Dr. Oz, faith healer

‘Science-ish’ grills the high-profile doctor on the health claims he makes on his television show


AP Photo/Harpo Inc.

He swept into the dimmed Sony Centre in Toronto, combing the crowd like an evangelical leader, and Science-ish half-expected audience members to fall down at his touch. But this was no high priest ready to encourage middle-aged men and women to start walking after being paralyzed or to see again after going blind. This was Dr. Mehmet Oz, here to give a motivational talk about the “biology of blubber” and weight loss.

The esteemed cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor made it big on Oprah demystifying the inner workings of the human body—from poop to the reproductive system—with plastic models and cadaver parts. In 2009, Oprah created the daily health and medical advice talk program, the Dr. Oz Show. Since then, Dr. Oz has been doling out American-style health evangelism to viewers in 112 countries. A recent episode on raspberry keytone supplements discussed how this “miracle fat burner in a bottle” can shrivel fat cells, while others have looked at foods that act as medicines, and “anti-aging miracles in a bottle.” Of course, this has galvanized a cadre of MD bloggers who have dedicated hours to dissecting and debunking the science on the show.

Today, the high-profile doctor is wearing a slim gray suit instead of his trademark scrubs. For two hours at this MukiBaum fundraising event, some two thousand audience members will hear a lecture on “reversing the obesity epidemic” peppered with hugs and jokes geared toward disgruntled housewives.

Science-ish was one of the few skeptics in the room. In order to understand how the doctor thinks about scientific evidence, his audience, and what really makes people healthy, Science-ish sat down with Dr. Oz before his talk.

Q: As you know, there’s a tension between science—where breakthroughs are rare—and broadcast, where you need to have something new and flashy to say every day. How do you reconcile science as an iterative process with the demands of a daily talk show?

A: Let me answer that question by challenging an assumption. There are three words to describe what I do. I’m a doctor. This comes from the Latin docere, teacher. I’m a physician, which comes from the Latin, physica, science. I’m a medicine man, which means healer. To help someone else, you have to have science, you have to be able to heal, and you have to be able to teach. They all work together. In Western medicine, we put a disproportionate (emphasis) on the science part.

Q: When you treat all science as equal and deserving of equal attention, and give a forum to things like the HCG diet, isn’t that potentially dangerous, even if you outline the caveats at the end of a segment or call for more research?

A: I had (the HCG diet) folks on the show because a lot of people were taking it. I was always dumbfounded that people would think (HCG would) work as a droplet because it can’t get through mucous membranes in the mouth. But while I was looking at debunking the idea of the droplets, the idea of injections came up, which is fascinating. In the course of those discussions, it became evident no studies had been done on HCG, the last ones were done in the 70s, and now we know better about how these things work. So the big story was not the HCG diet. It was the fact that there are times in medicine where we say something doesn’t work and it becomes dogma and we’re not willing to reexamine that dogma. Even though there are real people doing real work trying to figure it out. Take alternative medicine. A lot of times people will swear by the fact they feel better if they do something. Let’s say they have Fibromialogia—a nebulous ailment—and they take D-ribose, and argue that it helps them. You have to listen to what they are saying. If you’re too closed minded, which sometimes in medicine we are, and we discount things because we think we know the answer, then we are not serving as well as we could.

Q: So then, as a doctor, how do you square evidence-based medicine with what you do on the show?

A: We have a medical unit made up of full-time medical students. They take a year off to come work with us. We have four or five medical producers—investigative journalists, who are attuned to health issues. We will look at a topic, sometimes controversial ones like arsenic and apple juice, sometimes ones that are more straight forward. We have a medical note we produce for every show; I’ll go through it and agree main points for the show.

Q: A lot of what we know that’s good for us—the kind of regimen you live by, nuts and berries, exercising every morning, eating really minimally, little meat—that doesn’t make good TV.

A: No, it doesn’t make good TV. But you can have conversations about health topics if you’re willing to acknowledge one big issue: people don’t change what they do based on what they know; they change what they do based on what they feel. The show works primarily because we emotionally connect with folks. I’d take you back to a time of 1,000 years ago, in little villages where there was always a healer. They didn’t do hernia operations on you. They heard you, they listened to you, they let you tell your story. When we come to visit the audience, we come into your homes. We’re called talk show hosts, but we’re really a talk-show guest.

Q: Your visits seem to be transformative for many people.

A: It has to be (transformative). If I’m giving you confidence that you can change your life for the better, if I am giving you hope, that’s the most healing thing I do… Most of medicine is not based on evidence. It’s based on the experience we have taking care of people… Most of what we do is not based on evidence because there is no evidence to support it.

Q: Like raspberry ketones. Your segment about the supplements made great TV. You had the balloons as fat cells, and you were deflating them in acid—what these supplements do, supposedly—and then inflating them, but again, as we know, it’s calories in and eating minimally that helps people lose weight. Not supplements.

