Longtime readers might remember that back in the day I routinely liked to refer to Dr. Mehmet Oz, the once promising cardiac surgeon turned advocate of “integrating” quackery into medicine (i.e., “integrative medicine“) turned Oprah Winfrey’s go-to physician for dubious medicine, turned daytime “medical” talk show host (and I use the term” medical” loosely) who is now the Republican candidate for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania as “America’s Quack.” I don’t know whether I coined the term or not, given that adding the term “quack” was a very obvious riff on the title of “America’s Doctor” bestowed on him by Oprah and that Dr. Oz even trademarked the term “America’s Doctor,” but it sure feels like it. So what the heck? I’ll go with it for purposes of this post.
What brought me to write about Dr. Oz again after the last time, when I noted that it appeared that Columbia University had finally cut ties with him after his emergence as a Senate candidate was the confluence of a couple of articles. The first article was a story By David Corn published a couple of days ago in Mother Jones entitled How Dr. Oz Boosted an Osteopath Who Became a Top Spreader of Covid Misinformation. (As an aside, I really don’t like this headline because it emphasizes that Dr. Joe Mercola, whom I’ve written about more times than I can remember and will probably write about again next week, is an osteopath. It shouldn’t matter, at least not in the US. I can point to MDs who are nearly as prolific at promoting antivaccine disinformation, although admittedly they didn’t make over $100 million doing it. End of rant.) The second story was an editorial by H. Holden Thorp published yesterday in Science entitled Remember, Do No Harm? The two are, of course, related, and Dr. Oz, one of whose most famous examples of promoting quackery is documented in the first article, is a prime example of the failures described in the second, even though he is not mentioned in the second article.
In his article, Corn simply documents what skeptics and those of us at my not-so-secret-0ther blog have been documenting for 15 years, specifically how Dr. Oz used his daytime TV show to promote quackery of the worst sort and the quacks who sold it, one of whom was Dr. Joe Mercola. Dr. Oz has, of course scrubbed his website of all the articles, promotional materials, and video clips from The Dr. Oz Show, in order to transform it into his Senate campaign website, but I can show you this contemporaneous Facebook entry from a decade ago to give you a flavor of what I’m talking about:
Fortunately, apparently Dr. Oz’s techies are apparently not skilled enough to have set his robots.txt file to have excluded the almighty Wayback Machine from archiving his article at Archive.org, and here it is. Before I move on to discuss the articles above, I can’t help but note that America’s Quack really lived up to the moniker bestowed on him by skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine in this episode, and it wasn’t even the only time that he had Joe Mercola on his show. I particularly like this quote from the article:
Dr. Oz does not agree with everything Dr. Mercola’s says, but he does appreciate how Mercola pushes physicians to think differently about medicine.
Sure, and flat-earthers push astronomers and geologists to “think differently” about astronomy and geology, while Ken ham pushes biologists to “think differently” about evolution. Also, damn you, America’s Quack, for taking an altered version of Apple’s famous slogan from decades ago to “think different” and conflating the two in my brain. I won’t forget that. Dr. Oz actually got it right—although not in the way his producers apparently think—when they labeled these “cures” as “Radical Cures Your Doctor Thinks Are Crazy.” Hint: There are many very good reasons why doctors think Joe Mercola’s “radical cures” are crazy.
Dr. Mercola Says: Cancer Can Be Cured With Eggplant
Dr. Mercola argues that an affordable cream, which uses the eggplant extracts known as BEC and BEC5, appears to cure and eliminate non-melanoma skin cancers in weeks. A mixture of naturally occurring glycoalkaloids found in the plants of the nightshade family, including eggplant, have been shown to be highly effective in treating human skin cancers. The power is in the pigment – its natural chemicals bind to skin cancer cells and is highly toxic to them, yet they cause no harm to healthy cells. One study found that 20 out of 24 skin cancer lesions disappeared after using this eggplant extract cream. There is currently one company that makes this cream – Curaderm; it costs $125.
During the same show, Mercola promoted anti-mercury amalgam nonsense about “toxic teeth,” while, as all quacks do, portraying himself as the poor, poor persecuted “truth teller” in medicine, with his “cure” for the “toxic teeth” problem being an algae known as Chlorella, which, if you believed Mercola back then, was a lot like the Oil of Aphrodite and the Dust of the Grand Wazoo.
