“Rock star of science” hurts science

Dr. Mehmet Oz is a cardiac surgeon and science/medicine popularizer who, with the backing of Oprah, got his own syndicated television program, The Dr. Oz Show.   He’s also a bestselling author and was named by Esquire as one of the 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century.

He’s also one of the Rock Stars of Science, an ill-conceived campaign designed to improve science communication by having scientists stand next to real rock stars, hoping that the cool will osmose between them.  Here’s Dr. Oz (right) with Keri Hilson (center):

Fig. 1:  I can haz cool too?

Sadly, Dr. Oz seems to have dropped the ball when teaching the public about genetically modified foods.  Abbie Smith (erv) called my attention to a segment of the Dr. Oz show in which he invited Dr. Pamela Ronald, UC Davis plant pathologist, GM food expert, and coauthor (with Raoul Adamchak) of Tomorrow’s Table, to debate the safety of GM foods with two other panelists, including the GM food wacko alarmist Jeffrey Smith.   Ronald tried repeatedly to make the point that there’s no evidence that GM foods endanger human health, and to refer the viewer to university websites so that they can judge the evidence, but to no avail.  Dr. Oz chimed in with the two other panelists to cast strong and unwarranted aspersions on GM foods.

Here are the three videos (15 minutes total); see in particular the segment from 4:25 to 5:00 in video 2 and 3:45 in video 3, where Dr. Oz basically claims that the data are irrelevant and we have to make judgments on GM foods more or less based on our superstititions.

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

The show is precisely equivalent to one in which a scientist armed with data on human-caused global warming is opposed by two denialists with no data but a lot of sand to throw in the viewers’ eyes.

Over at her website, Tomorrow’s Table, Pam Ronald laments the disaster that was this episode of Dr. Oz:

Can the audience glean that from the information presented on the show? I am afraid not.

What we do know is that after 14 years of consumption there has been not a single instance of harm to human health or the environment (and many indisputable benefits).

I did my best to refute the worst “woo woo pseudoscience” but it was difficult. I asked the producers (who were very nice by the way) to remove the scary graphics and bullet points but no luck. I argued that showing that stuff would tarnish Dr. Oz’s reputation and harm his viewers (who are now probably terrified- I can just imagine my mother-in-law taking note on all the “points” made).

I had a chance to plug some great science-based, academic, non-profit sites (bioforitifed,org, ucbiotech.org and academicsreview.org) but all of my case specific examples (reduced insecticide use in GE cotton fields, enhanced biodiversity, disease resistant papaya, Golden rice) were cut from the TV version. I guess the producers did not want to mix too much scientific evidence in there with the fantastical stuff.

Boo to Dr. Oz.  I wonder if Chris Mooney, who’s been so vociferous in promoting Rock Stars of Science as a way to communicate good science to the public, will disclaim this show?  After all, he’d surely do that if one of his “rock stars” hosted a show that denied global warming.

h/t: erv (go read her take).

66 thoughts on ““Rock star of science” hurts science

  1. I don’t suppose I’m necessarily against something like this in principal. But it rather looks like the organisers are sufficiently clueless about science to actually implement it properly.

  2. The trouble is getting television & other media interested enough to promote science & an appreciation of science. I have a strong distrust of people who like to associate with the glitterati, & being photographed with some popular ‘celebrity’ does not help get across that appreciation or promote understanding – does it?

  3. It’s all too easy on such programs to match a counterpoint idjit against someone who actually knows the subject — and this no doubt raises the ratings among the idjit demographic.

    Unfortunately this seems to happen in nearly every important subject.

    I would say that I welcome our new idjit overlords, but they are already here, and they’re terrible.

  4. I think “Rockstars of Science” has potential but they are approaching it the wrong way.
    I’m waiting for the one where they let Lemmy and Ozzy Osbourne loose in a chemistry lab. Or how about letting Ted Nugent run the Large Hadron Collider for an afternoon? (I think its safer than letting him near the wildlife). And for biology who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Bono “swimming with the crocodiles of the Zambezi”.

  5. I regret the scare tactics used by some opponents of GM foods. There is pseudoscience at work. There is probably little difference healthwise between eating a public domain tomato and a Monsanto-patented tomato. More than likely there will be no rampaging GM corn beasts invading our cities.

    Does this mean GM foods are a good idea? Does this mean that the corporations doing the R&D on GM foods have our best interests at heart (or even anywhere on the radar)?

