, and many other alternative “medicine” practices do not work. Yes, everyone has their cherished anecdotes (not scientific data), cherry-picked research, special pleadings, appeal to nature, and appeal to popularity to support their beliefs about alternative medicine, but it’s still pseudoscience.
Yeah, I know there are other ignorant beliefs about science out there. There are lots of people who think the moon landings were faked, that nuclear power is bad, that the earth is flat, or that Sasquatch actually exists. But the top five I listed above are probably the most important, but I’m pretty certain I would not vote for a candidate who thought Sasquatch was running around on a flat earth, outside of the studios that broadcast the fake moon landings.
Many people like to assign to science some magical system of “belief.” But that’s not how it works. Scientific ideas are based on evidence derived from the scientific method, not on opinion.
You may think that GMOs are dangerous, but that’s an ill-informed opinion, unsupported by the vast scientific body of work that says that GMOs are safe to humans, animals, and the environment. Maybe you’ve invented some belief set about GMOs based on your opinions about something you heard or from some cherry-picked article in an obscure journal. Unless you have robust evidence, superior to what real science used to form a broad consensus, to dismiss the safety of GMOs, then you have nothing. Absolutely nothing.
If you are a politician running for office, especially to be President of the United States, you also don’t get to pick and choose your science, especially to pander to those on the right and left who are science deniers. If you take some position that can be described as anti-science like Trump did with regards to vaccines, then you cannot be trusted to be the Chief Science Officer of the nation. Ironically, Trump chose responsible and high-quality scientists for positions like CDC director and surgeon general. He didn’t do the same for most of the other important science positions within the executive branch, including the EPA, where he placed a climate change denier in charge.
This supports my point – if a politician denies one science, can you trust them on any other science? Generally, no.
Oprah for President – a science denier
I generally don’t write about billionaire media personalities, other than Donald Trump, of course, because I normally don’t think they have much to offer to benefit mankind, at least from a scientific sense. They don’t spend a nanosecond researching a treatment for any of the 200 or so cancers. They don’t spend time researching vaccines in a scientific lab. They don’t help people get healthcare coverage. They lack any credentials in any field other than making movies or TV shows. They are wealthy oligarchs who know little about your lives and your needs. And even less about science.
And when it comes to science, they have two choices – keep quiet, since they know approximately nothing that matters in science, or find out what the scientific consensus is, and support it with all their strength. We hear about celebrities, like Jenny McCarthy, who invented bogus science about vaccines. And people listen (not sure why, but that’s the world we live in).
And that leads me to this Oprah for President push by some Democrats. Her science credentials are not unknown and on my scale of scientific acceptability, she fails the science litmus by almost the same margin as Donald Trump.
Let’s review some of the key issues that I consider “lines in the sand” when it comes to science.
Ms. Winfrey has been a strong supporter of said Jenny McCarthy, who is simply a member of the anti-vaccine religion. She pushes pseudoscience and junk medicine when it comes to vaccines and autism – a link that simply does not exist except in the minds of who wouldn’t know science if they spotted them 6 letters to spell it.
Here’s a key interview between Winfrey and McCarthy, that was excerpted from Seth Mnookin’s book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. In it, Jenny describes to Winfrey her education on vaccines, autism, and treatments:
McCarthy: First thing I did—Google. I put in autism. And I started my research.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: I’m telling you.
Winfrey: Thank God for Google.
McCarthy: The University of Google is where I got my degree from… And I put in autism and something came up that changed my life, that led me on this road to recovery, which said autism—it was in the corner of the screen—is reversible and treatable. And I said, What?! That has to be an ad for a hocus pocus thing, because if autism is reversible and treatable, well, then it would be on Oprah.
No, Ms. Winfrey, we do not thank anyone for using Google to make decisions on something as important as protecting children from deadly, dangerous diseases like polio, measles, and diphtheria. I worked in science, and it took me eight years of college and grad school, and then 30 years in medical research and development to get to the point where I can grasp difficult scientific subjects. One does not learn about epidemiology and immunology with 20 minutes on Google. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it, and I know for a fact that most people who troll the internet with their lame University of Google degrees wouldn’t know the difference between an immune system and an HVAC system.
And there’s more. Actually, Winfrey hosted McCarthy twice on her show to push science fiction about vaccines and autism. The insolent Orac summarizes their “scientifically ignorant nonsense”:
…about her son Evan having become autistic after vaccination and how she was treating him with all manner of “autism biomed” interventions (i.e., quackery) to “heal” him. You might remember this one. It was famous because McCarthy told Winfrey that her “mommy instinct”told him that it was the vaccines that were responsible for her son’s autism.
In response, Oprah mildly “challenged” McCarthy’s view, as even friendly hosts sometimes do in order to give their guests a chance to respond to criticism in a safe environment. In this case, Winfrey read a response from the CDC about how science does not support the idea that vaccines cause autism. McCarthy, full of her usual arrogance of ignorance, scoffed, speaking of Evan, “He is my science.”
