The recipe that generates Dr Oz’ bullshit
Start with a topic that’s of crucial interest to a lot of people. Add a high degree of uncertainty. Season with media. Stand back and watch the bullshit appear.
For example: which direction will stocks go? Everybody cares but nobody knows, so there’s lots of entertaining opinion on both sides. Add CNBC and you’ve got entertainment.
So it goes with diet and nutrition news. Nutrition research is problematic because it’s at the intersection of poorly-understood biology and human psychology. In his book In Defense of Food, the author Michael Pollan describes the three types of nutrition studies and concludes “All three are seriously flawed in different ways.” When your research depends on putting people on odd unsustainable diets or asking people to accurately recall what kinds of food they ate in the last six months, the results are suspect. That’s why we see such variation in the results of nutrition research.
Who cares? The two-thirds of adults who are overweight or obese (including me). Most of us want to get lighter. But a UCLA review of research cited a study showing that two years after a diet, 83% had gained back more weight than they lost.
So we have the first two ingredients of bullshit: anxiety and uncertainty. These create the perfect conditions for media to inflate people’s expectations. And this is where Dr. Oz comes in. Television requires a constant supply of entertainment. I have no doubt that the producers of Dr. Oz’s show encouraged him to tap into the ambient anxiety about health and weight. But his judgment was poor and he appears not to worry too much about what’s true and what’s not — one definition of bullshit. His indiscriminate pandering led to congressional criticism and a group of doctors calling for Dr. Oz to leave his post at Columbia.
Dr. Oz is a loony. Gizmodo published an amusing list of Dr. Oz headlines, including Radical Cures Your Doctor Thinks Are Crazy, while a British Medical Journal says his claims are baseless at least half the time. As John Oliver pricelessly points out, when a media figure cites freedom of speech to try to silence his critics, he’s got problems.
The job of the Dr. Oz show is to get you to watch and believe, not to help you. When uncertainty meets anxiety, there is a media vacuum. Somebody’s going to fill it. But in the absence of actual information, the same media forces will turn back on the expert in the spotlight. And that’s what happened to Dr. Oz.
Full disclosure: I am the CEO of a non-profit dedicated to wellness and weight loss. But I’m not endorsing anything here. I’m just saying that Dr. Oz and his methods are full of crap.