A: Raspberry ketones are a good example. It’s definitely mostly calories in, calories out. But it may be more than that. Fifteen per cent of what goes through your body goes through undigested. So it’s not quite calories in. Also, we have different flora in our guts and those flora help you absorb calories differently—not huge differences—but we’re looking more and more at that. I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos 10 days ago, and one of the guys there with me told me we’re getting closer and closer to understanding how some people’s genetics predispose them to some types of bacterial DNA, and some people’s epigenetics are affected by the bacterial DNA. So there’s no question some people are heavy because they have the wrong bacteria in their guts. Not all calories that get into your mouth get into your body. The second big box is that not all foods make you feel satiety the same way.

Q: Isn’t that complicating matters? You end the segment on raspberry ketones with a caveat saying there are no shortcuts to health. But I’m concerned about all the folks out there who can’t afford nutritious food, that then go out and buy supplements thinking it might be the answer to the obesity epidemic.

A: I would give raspberry ketones as an example of where I’m trying to give you hope. I do actually believe from the data we have so far it could be a nice little nudge. The amount of weight you’ll lose is two, three, four pounds more than you would have. But it’s a nudge.

Q: But we know it’s getting up early and exercising, like you do, that leads to good health. Not supplements…

A: We spend three-quarters of the show in subtle ways going at those same points, trying to get that message across in a way that resonates with you. That makes you think you could do it. The issue of snacking is another good example. You have to snack, but you need the right kinds of snacks. If you snack normally, then you’re never hungry, your ghrelin levels never get too high. I say all these things in fifteen different ways, and we come at them with different show angles.

Q: So that’s the greater good: balancing the glitzy stuff with science?

A: If you went line by line through the show and try to figure out what part of it is glitzy stuff, like icing on the cake, and what part is the meat of the cake, I bet that’s the right ratio: three-quarters is meat and potatoes, hard-core stuff you got to do but that’s the medicine. And if you just give people medicine, no one is going to watch the show. You have to give people information that seems like it’s novel and different and actionable. And do it in a way that’s defensible and exciting. Otherwise, you’re not going to have a show.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Science-ish is a joint project of Maclean’s, The Medical Post, and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at The Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto


Dr. Oz, faith healer

  1. Next time, fbe a little less afraid to call him on his BS. The interview is awful. It’s not “glitzy stuff” vs. science. It’s BS vs. science.

  2. Mother Theresa, like Doctor Oz, can be criticised for being self-serving and skeptism certainly can be healty, but let us not forget the good they have done. The Devil’s Advocate

  3. I guess I’d just ask him why he can’t help his buddy Oprah lose weight. 

    • That’s easy – everything boils down to choice.  Oprah has lost a lot of weight in the past, and gained it all back because of choices that she made.  I hardly follow Oz at all, but he will tell you, people choose to make lifestyle choices, or they don’t. His job is to give an array of lifestyle options, help you understand that choosing to use some of these options might improve your health.  I’m about 40 pounds overweight, and I know EXACTLY why I am overweight. If I followed any of his advice, I would probably drop a few pounds right away, but for the moment, I CHOOSE not too – and I will live with that for the moment.

      • Oh, hey, I’m with ya, Steve, even on the 40 pounds overweight.  I meant that I wonder if asked about Oprah, if Oz would answer honestly — like you did — or not.  My guess is that he would not because I do believe he’s stood next to  her while she claims to have some sort of glandular disorder that keeps her plump. 

        • Oprah did say that her thyroid quit…but only since she went through menopause.  Prior to that she did lose and regain weight many times.

      • If you followed any of his advice, you’d be risking both being scammed by all the woo he is pushing, as well as putting your health at risk.

        And just because he now and then promotes eating a balanced, moderate diet, doesn’t mean that he’s all of the sudden some kind of trustworthy *doctor* again. He gave that up a long time ago, and seems to have forgotten his hippocratic oath somewhere along the line….

    • I have wondered that ALOT!

  4. “…people don’t change what they do based on what they know; they change what they do based on what they feel.” What a profound (and hair-raising) statement for those seeking to influence behavior based on science.

  5. Science is over rated in this culture.  It is a fragmentation of reality, that focuses on fractionalizing realtiy.  If I surrounded the earth with dissecting circles, then divided those into arcs and looked at what each indivdual really knows, it would be less than the size of a spec of dust.  So is it ever possible to really know the truth using only scientific opinion?

    • If you can say that, you don’t understand science.

  6. Do we really understand medical science as well as we’d like to believe we do?

  7. Science is fabulous but, like everything done by people, it has flaws. Results of studies are skewed by the way the data is interpreted or calculated; some experiments held in some places give completely different results than the same experiment held in another place; statistics are also toyed with by removing unusual results from the percentiles without any analysis of the unusual; things that we are told are good for us are later proven to be harmful ie. eggs and blood cholestrol; and so on.  Assumptions are made about conditions such as Oprah’s weight. A woman who from humble beginnings has become a powerful and wealthy force yet she can’t control her food intake?  Why not?  Watch on Youtube;  Sugar; The Bitter Truth by Dr. Robert Lustig.  Find out something about current medical advice to consume “healthy” fruit juice.  Read Good Calories; Bad Calories a book by a medical researcher. Dr, Oz does a good job of informing all of us of new research and thought. 