    I worry that advances in GM foods are giving us false hope that we are going to “science” our way out of what is a fundamentally a political/moral problem. People aren’t starving because they don’t have access to a herbicide-resistant soybean. People are starving because they don’t have access to land and some water. Given land and some water, most people in the world can feed themselves. But water and land are commodities that powerful people find difficult to part with.

    Didn’t want this to get lost in the fully-warranted piling-on of Dr. Oz. That guy bugs the shit out of me.

    1. I’m not sure what “”science” our way” means.

      But I do know that

      a) so called “ecological” foods are likely nothing but; a few science papers from -60 – 00’s saying that the yield is ~ 60 % of normal agriculture, we can’t feed the world on it even if we occupy all arable land.

      b) increasing or inducing natural horizontal gene transfer is socially and ecologically beneficial.

      The “powerful people” stuff reads as conspiracy theory. Statistics, please.

      1. It means that the solution to poverty in the world is not knowing something we don’t know, or applying a technology we don’t have. The solution is behaving differently.

        Rebuttals:

        a) I’ll provisionally grant you the 60% figure sight unseen. I don’t think your conclusion follows. Back of the envelope calculation (sources available upon request): One needs somewhere between 5×10^-3 (Typical industrialized meat-eating diet) and a bare minimum of 7×10^-4 km^2 of arable land to feed a person. We are growing inefficient hippie vegetables, but lets say we pare down meat consumption to make up the difference. It then makes sense to take a figure somewhere on the high side of the mean of the extremes, lets say 3×10^-3 km^2 per person. Multiply by 6 billion, and we have 18 million km^2 needed to feed the world. Wikipedia tells us the net potential rainfed arable area on the planet is over 38 million.

        b) Is it really? In all circumstances? Every time? You still say yes? Then what of GM crops designed to prevent horizontal gene transfer? Are they also an unqualified good?

        As for your insinuation that I’m paranoid, I suggest that not noticing the overall historical trend of foreign people dispossesing native inhabitants of their natural resources is plain ignorance. For statistics see any contemporary high-school history textbook.

  6. I wonder how many of these nutjobs are aware that virtually all our food is genetically modified.
    Not necessarily in a lab, but through generations of selective breeding. Your Christmas turkey has such an enlarged breast he can’t even reproduce without human help. Maize is a mutant that can’t survive without the farmer’s intervention.
    Apples were sour and nearly inedible until a couple hundred years ago. (Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wasn’t popular because his fruit trees produced food; he was popular because his crabapples fermented easily and could be distilled into liquor, called “applejack.” He didn’t wear that pot on his head to look jaunty, he was simply drunk.

  7. Besides, is Oz really a “rock star” of science, anyway? Someone else would know better than I, but aren’t there tons of physicians and scientists who have meant more to contemporary medicine than this guy? I’ve seen Oz on television and watched him support woo several times in the past. Wikipedia has a fairly even-handed accounting:

    Oz is a supporter of alternative medicine.[3] Some conventional medical practitioners allege that Oz may be promoting unproven and potentially harmful alternative medicine practices on The Oprah Winfrey Show [30] and elsewhere.[31][32][33] Appearing in surgical scrubs on the show’s set in Chicago, Oz has promoted self-described energy based practices and acupuncture on the show.[34]

    Did he get driven to the wrong photo shoot? Seems he would have been just as comfortable at the “Rock Stars of Pseudoscience” shoot.

  8. I don’t really understand the aversion to the general point of, although not the objection to specific representatives used in, this campaign. It seems dangerously close to suggesting the “You’re just not helping” meme of Mooneyism.

    I thought we had all agreed that a multiplicity of voices and messages was optimal?

    Scientists should and would be rock stars if our society had any sense. What is wrong with reaching out to those whose sensibilities are not exactly enlightened yet, and getting them to realize that scientists deserve some props and being a scientist can be cool?

      1. And the minor fact I had no problem with the ‘Rockstar’ campaign until this happened.

        I thought it was silly, and most likely ineffectual, but I stated very clearly that I didnt actively discourage it.

        But I reevaluate my positions based on evidence. I expect Mooney to address and deal with this problem so we can make sure it does not happen again.

        Whats the matter with that? Nothing about ‘youre not helping’ other than addressing a very real instance when a ‘Rockstar’ is unarguably not helping.

        1. Why was he included, anyway? He has a TV show, but he is a doctor. Doctors aren’t necessarily scientists, are they?

          I don’t think Chris is going to be concerned about this at all, because it doesn’t affect Oz’s coolness.