Winfrey did not reject that comment from McCarthy. Winfrey did not say that the CDC is made up of some of the top public health scientists on the planet, who would know more about vaccine science in their left pinkies than McCarthy has in her whole brain.
Several people on the pro-vaccine side of the equation wanted to refute McCarthy on Winfrey’s show, but that never happened. Eventually, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios signed McCarthy to do a new talk show (although the show never happened).
Does this make Oprah Winfrey a vaccine denier herself? Going by transitive evidence, which shows Winfrey’s strong support of Jenny McCarthy whose fame at the time was based around her anti-vaccine rhetoric, we can only conclude that Winfrey had a tacit approval of this anti-vaccine religion.
If she strongly supported the use of vaccines, why didn’t Oprah Winfrey call McCarthy out on this? Why would she agree with McCarthy that Google the is equivalent to advanced degrees that actually have relevance to vaccine research? Why didn’t she defend the CDC?
Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil
Oprah Winfrey foisted onto the world one Dr. Mehmet Oz, one of the most reprehensible pushers of scientific nonsense and medical woo that has ever passed before my eyes. And I will never forgive Dr. Oz’s pathetic and pandering review of Donald Trump’s medical exam which gave us nothing about Trump’s health. It was just a lovefest between two science deniers and salesmen.
In case the reader of this blog think I’ve lost my mind about Dr. Oz, let me refer once again to the cheeky Orac, who calls him “America’s Quack” (sorry world):
Dr. Oz has aired shows in which he has promoted quacks like Joseph Mercola (and now Mike Adams), enthusiastically recommended The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy) to his viewers, promoted faith healing quackery, and even suggested that faith healers like John Edwardand the “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo can be therapeutic counsellors after losses. More recently, Oz has tried to fan the flames of a discredited link between cell phones and cancer.
If there’s a quackery out there, Dr. Oz has probably embraced it on his show, the only exception being (mostly) antivaccine quackery, and even then he’s definitely a bit squishy on the issue, thanks to his reiki master wife. Dr. Oz would have you believe that these are “extrapolations” but the only thing they are “extrapolations” from is reality—in exactly the wrong direction.
Dr. Oz appeared as a regular guest on the Oprah Winfrey show for about five years. Then he got his own syndicated show in 2009, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. He also has several other shows on her cable network, OWN.
That would be bad enough, if Ms. Winfrey also didn’t push another purveyor of medical woo – in this case, it would be Dr. Phil. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this person, Phil McGraw is a Beverly Hills “psychologist,” who had an “advice” show, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios, since 2002.
The problem with Dr. Phil is rather simple – he is one of the most outspoken proponents of pseudoscience and woo in mental health. The Skeptical Inquirer wrote:
Is he a good doctor?
Well first of all he’s not a medical doctor nor a licensed therapist. He does have a PhD, and while some would argue that it’s misleading to call oneself “Doctor” without practicing medicine, technically, anyone with a doctorate can claim the honorific.
But Dr. Phil’s show is a show about real people, not abstract academic concepts. When he sits down with someone suffering from a seriously incapacitating illness such as obsessive compulsive disorder or bipolar disorder, do they realize that this “doctor” merely completed a PhD program and wrote a dissertation on rheumatoid arthritis in 1979?
In other words, like Jenny McCarthy and vaccines, he has no experience or knowledge of treating individuals with serious mental health issues. Worse yet, the Skeptical Inquirer points out several individual cases where he used unorthodox pseudoscientific “treatments” for guests on his show.
Orac also points out that “Dr. Phil McGraw…also stands accused of providing alcohol and drugs to addicts featured on his show in order to ramp up the drama factor.”
Mental health advocates and professionals, who actually understand how to treat those with mental health issues, would be appalled by his woo. If they actually watched his woo. Because real therapists and psychiatrists have decades of education and clinical training in treating those with serious mental health issues – and they generally stick with the best that science has established for treatments.
Dr. Phil McGraw ought to stick to rheumatoid arthritis, I suppose
Maybe you can invent some wall between Jenny McCarthy’s views and Oprah Winfrey, but it becomes short of impossible to do so with regards to Drs. Oz and Phil. They promote medical woo – it’s not just something we can ignore, it is dangerous and can be deadly to people who watch these shows.
If we are to get behind Oprah for President, how do we excuse these two shows, that give us pseudoscience, and, if you listed out everything these two doctors have said, would hit about hundreds or thousands of different claims that are utterly dismissed by real science?
But more importantly, how many people were harmed by Winfrey’s tacit or explicit support of pseudoscience in medicine? How many people think that Dr. Phil actually knows anything about mental health treatment? Or Dr. Oz’s quack medicine?
Oprah loves The Secret
If you don’t know about The Secret, consider yourself lucky. It is a New Age book of mystical beliefs, based on the pseudoscientific “law of attraction” which claims that if we all got together with our minds, we could change anything, including the world around us. It is “a time-worn trick of mixing banal truisms with magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge…”
This magical thinking is what rules over the beliefs in all things alternative medicine. Because we know homeopathy is scientifically implausible, and we know it doesn’t work, the only way to believe it would work is if it is imbued with magic.
