Dr. Oz and the Pathology of 'Open-Mindedness'

In the pursuit of scientific discovery, where is the line between alternative therapies and "quackademic" medicine?

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The Dr. Oz Show provides critics with ample material: séances, energy healing, miracle diet products. Once a media darling, Oz has been subjected to a steady stream of public humiliations, from his shaming in front of a Senate subcommittee to an April 15 letter that a group of doctors wrote to Columbia University, urging his dismissal from the faculty, accusing him of promoting “quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain”—to which Dr. Oz responded with an ad hominem attack on the letter-writers and a defense of free speech. But despite numerous subsequent think pieces about the man behind the curtain, a crucial question stands out: Why call for Dr. Oz’s dismissal, when many medical schools and hospitals endorse the most outlandish of his claims?

Take séances. The University of Virginia Medical School houses a “division of perceptual studies,” where respected scientists authenticate memories of past lives and advise parents on how to help their children separate genuine memories from “fantasy.” The director, psychiatrist Jim Tucker, has written a popular book on the subject and promotes the authenticity of past lives on television. His account of how it works sounds like it could have been written by Harvard guest faculty member Deepak Chopra: “Quantum physics indicates that our physical world may grow out of our consciousness.”

Or take energy healing. The prestigious Cleveland Clinic has a “fact sheet” on reiki—the Japanese energy healing tradition practiced by Oz’s wife, Lisa—which explains how reiki uses “universal life force energy” to “detoxify the body” and “increase the vibrational frequency on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels.” (Pets and other animals “respond positively to Reiki healing as well.”)

Like Oz, other established academics lend their credentials to miracle diet products. Antioxidant expert Carmia Borek is a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and she allows herself to be listed as part of the scientific advisory board for an unsubstantiated “revolutionary weight-loss formula” called TAISlim. Borek is in good company: Another member of the board is the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine professor Judith Stern. (Borek and Stern also appear on a website that sells acai berry “anti-aging serum.”)

One need not even look beyond the walls of Oz’s own university. Woodson C. Merrell, executive director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Center for Health and Healing and former assistant clinical professor at Columbia Medical School, lists homeopathy as one of his clinical interests—despite a scientific consensus that homeopathy is inconsistent with some of the basic laws of chemistry and physics.*

Indeed, a vocal minority of physicians and scientists have long claimed that Dr. Oz is a symptom, not the problem. Most prominent among them are the Yale neurologist Steven Novella and the Wayne State University surgical oncologist David Gorski, who refer to the problem as “quackademic medicine.” For Novella and Gorski, the concern is not merely that people will waste money on homeopathic sugar pills or fruitless miracle diets. They emphasize that Dr. Oz and universities alike endanger public health by legitimating alternative medical traditions such as naturopathy and chiropractic. This, in turn, can lead people to reject standard medical care. Vaccination is a classic case: Though most people are unaware of it, the official position of the American Chiropractic Association supports “providing an alternative elective course of action regarding vaccination.” Similarly, the New York University medical ethicist Arthur Caplan expresses concern that naturopaths—who practice an unstandardized mix of therapies including traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy, craniosacral therapy, iridology, and reiki— routinely grant vaccine exemptions, and are licensed to do so in 17 states.

Oz and like-minded doctors defend themselves by appealing to the importance of humility and open-mindedness. They stress, as Oz did Thursday for, that these virtues need not come at the cost of rejecting so-called conventional medicine:

Critics often imply that any exploration of alternative methods means abandoning conventional approaches. It does not. In fact, many institutions like mine use the names ‘complementary’ or ‘integrative’ medicine, which is also appropriate.

But integration requires a delicate balancing act. It’s good to be open-minded, but not, as the old saying goes, “so open-minded that your brain falls out.” For those who believe that past lives exist and energy healing increases our vibrational frequency, who’s to say that there aren’t good alternatives to vaccines, or that miracle diet pills don’t actually work?

Thursday, millions watched as Dr. Oz defended himself against critics on his show. What his audience might not have realized is that some other respected physicians at prestigious medical schools were watching along and hoping, if quietly, that he would succeed.

* This article originally stated that Woodson Merrell is currently an assistant professor at Columbia Medical School. His appointment ended on December 31, 2013. We regret the error.