Viewpoint: Oprah for president? Junk science enabler?

Oprah Winfrey’s recent speech at the Golden Globes captured the imagination of countless people with rumors spreading that it could generate a popular well-spring of support that would prompt to her run for president in 2020. But many of the same science communicators and journalists who are concerned about President Trump’s anti-science tendencies are having similar problems with Oprah.

These concerns stem from her long career as a talk show host, the many guests she gave a platform to, and even her O magazine. She has a well-documented list of questionable views on science-related topics. From her featuring of vaccine denialism and crank health cures to her magazine’s demonization of conventional agriculture and idealizing expensive organic food, she has often embraced marginal and even quack views. Vox’s senior health correspondent, Julia Belluz, put it bluntly:

During her 25-year reign as host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, from 1986 to 2011, Oprah repeatedly showed a weakness for crackpots and quack medical theories. One could even argue that she’s one of the most powerful enablers of cranks on the planet.

A well known incidence occurred when Oprah brought Jenny McCarthy on her show. The appearance served as a platform for McCarthy to spread misinformation in her campaign against vaccines.

Megan Jula with Mother Jones 
wrote about how this is “one thing she has in common with Donald Trump.”Winfrey’s role in this controversy dates back to 2007, when she brought Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy model and actress, onto her show to talk about autism. McCarthy’s young son, Evan, had suffered a series of seizures at two-and-a-half years old and was later diagnosed with autism. McCarthy was adamant that the MMR vaccination Evan received as a baby caused his autism……. On the show, McCarthy’s claims went virtually unchallenged. Winfrey praised McCarthy as a ‘mother warrior’....... Winfrey did read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said there was no scientific evidence of a connection and that scientists were continuing to study the causes of autism…….. But McCarthy had the final word. ‘My science is named Evan, and he’s at home,’ she said. ‘That’s my science.’

Weston Kosova for Newsweek also pointed out that this was not the only time Oprah’s show was the vehicle to spread dangerous falsehoods about vaccines.

Christiane Northrup, a physician and one of Oprah's regular experts, took questions from the audience. One woman asked about the HPV vaccine, which protects women against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer. Northrup advised against getting the shot……. It is true that of the millions of women who have received the vaccine, 32 have died in the days or weeks afterward. But in each case, the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration investigated the deaths and found that they were coincidental and were not related to the shot....

Northrup went on to tell Oprah’s viewers that cancer causing HPV can be avoided with a healthy diet, a comment that went unchecked by Oprah.

One of the chief concerns about President Trump was that his lack of government experience meant he may choose advisors that also lack experience. Networking is key in politics, and celebrities have a completely separate network. Who do they really know that can give them the advice they need to run the United States?

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Michael Hiltzik, is especially concerned that Oprah would bring many of the cranks she has befriended with her to the White House.

Winfrey launched Dr. Oz as a guest on her show, then helped him launch his own daytime program, which remains enormously popular……. One notable and well-documented case involved green coffee bean extract, which Oz promoted as a weight-loss nostrum in 2012……. The claim was based on a manufacturer’s study that was later retracted and resulted in the company’s $3.5-million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission…….. Oz was hauled before a congressional committee in 2014 to justify these sorts of claims…….. Later that year, a team of Canadian researchers painstakingly examined 40 episodes of Oz’s show and evaluated every medical recommendation. For more than half, there was no scientific support, and for 15%, the scientific record actually contradicted the recommendation.

Mystical claims and junk science

Part of the larger problem isn’t just that she gives a platform to these charlatans, but that she tells her audience that she has been personally helped by them. Magan Thiekling with Stat News described how Oprah’s advice has the potential to be deadly:

Winfrey has been criticized for shilling a self-help approach dubbed “The Secret,” which claims that positive thinking can cure physical illnesses, among other problems. And in case thinking good thoughts isn’t enough, there’s also “The Secret” book available for purchase or “The Secret” film available to watch, both of which raked in millions thanks, in part, to promotion on Winfrey’s show.

Winfrey found herself in a controversy when a viewer told the host that “The Secret” had inspired her to heal her cancer on her own, instead of undergoing surgery and chemotherapy as her doctors suggested. The viewer died in 2010. According to Digital Journal:

She consulted a total of four doctors, and all told her the same thing, namely that we don't know the cause of her cancer and that there is a treatment in the form of urgent surgery followed by chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy…… Kim then explains that she is ‘not just doing The Secret’. She is making her own choices, just like Oprah said.

Mystical health claims from Oprah don’t just end with The Secret. Surgical oncologist David Gorski was flabbergasted that Oprah prominently featured John of God, one of the most well known “faith healers” on the planet.

John of God claims that he channels more than thirty doctor entities to heal the sick using the power of God… Oprah herself does a voiceover that describes John as ‘persecuted,’ ‘misunderstood,’ and ‘working tirelessly’ to heal the sick. The images are even more disturbing. For one thing, John of God seems to have a proclivity for women’s breasts…… Add to that one more from Oprah’s episode: Lisa, who had stage IV breast cancer when she met John of God and still has stage IV breast cancer, with no evidence of improvement or regression……. I have to wonder how many people with life-threatening illnesses are now buying plane tickets to Brazil to seek out John of God. I wonder how many people with terminal illnesses are wasting their remaining cash to enrich the tour operators that service John of God’s operation.

A recurring issue with Oprah is that she does not communicate well the risks of what she has promoted. Even when the CEO of the company she is selling for speaks out against her presentation. As Philip Devoe detailed for the National Review.