In any event, this is how Dr. Oz characterized Joe Mercola’s skin cancer quackery:
Dr. Oz’s Bottom Line
Dr. Oz finds this treatment intriguing and believes more research should be done. Skin cancer is the number one cancer in the United States. Do not self-diagnose and do not skip the doctor. You need to have your doctor diagnose a skin lesion. And remember, this cream appears to be effective only on non-melanoma skin cancers. If you get a lot of non-melanoma skin cancer spots or are worried about surgery and scarring, as your doctor if it makes sense to pursue this alternative treatment.
I can’t help but notice how Dr. Oz clever—as always—didn’t quite explicitly endorse Joe Mercola’s quackery but rather urged his viewers to see their doctor. However, he added his favorite weasel words of how he found Mercola’s nostrum “intriguing” and believed that “more research should be done,” while suggesting that it might be OK for non-melanoma skin cancers, the majority of which in older people tend to be basal cell carcinomas, which are rarely life-threatening, except when grossly neglected for a long period of time.
This brings me to Corn’s take on Dr. Oz:
In 2009, after Oz had appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show dozens of times, Winfrey set him up with a syndicated television show of his own on which he covered assorted health issues. It was a success. But four years later, in a lengthy profile of Oz, New Yorker reporter Michael Specter noted that Oz had “consistently” booked “guests with dubious authority” to challenge conventional medicine. That included Mercola, who had quit practicing as a doctor to run a highly profitable business selling alternative health products and dietary supplements. The FDA had warned Mercola for making false claims about products that supposedly combat cancer and heart disease. And he had a rather spotty record in other ways. He had claimed avian influenza was a hoax, contended that vaccines are dangerous and cause AIDS, and promoted an Italian doctor who said cancer is a fungus that can be treated with baking soda. (In 2018, this doctor was sentenced to five and a half years in prison on a manslaughter charge for treating a brain cancer patient with this supposed remedy.) Yet Oz vouched for Mercola, hailing him as a “pioneer in holistic treatments” and a person “your doctor doesn’t want you to listen to,” a man who “is challenging everything you think you know about traditional medicine and prescription drugs.”
In an odd comment to Specter, Oz said, “If I don’t have Mercola on my show, I have thrown away the biggest opportunity I have been given.”
America’s Quack indeed. Back then, circa 2010-2012, Joe Mercola was the biggest quack around, with one of the biggest followings around for a quack; so of course Dr. Oz had to have him on his show not just once, but four times. (Also, I can’t help but note here that Dr. Mercola’s techies are definitely more skilled than Dr. Oz’s techies, given that when he turned his website into a repository that would only host his content for 48 hours before it went to his paid Substack archive, the better to encourage scarcity, decrease his server costs, and generate a very nice income stream, in that they correctly blocked Archive.org from saving his old content, which is why the link to Mercola bragging about having been on America’s Quack’s show four times is gone.)
In actuality, of course, having Joe Mercola as a guest on his show four times is only a small aspect of the quackery juggernaut that America’s Quack was back in the day. I’m not talking “soft” quackery either. I’m talking quackery as bad as The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy) and even faith healing, as well as the promotion of the antivaccine views of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and even psychic scammers like John Edward and Theresa Caputo. In addition, he’s promoted unproven (and almost certainly nonexistent) links between cell phones and breast cancer, GMO fear mongering, By 2014, Dr. Oz’s reputation for quackery had gotten so bad that he was increasingly facing less than adoring press and was hauled before Senator Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) committee for his unscrupulous boosterism for unproven weight loss supplements, where he was soundly humbled. All of this happened long before the pandemic hit. Indeed, Dr. Oz even once had Mike Adams—yes, that Mike Adams, founder of Natural News!—as a guest on his show.
When the pandemic hit, Dr. Oz was an early promoter of COVID-19 minimization and denial. One example comes to mind when America’s Quack got into trouble for suggesting that we should reopen schools because “only” 3% more people might die, even referring to opening schools as a “very appetizing opportunity.” He did eventually apologize (sort of), but not before memes like this had started widely circulating:
This happened in April 2020. No, seriously. It happened only a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Indeed, certain COVID-19 contrarian takes and messages minimizing the disease were baked in very, very early, a number of them with the help of Dr. Oz, who famously enthusiastically embraced Dr. Didier Raoult’s bad science used to promote hydroxychloroquine as a miracle treatment for the disease. It was a treatment that turned out to be the Black Knight of COVID-19 treatments, utterly ineffective.
