NPR's Robert Siegel speaks with Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker about some physicians' calls for Columbia University to sever ties with TV's Dr. Oz over what they call his "disdain for science" and promotion of questionable treatments.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
America's doctor is being taken to task by a group of his peers. Dr. Mehmet Oz hosts the TV program "The Dr. Oz Show." He is also vice chairman of the Surgery Department at Columbia University. And now 10 well-regarded physicians from all over the country are calling on Columbia to drop Dr. Oz from its faculty. The group penned a letter to the school, and they write this (reading) Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine. They go on to say that he promotes quack treatments for financial gain. Columbia responded by saying that it is committed to upholding faculty members' freedom of expression. To discuss this letter and the dock at the center of the controversy now is Michael Specter. He profiled Mehmet Oz for The New Yorker magazine back in 2013. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL SPECTER: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: What are some of the other claims that the letter from Dr. Henry Miller and his co-signees make about Dr. Oz?
SPECTER: Well, I think the principal claim is that he lets his many millions of viewers believe things to be true that he knows are not true. And it's very damaging. And that - I think that's the essential problem here.
SIEGEL: Things that are not true - for example?
SPECTER: He promotes a lot of what other people would call quack treatments - things that will lower your cholesterol and prevent you from having Alzheimer's and make sure you don't get colon cancer. And it would be great if any of that stuff was true, but none of it has ever been proven to be effective, and he knows this. The big problem with Dr. Oz is that he's intelligent and articulate and well-educated. There are lots of quacks out there. They're not worth dealing with because they're just quacks. The problem with Dr. Oz is that he gives a lot of good advice, in the middle of which he just says these things for which there is no support whatsoever. And it's very hard for normal people to know the difference.
SIEGEL: You quoted Dr. Oz in your New Yorker profile saying a few years ago, and I'm quoting, "the currency that I deal in is trust, and that is trust that has been given to me by Oprah and by Columbia University, and by an audience that has watched over 600 shows." Are - do you think those things are parallel or analogous, that is, being popular on television, being favored by Oprah Winfrey and being on the faculty at Columbia?
SPECTER: I would like to think they're not analogous. He has always acted as if they were the same thing. And I'm sorry to say that Columbia seems to act that way, too, because they responded to this letter by saying everyone basically has a right to say what they want. That's an academic belief that is sacrosanct, and it is. But another very important principle that every doctor in the world knows is, first, do no harm. And he does harm every time he goes on the air by recommending things for which there is no evidence and things often that he knows not to be true. And I believe that that is a much greater principle and a greater harm than any good that could come from protecting a very powerful and wealthy man's right to express himself.
SIEGEL: But enter the magical concept of tenure at a university. There are professors who, in addition to being brilliant engineers, espouse views that can be racist, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic - a variety of things. And yet, if they're tenured, there's a principle that that's almost like Parliamentary immunity against libel. You can go out and write what you want, and the university honors your tenured position on the faculty.
SPECTER: Well, there's a couple things here. First of all, I believe that's true and it ought to be true, but I think tenure in many ways was set up was to protect people who have minority views that could be persecuted for them. That is not the case with Dr. Oz, who is maybe the most powerful doctor in America. Secondly, he's an administrator at Columbia, and there isn't a tenured principle that protects his right to teach and rule the way other people work at Columbia University.
SIEGEL: Do you have any notion, by the way, that Dr. Oz in his life as a heart surgeon and in dealing with patients mixes that at all with recommendations for therapies that he would flog on television?
SPECTER: I think it's important to say that his history as a heart surgeon is one of excellence, and that there's no reason to believe that he sacrifices in the operating theater for his magical beliefs. But I do think there is history of him encouraging patients to embrace magical thinking, like Reiki and all this sort of mystical energy field therapy to make you feel better. And there is no data that exists on this planet that suggests that that's useful.
SIEGEL: If you were to place bets on this, would you be betting on Dr. Oz or on the signatories of that letter at this point.
SPECTER: Oz, sorry to say.
SIEGEL: I should say we tried to contact Dr. Oz and were unsuccessful in doing so today. Michael Specter, thanks for talking with us about him.
SPECTER: Oh, it's my pleasure.
SIEGEL: Michael Specter, staff writer at The New Yorker, profile Dr. Mehmet Oz in 2013. Michael Specter's most recent book is "Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Harms The Planet And Threatens Our Lives." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.