  8. I think Dr. Oz does a terrific job in nudging us toward eating better and living longer. He may give too much credence to some remedies, but many are worth trying as long as one’s health is not put at risk. Good on him for giving millions of people hope and ideas they may not have encountered elsewhere. 

  9. It sounds as if the author is trying to pick a bone with Oz because his show isn’t dull and boring… If she  spent more of her time reading Orthomolecular medicine journals she’d know that there are mounds of studies that show nutraceuticals/supplements are highly effective at not only treating but curing many common ailments.
    What she is calling “science” is the biased BS that’s thrown around by pseudoskeptical bloggers who take the position that drug company financed “science” is the only stuff that counts: you know, the kind of things that juggle statistics to make their products look good on paper. 
    Oz already took down Steve Novella, another petulant scientistic character, on his show.
    The Old School notions about calories have been debunked numerous times and are responsible for the horridly unhealthy food served in hospitals for example. Eating fewer calories of junk is still junk, and marathon runners still drop dead of heart attacks even though they burn off as many/more calories than they consume.
    Oz is right. Most of what’s utilized in conventional medicine is NOT based on evidence and medicine is not science — it’s health care technology. Every health care technology report sponsored by various world governments including the WHO shows that well over 50 per cent of conventional medical treatments are of unknown or questionnable effectiveness.
    Science bloggers just don’t seem to know that or conveniently ignore the facts. Since they spend so much time giving the status quo undeserved status and make claims for it that just don’t stand up to scrutiny, one has to query what their real agenda is and who’s paying for it.

  10. I do acknowledge that he officially still holds the title… But I refuse to call Mr. Oz a doctor. I have for some time now. That’s right, I’m not showing the due respect that I am usually more than happy to show to a Ph.D. or M.D. But in extreme cases such as this, I simply cannot bring myself to do it.

    It would be something like calling Charles Manson a “public servant” or “officer of the peace.” Something I would also never allow to flow from my lips.

    In those two examples, the oxymoron is so pronounced, that I just can’t do it. Sorry Mr. Oz, but it would seem that Dr. Oz has been dead for quite some time. And what a shame, because it seems as though he was a damn good cardiothoracic surgeon, and I imagine the medical community mornes his loss.

    But alas, even highly decorated and literally heroic police officers and federal agents, can wind up throwing it all away and accepting bribes for personal benefit as opposed to the good of society. I guess that whether it’s a highly decorated law-person taking bribes from organized crime, or a great specialist taking bribes from charlatans to promote their nonsense, there is that risk that temptation will overcome a person’s morality.
    The difference being that if an officer or agent is found to to have succumbed to the woo of corruption, they won’t be an officer/agent much longer, at least in theory. A doctor however, well as long as there is not actually a case of literal malpractice, which isn’t going to be happening since he only promotes nonsense instead of performs it, then the undeserved title of “doctor” is fairly secure.

    R.I.P. Doctor Oz. Now all we have is some dreamy quack on prime time TV, with emotionally unstable women (CERTAIN women, that Oz appeals to. I’m not making a generalization of all or even many women) falling over themselves screaming because they get to wear a lab coat and get some hugs and kisses from the handsom guy before looking at a garden hose in a bucket to explain what a urethra is, or some kind of highly juvenile nonsense to that effect.

    And that’s the other unfortunate thing…. Any of his actually valid information, which is few and far between, is something that the rest of us all learned when our moms still drove us to school, and wrote notes to excuse us for being late in the morning from time to time. Yet, we have fully grown adults on this show, more concerned with screaming and squeezing Mehmet in a lab-coat, any energy left over being carelessly dedicated to blindly gobbling up a bunch of feel-good ignorance, dishonestly, and medically unethical trash.

    Is this the shopping network, or a medical show? It’s sure not a medical show, I know that for sure, and there are certainly enough brands and products to rival any shopping network……

  11. Science isn’t a philosophy or dogma, it’s a method of certain procedures, when done properly, help us to understand the natural world around us. What Dr. Oz uses on his show is called pseudoscience. The difference is that pseudoscience, uses scientific sounding terminology and poorly constructed methodology, that isn’t peer reviewed but media revealed to sell a product or idea that is more based on a emotional biased belief. Science which searches for truth, is something Oz is willing to put on the chopping block, so that people can have hope and feel good about themselves. Sorry but those that understand the scientific method know that the only hope we have is based in understanding how the world works , not how we wish it to work.

  12. In the 1800’s he would have been called a “snake-oil salesman” in the 1900’s, a “flim flam man”…today, a con artist. Jim Jones, move over, you have a new cult leader. Part of Oprah’s draconic zoo.

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