Snake Oil

July is turning into a brutally hard month for blog writing. Too many competing writing projects means ranting stays (mostly) in my head rather than in my blog.

I overheard something last night that is driving me to my keyboard. At my exercise class – Fit! Fusion! Fun! – one woman was telling another about how she might treat her headache. Helpful woman was going on about neti pots and herbal supplements and how Dr. Oz just had this on his show last week. The headache woman asked ‘Who is Dr. Oz?’. Helpful woman turned into Dr. Oz fan-girl and proceeded to recite the complete listing of all the possible times and places you can view Dr. Oz on TV, only to have the headache woman say ‘I don’t watch TV’.

What caught my attention was when the Oz fan-girl dropped her voice to a whisper and said “You know Dr. Oz is the only one who will tell you the secret cures that other doctors don’t want you to know.”

This is disturbing on many levels. I am a big believer in the placebo effect and positive psychology as tested methods of treating certain kinds of human conditions. I whole heartedly accept those natural and herbal interventions that have some proven efficacy beyond placebos. There are many. Evidence based medicine has plenty of room for new information. Like yogurt.

Used to be crunchy hippie folks ate yogurt and fed it to their children because it was “good for them”. And now there is evidence that acidophilus is a good bacteria. Scientists have identified the actual strains (there are hundreds) that treat certain conditions. What I don’t believe in is the idea that the medical community is one big conspiracy to rip off patients who could more easily treat themselves with vinegar and a prayer.

That incredibly broad brush is the snake oil that Dr. Oz is selling. And he is selling make no mistake. Dr. Oz is a multi-millionaire who started out as a cardiac surgeon, who now runs an marketing empire built on pseudo-science and charm. Oz’s attitude was succinctly captured by Michael Specter in the Feb 4, 2013 New Yorker article “The Operator”.

Discussing a guest Oz had on his show that rejects the evidence system of science (i.e. cancer can be cured with baking soda), Specter asked Oz if he thought all information is created equal. Oz answered:

“Medicine is a very religious experience. I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder…You find the arguments that support your data and its my fact versus your fact.”

Why Dr. Oz has not had some disciplinary action taken against him for wearing scrubs and spouting this faddish bullshit is a mystery. His show is a slurry of conventional health advice (lower your blood pressure to reduce your risk of heart disease) and downright quackery presented by his guests (childhood vaccines are dangerous and cause AIDS). Dr. Oz’s status as a medical professional perpetuates the idea that patients are gullible if they believe medical science.

There are food and drug laws that have been in place since the “snake oil scandal” in the early 1900’s – shouldn’t Dr. Oz’s brand of snake oil fall under those laws? Has the US population gone too far into anti-government, anti-law, anti- everything stance to have consumer protection that actually works to protect consumers?

Alternative medicine is only alternative until there is proof that it works. Someone needs to remind Dr. Oz that all facts are not equal. Some of them aren’t even facts.