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Pop Medicine versus Real Science

Dr. Oz: Expert or Quack?

Trevor Butterworth hits another topic on target, this time on Forbes.com. He tackles the recent hub-bub over Dr. Oz’s dire warnings about apple juice and arsenic. Here is the intro:

If the reaction in the news media to Dr. Oz’s absurd claims about the dangers of arsenic in apple juice has been enormously heartening (essentially the media’s collective “Dr. Oz says this, but the FDA says that” narrative leaves the celebrity cardiothoracic surgeon looking like an unscrupulous and unethical quack), the disheartening part is that too many people will still choose to believe a television doctor who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow in terms of chemistry, over the massed ranks of PhD’s and toxicologists at the Food and Drug Administration.

This abysmal state of affairs was summed up by some fool on The View mouthing off about how we all should be grateful that Dr. Oz is looking out for our kids – as if the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a vast array of regulatory agencies simply didn’t occur.

After attending, and presenting, at an FDA conference, Butterworth was struck by the attention to detail among the scientists. He also liked the FDA response. Here is his take, as a statistician:

As I listened to presentation after presentation from scientists who spend their working days trying to protect the public from contamination in food, I was struck by the fact that the real story about what the FDA does is almost impossible to convey to the public. Certainly, in all the years I’ve been reporting on risk, I have never seen any story in the mainstream media that articulates the complexity of the science. And if you don’t grasp that complexity, you just cannot understand how serious and scrupulous these scientists are when it comes to trying to protect the public.

This is why Dr. Oz, in refusing to acknowledge the simple, objective errors the FDA pointed out in the way his show measured arsenic, betrayed science. And when you betray science, it doesn’t matter how much you protest that you are only looking to protect America’s children. No one is protected by getting the science wrong.

But how do you communicate that betrayal to a public which simply doesn’t understand chemistry (and probably shudders at the mere mention of the subject thanks to high school), doesn’t think scientifically (i.e., mentally tests propositions for the ways in which they might be falsifiable), but reacts on a deep emotional level to the idea that the kids are in mortal danger?

What was notable – and praiseworthy – about the FDA’s response was that it added a much more personalized message to it’s straightforward scientific criticism of Dr. Oz’s claims.  Donald Zink, Ph.D, senior science advisor at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), said what often goes unsaid in these media controversies. “As a parent and grandparent myself, I understand the concern over recent reports that arsenic has been found in apple juice,” he said, before adding that years of testing at the FDA – and, more importantly, the way the FDA did its tests, left him without any cause for concern.

Now think about it: Dr. Zink is a microbiologist and biochemist specializing in food; how much microbiology and biochemistry do you really think Dr. Oz, a heart surgeon, knows?

More to the point, do you really think that the hundreds of parents at the FDA with academic qualifications every bit as impressive as Dr. Oz’s are somehow less reliable and less concerned about food safety than someone who has chosen to practice medicine on a daily television show? And finally, what is the likelihood that, in our age of massive food regulation, it just didn’t cross anyone’s mind to examine – and keep examining – apple juice?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer warned that drama was as fundamental to journalism as it was to theater – and that journalists were like lap dogs, barking hysterically at everything that moved. It’s time to see Dr. Oz as having crossed the canine rubicon – and having abandoned science for a barking role in the theater of the absurd.

So, once again, many are quick to believe that a celebrity heart doctor who we really don’t know that much about (besides the endorsement of Oprah, apparently). I have no doubts about his credentials as a heart surgeon or as a teacher in his discipline, but he cannot be an expert on everything. Meanwhile, the experts with more appropriate credentials to comment on the issue toil anonymously and so many are willing to doubt their motives and results. Trust me, the hard-working scientists and statisticians at the FDA are much more likely to be doing real, unbiased science than Dr. Oz. America seems to be in a phase of not trusting real experts, and instead taking our cues from celebrities such as Dr. Oz and others.

Dr. Oz would certainly question a podiatrist giving medical advice on a heart healthy diet, maybe soon he’ll realize he should stop commenting on things outside his expertise. I know that the cult of personality and all of the approval can be intoxicating, but he must be smarter than this. Here’s to hoping that this trend reverses quickly and the celebrity doctor/”expert” phase ends before anyone is hurt by their quackery.

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