Oprah promoted the Thermage, a $30,000 machine that promised to smooth wrinkles using radio waves. Again, she neglected to warn viewers of potential downsides, which included burns, scars, and agonizing pain. Thermage CEO Stephen Fanning told Newsweek five years later that while he believes in the product, he was uncomfortable with how Oprah marketed it. ‘Any time you’re dealing with a cosmetic device,’Fanning said, ‘you always have to present a balanced approach. Oprah didn’t.’

Oprah even promotes activist agendas without fact checking, which in 1996 caused unnecessary financial harm to American farmers. Avi Selk, writing for The Washington Post, described the “hamburger panic” incited by Oprah:

It began with an episode of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ in 1996, amid widespread fears of so-called mad cow disease, a potentially fatal illness that humans can catch by eating certain organs of infected cattle. Though the disease's spread had actually peaked a few years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Winfrey brought a vegetarian activist onto her show — and this happened: 

"You said this disease could make AIDS look like the common cold," Winfrey told the activist, according to the Associated Press."Absolutely," the activist replied.

"It has just stopped me from eating another burger!" Winfrey exclaimed, and her audience applauded.

Ranchers said beef prices crashed to a 10-year-low the next day.

To this day not a single person has been found to have contracted Mad Cow disease while in the United States or from beef originating in the US. The only four US citizens who have contracted Mad Cow resulted from traveling outside of the country.

Embraces anti-GMO activism

More recently she caved to anti-agriculture activists when they had discovered a simple advertisement from Monsanto in her magazine. Monsanto is no different from any other corporation when it comes to business practices (certainly no worse than any other company advertising), but the activists were using them as a red herring in order to really attack biotechnology. The petition called on her magazine to drop ads using stretched truths and blatant misinformation about health effects of GMOs and glyphosate. Attacking Monsanto for protecting their seed patents, while willfully ignoring every other seed company patenting “non-GMO” seed as well.

Family farmer Tim Burrack wrote in response:

I mean to invite you to my farm. If you come here, you’ll see why biotech crops make so much sense. Farmers are able to grow more food than ever before–more food on less land, compared to just a few years ago. This is good for the environment. Because GM plants have a built-in resistance to bugs and weeds, we’re using fewer chemical sprays. This is good for everyone. As a result, our food is abundant, affordable, and nutritious. Yet even in the United States we continue to struggle with feeding everyone. More than 16 million American children suffer from food insecurity, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Given this harsh reality, does it make sense to demonize GM crops? In their absence, food would become less available and more expensive. It is unfortunate that she has not accepted the offer to visit such a farm as her O magazine web page still contains myths and fabrications about GMOs. She instills fears in her readers by insinuating that GMOs could create brand new allergens, ignoring the fact that allergens are well understood and all GMOs are tested for such. One recent O article contained this gem of hysteria-encouraging misinformation.

[The question remains: What impact do GM foods have on our health? The answer is, no one really knows. ... To date most of the studies have been done on animals; worryingly, though, some of those studies link GM foods to altered metabolism, inflammation, kidney and liver malfunction, and reduced fertility. ... In addition, allergy sufferers worry that, as genes are transferred between plants, allergenic proteins (from, say, peanuts or wheat) will pop up in unexpected places (like soy or sugar).

This is just pure hokum, as someone with even a bare-bones science background would know. More than 280 independent agencies have reviewed the vast array of health and safety studies on GMO crops and foods--there have been more than 3000 studies, more than half of them by independent researchers and government--and all have issued statements endorsing the safety of approved foods with genetically engineered ingredients.

Immunologist Kevin Bonham explained why this allergen myth is “patently false”.

[G]enetic engineering techniques allow us to precisely add genes of known structure and function to crops. It would in principle be possible to engineer corn that expresses anthrax toxin, or introduce peanut allergens into soybeans, but this would have to be by malicious intent of the scientists, not some accident. We know how genes work, and we know what kind of protein an individual gene will make.

But, as is usual with the celebrity, her answer to fearing GMOs goes back to buying her products. Her readers are informed that they can avoid GMOs buy sticking to the products she recommends they buy. Oprah pulled the Monsanto advertisement from her magazine. The move made financial sense considering her investments in the organic food industry. According to Forbes under the titles "Oprah's Organics", "Oprah's Harvest" and "Oprah's Farm", she is using her name to market salad dressing, sauces, beverages, frozen vegetables, soups, and snack dips. All organic. Demonizing biotechnology has long been part of its marketing strategy, along with using pseudoscience to create false health claims.

Her response to all of this criticism is to blame her viewers for daring to believe the bucket loads of misinformation that she presents to them regularly in one forum or another.

For 23 years, my show has presented thousands of topics that reflect the human experience, including doctors’ medical advice and personal health stories that have prompted conversations between our audience members and their health care providers. I trust the viewers, and I know that they are smart and discerning enough to seek out medical opinions to determine what may be best for them.

Oprah appears ignorant of the fact that her celebrity status instills trust in the products she features by her fans, who often view a mention by her as an endorsement. She does not appear to have a deep well of connections in the science community. Celebrities are people, and it is more than common to look to those in their close circles for advice. But people like Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil are not exactly known for their scientific rigor. And on the issue of biotechnology, their views grade out pretty low. This is one case of the “echo chamber” in which misinformation is often repeated by those in these close-knit groups. Celebrities unfortunately just have an extra platform making it easier for such misinformation to spread to the masses.  

Stephan Neidenbach is a middle school teacher in Annapolis, Maryland.  He runs the Facebook group We Love GMOs and Vaccines. Follow him on Twitter @welovegv.


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