Given Dr. Oz’s history, it’s not at all surprising that his initial first pivot was to COVID-19 contrarianism and “miracle cures” for the disease, although I do note that as 2020 went on and faded into 2021 he seemed to be a lot more careful about pushing COVID-19 quackery; that is, until he became a Senate candidate. In any event, Dr. Oz promoted outright quackery and antivaccine disinformation dating back to his show’s beginning in 2009, and when skeptics like Steve Novella and I wrote about it, either on Science-Based Medicine, my posts on this blog, or, for example, Steve Salzberg’s posts on Forbes or Derek Lowe’s posts on his blog, our efforts struck me as screeching into the void. Few cared. Sure, it was gratifying to see Sen. McCaskill eviscerate Dr. Oz in front of her Senate committee, but unfortunately the wounds she inflicted healed up as rapidly and magically as even the most devastating wounds inflicted on Wolverine did leaving Dr. Oz free to promote quackery on his show again.
This is a good place to segue to Thorp’s Science editorial:
When the advocacy group America’s Frontline Doctors appeared on the steps of the United States Supreme Court in 2020, falsely stating that hydroxychloroquine was a cure for COVID-19, their pronouncement was virally shared by right-wing media and soundly debunked by medical academicians. A year later, one of these frontliners, Joseph Ladapo, became the surgeon general of Florida and a faculty member at the University of Florida College of Medicine. He has continued to spread dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 while his academic colleagues are shamefully silent.
Many assumed that Ladapo’s faculty appointment was the result of political pressure by the university’s administration as it aimed to please Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. It was unsurprising that anti-vax DeSantis wanted a surgeon general with anti-science views. But it was shocking that the medical school accepted Ladapo as a colleague. Even more shocking was a statement from the university president in the Tampa Bay Times confirming that Ladapo was voted into his position by the faculty and approved through the usual procedures. Even Ladapo’s former supervisor at the University of California, Los Angeles, declined to recommend him for the position, considering his approach to COVID-19 so dangerous as to violate the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Thorp makes an excellent point. Dr. Ladapo was faculty at UCLA before Gov. DeSantis elevated him to be Florida’s Surgeon General, a position that put him in charge of the Florida Department of Health and thus the entire medical and public health bureaucracy of the state, including its COVID-19 response. When the Florida Senate, as part of a routine background check on him, asked UCLA for an evaluation, all that one of his supervisors at UCLA could say in an evaluation was that Ladapo’s hands-off approach toward managing COVID-19 made his colleagues feel uncomfortable, with the responses to questions asked on the evaluation being—shall we say?—less than glowing but not damning:
Question: “Would you recommend the applicant for employment as a surgeon general of Florida and confidence in his ability, honesty and integrity to perform related duties?” Answer: “No. In my opinion the people of Florida would be better served by a surgeon general who grounds his policy decisions and recommendations in the best scientific evidence rather than opinions.”
Then, there was a vague prompt called “personal relations (rapport with co-workers, supervisor).” The complete response: “I cannot answer… because Dr. Ladapo’s opinions, published in a number of popular media outlets, were contrary to the best scientific evidence available about the Covid-19 pandemic and caused concern among a large number of his research and clinical colleagues and subordinates who felt that his opinions violated the Hippocratic Oath that physicians do no harm. This situation created stress and acrimony among his co-workers and supervisors during the last year and a half of his employment. It is important to note that during this time at UCLA, he met all of the contractual obligations for the position that he was hired to perform, which is the underpinning of my otherwise satisfactory evaluation.”
Note that last part: “…during this time at UCLA, he met all of the contractual obligations for the position that he was hired to perform, which is the underpinning of my otherwise satisfactory evaluation.” Even though many of his colleagues and subordinates felt that his COVID-19 contrarianism, promotion of quack “cures,” and antivax disinformation violated his Hippocratic Oath, Dr. Ladapo was still faculty in good standing because he just did everything else in his job adequately, and hid behind the “free speech” and “scientific debate” tropes that quacks always hide behind:
In his own defense, Ladapo told Politico that he was disappointed with the criticism because good science requires respect for all perspectives. “It’s OK to disagree, and I’ve had no problem with disagreement,” he said, “but what has been really disappointing is how disagreement has become a ticket or a passport to activate personal attacks.” No one would disagree that personal attacks are out of bounds, but his depiction of science is off the mark. Unequal perspectives do not deserve equal time, and challenging scientific consensus requires evidence that has been subjected to peer review and published with all the data disclosed so that the scientific community can replicate the findings.
Despite all this, somehow Dr. Ladapo earned a faculty position at University of Florida College of Medicine. One can’t help but wonder whether there was pressure on the university coming from the Governor’s office, but it would not surprise me if there was not—or at least if there was only minimum pressure. After all, Dr. Ladapo’s CV was pretty good. He was a tenured associate professor at UCLA, was principal investigator on a number of grants, including NIH grants, and had a decent publication and teaching record, which brings me to a question: Is that all that matters in medical academia?