And Ms. Winfrey has been an outspoken promoter of this New Age garbage. In a Salon article entitled, “Oprah’s Ugly Secret“, an examination of Ms. Winfrey’s embracing of that book, the authors wrote:
The main idea of “The Secret” is that people need only visualize what they want in order to get it — and the book certainly has created instant wealth, at least for Rhonda Byrne and her partners-in-con. And the marketing idea behind it — the enlisting of that dream team, in what is essentially a massive, cross-promotional pyramid scheme — is brilliant. But what really makes “The Secret” more than a variation on an old theme is the involvement of Oprah Winfrey, who lends the whole enterprise more prestige, and, because of that prestige, more venality, than any previous self-help scam. Oprah hasn’t just endorsed “The Secret”; she’s championed it, put herself at the apex of its pyramid, and helped create a symbiotic economy of New Age quacks that almost puts OPEC to shame.
So, it’s more than believing in quackery, it is also a scam.
Again, you might think it is unimportant because people believe in strange things. You might be right, but let’s go back to my good buddy Orac at Respectful Insolence:
Let me tell you a story. It was a story that I began telling eleven years ago, and it’s about a woman named Kim Tinkham…basically, Ms. Tinkham was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Unfortunately, she was also inspired by Oprah and her promotion of The Secret to pursue quackery. It wasn’t just any quackery, though. It was the quackery of Robert O. Young, whom you might remember as the man responsible for the “pH Miracle Living” quackery, where acid was The One True Cause of All Disease, particularly cancer but also sepsis and viral illnesses, and who is now in prison for practicing medicine without a license.
Tinkham was fortunate in that she did fairly well for three years after diagnosis. During that time, she wrote a book about her story and promoted cancer quackery. During that time, even though she admitted that her cancer was still there, palpable as a lump in her breast, she convinced herself that Young’s treatment had rendered it harmless.
As you might imagine, although Kim Tinkham did better than expected for longer than expected, ultimately her story did not end well. Her cancer recurred in her liver, and, soon after it became known that Tinkham was dying, she passed away.
That goes to my point that I’m trying to make. Maybe Winfrey doesn’t believe in all of this magical woo. But if she wasn’t, why didn’t she publicly criticize Jenny McCarthy? Why doesn’t she cancel Dr. McGraw’s show for harming those who are mentally ill? Why doesn’t she push back against Dr. Oz’s medical nonsense? And why didn’t she decide her attachment to The Secret may endanger lives?
One more thing about Oprah for President
There is one additional issue from Ms. Winfrey that is troubling – it is tangentially about science. Ms. Winfrey has some odd biases against atheists.
During her show in October 2013, she was interviewing her guest, Diana Nyad, an incredible American swimmer who swam from Cuba to Florida when in her 60s. Nyad also happens to be an atheist and said on the show that she was “deeply in awe” of what she sees in the world.
Ms. Winfrey replied that:
Well I don’t call you an atheist then. I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder, and the mystery, then that is what God is. That is what God is. It’s not the bearded guy in the sky.
In other words, Winfrey rejected the belief that atheists can find wonder and awe in the world because they don’t believe in a god.
That angers me because it is a typical thing that religious crackpots say about atheists. I make no secret (pun intended) of being an atheist. It does not define me, science does. And frankly, I became an atheist because of science and the scientific method.
However, I try not to conflate science with atheism – though science can lead to atheism, there are religious scientists. The discoverer of the Big Bang scientific theory (not the TV show) was a Jesuit priest.
On the other hand, when I see Oprah Winfrey’s embracing of science denialism, I start to see a pattern. Her arrogance to believe that her views are right, despite scientific evidence is offensive. And it is a line which we cannot cross. Even with atheism, she presumes to know how an atheist feels, without any evidence to support her beliefs.
My answer to Oprah for President – no for now
I’m not opposed to an Oprah for President push because of her inexperience in government – we have had a year of an inexperienced media celebrity running our country, so maybe experience should be an issue (and one of the reasons I was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter). I’m certainly not opposed to her because she’s an African American woman – my bona fides on racism and misogyny are clear to those who have met the feathered dinosaur. And she certainly is more intelligent and empathetic than that deranged lunatic in the White House now.
However, it’s the science that makes me take a deep breath and say, no. I could not and would not support Oprah for President.
Being 100% on the right side of science is important. POTUS chooses the CDC director, the FDA commissioner, the EPA director, and hundreds, if not thousands, of people to key science positions. We cannot trust presidents to do the right thing with science because we support them. I want a president that I know is in line on all key issues of science that matter to our world today.
If you fail the “litmus test” of science, you do not get my vote, even if the guy on the other side is a horrific example of humanity and also fails that same litmus test. I will not vote for Oprah, short of a complete and clear disavowal of all the cargo cult science she has promoted over the years. And remember, it’s not just a statement or two she needs to disavow, it’s volumes of it.
What happens if it’s Oprah vs Trump? I’ll make a sacrifice to the Gods of Darwin to save us all.
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