Another example comes to mind: Columbia University and, yes, Dr. Oz. Earlier this year, it appeared that Columbia had finally cut ties with Dr. Oz, but that appeared to me to have been more because of his political campaign than anything else, and it wasn’t even clear what had happened. Be that as it may, one notes that there have been attempts over the years to shame Columbia into doing something about Dr. Oz’s use of his position as a professor of surgery (and associate chair of the department), as well as his position as founder and director of its integrative medicine program, to help him promote pseudoscience and quackery.
One example stands out in my memory when in the wake of Senator McCaskill’s slow roasting of Dr. Oz in front of her committee a number of physicians and scientists penned an open letter to Columbia University asking why it tolerated Dr. Oz. At the time, I warned that this was a stunt that was likely to backfire spectacularly, and it did. The reason was that the authors of the letter were associated with the conservative think-tank Hoover Institution or the industry astroturf group American Council on Science and Health (ACSH)—or both, allowing Dr. Oz to portray them as—you guessed it—industry hacks threatened by his publicizing “natural health” on The Dr. Oz Show. However, even before America’s Quack did that, the response of Columbia University’s leadership reminded me very much of the response of UCLA and the University of Florida to criticism of Dr. Lapado’s promotion of dangerous COVID-19 misinformation, but was even briefer, with Columbia’s Chief Communications Officer Douglas Levy stating:
As I am sure you understand and appreciate, Columbia is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.
Don’t get me wrong. Academic freedom is indeed very important, and far be it from me to say that it isn’t or that academics should be sanctioned or fired for engaging in scientific debate, even with America’s Quack or Dr. Ladapo. I will even admit that there can be cases when it is not obvious whether a “maverick” opinion is dangerous quackery or scientifically supportable. Neither Dr. Oz nor Dr. Ladapo represent one of these cases. Dr. Oz has been promoting outright quackery for years and years now, and Dr. Ladapo first made a splash in 2020 appearing with America’s Frontline Doctors, a bunch of right-wing quack grifters who started out promoting hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for COVID-19 and then running a prescription mill for ivermectin, another repurposed drug that doesn’t work but became popular as yet another “miracle cure” for COVID-19.
This raises the question of what responsibility the scientific community has to condemn its members when they enable the spread of misinformation. The situation at the University of Florida creates an opportunity to wrestle with this issue. Ladapo has confirmed his doubters’ fears and has betrayed the responsibilities afforded by academic freedom and tenure. So far, the university doesn’t seem to want to wrestle with the situation. When I asked for a comment, the university health system did not specifically address the Ladapo affair but said in a statement that they continued to support recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vaccination and that “peer-reviewed publications and data analyses are the gold standard in ensuring accurate conclusions are drawn from the research questions scientists are asking.” That’s far from an adequate response.
It’s easy to blame the politicians, right-wing cable TV hosts, and podcast hucksters for spreading misinformation. But is it defensible to blame these folks without also acknowledging that unchallenged members of the scientific community are making it possible for them to sow this doubt? Until the scientific community deals with misinformation from within, it cannot expect to deal with it from without.
I’d like to think that Dr. Ladapo, Dr. Oz, and the tsunami of once seemingly respectable academics who now spread COVID-19 misinformation will indeed provoke a meaningful discussion about the role of universities and medical academia in reining in dangerous misinformation and disinformation. I am not, however, anywhere near as optimistic as Thorp is because I think that academic freedom has morphed into academic freedom without any responsibility, or an open-mindedness that leaves academia as a body so open-minded that its brains fall out.
Academic freedom is, of course, a core value of academia, be it medical academia or any other academic discipline, as well it should be. Academics require the freedom to pursue research that does against the current dogma of their disciplines and that might even be very unpopular. Moreover, I’ll reiterate that there can be a fine line between unpopular or heterodox ideas and outright pseudoscience, misinformation, or quackery. I’ll even add that we can argue just where the line should be drawn between legitimate academic debate, no matter how wild, and dangerous disinformation. The problem with medical academia is that it won’t even accept the possibility that there is a line between scientific debate and tolerating (or even promoting) dangerous medical misinformation. While it is true that there have been sporadic complaints in academic sources about Dr. Oz and disinformation peddlers like him, overall medical academia—and academia in general—has tolerated misinformation and disinformation in the name of “academic freedom.”