  9. Occasionally, I am subjected to Dr. Oz on the Oprah show (I detest that show; but sometimes it’s on and I can’t escape. In fact, I haven’t watched TV (beyond an incidental few hours per year) for over 23 years.)

    I have heard him say the most ridiculus and unsupported things!

    Most recently, I heard him say this, and I paraphrase slightly: “No, there are no clinical data to support any positive health outcomes for this supplement. But it can’t hurt.” [my emphasis]

    We have no data — but it can’t hurt. Riiiight …

    The Oprah show thrives on anecdote.

  10. Oz is not a practitioner of Evidence Based Medicine, and does not deserve any kind of recognition, as far as I’m concerned. His goal in life seems to be to muddy the waters of his audience’s understanding of the world. He’s Deepok Chopra in scrubs.

    1. He’s Deepok Chopra in scrubs.

      Absolutely. He clearly aspires to be a Chopra-like figure.

      I realize this is a matter of personal preference, but for my money Deepak will always be the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Bullshit. His capacity for mendacious woo is unrivaled.

  11. A great response to the contamination question is “it’s called evolution, God didn’t create all the species 5000 years ago in Iraq so they would never be modified”.

  12. I just don’t understand why Dr. Oz was up there with real scientists (and rock stars). “GMO = evil” is not the only woo-woo that he pushes.

    Pam’s set herself the unenviable task of working on agricultural sustainability issues with minimal impact on the environment – that involves studying variations on the older farming practices as well as genetic modification of plants to improve characteristics – I’m sure that would attract all sorts of nuts without Dr. Oz making things worse.

  13. Anyone care to explain why Monsanto went after a seed saver for trying to help farmers save their own seed?Or why they are encouraging the dominance of King Corn which is destroying our topsoil?How about when they prosecuted a Canadian canola grower when their genes drifted onto his field?Why on Earth would we engineer trees with less lignin so trees are easier to pulp into paper?You science nerds think that if its scientific,its perfect and it wont have any bad effects.For people who are supposed to be educated and aware you havent been paying attention to the monstrous crimes against nature and humanity by technology of all stripes.Calling people “nutjobs” is not evidence based discourse.I am an atheist,and I believe the genetic work has a future.Richard Dawkins stated in “The Greatest show on earth”,we should approach gm with a precautionary principle.and a whole lot less hubris about the consequences of our endeavors.I do find Dr Oz annoying myself,but not everything on his show is woo.Not all creationists are nutjobs.Thet are mistaken in their views,certainly.BUT IM SICK AND FUCKING TIRED OF JUVENILE NAME CALLING.What we need are better ways to comunicate to science to general public

    1. oh,by the way-could we come up with a little better term than woo for falsehood.I mean it doesnt have to be in a foreign lamguage that only a phd could understand.But certainly we could come up with something straightforward ,and a little more communicative than “woo”

      1. But certainly we could come up with something straightforward ,and a little more communicative than “woo”

        What’s more straightforward than “woo”?

        Straightforward: “free from evasiveness and obscurity.”

        It may not be polite, but it could hardly be less straightforward.  Woo is a word skeptics use as shorthand to describe pseudo-scientific and often anti-scientific ideas – ideas that are irrational and not based on evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the claim.  These are ideas that usually rely on magical thinking, are rarely tested to see if they are real, and are usually resistant to reason and contrary evidence. How does “woo” not communicate that?

    2. I can answer the question about the Canadian farmer. He sued Monsanto, alleging they somehow ruined his crop. Monsanto sued back. The verdict in favor of Monsanto was unbelievably stupid (makes me wonder if the judge is crooked or just extremely stupid). But that has absolutely nothing to do with the safety of the modified food crops.

      1. Whoops … dang memory. Wikipedia has a decent entry on the case. It seems I was only imagining that Schmeiser sued first.

      2. I wasn’t aware of the later outcome. The case was heard by Canada’s Supreme Court and the ruling was far more sensible than in the lower courts. Schmeiser owes Monsanto nothing but musn’t plant Monsanto’s canola without signing the agreement with Monsanto and paying the appropriate fees. However it is a big win for Monsanto (in Canada) because their modified crops are now recognized in case law as being protected by patents. That happens to be good news for folks like Schmeiser as well because now Monsanto can address similar cases with a very good chance of avoiding lawsuits.

    3. “Why on Earth would we engineer trees with less lignin so trees are easier to pulp into paper?”

      Probably because they would be easier to pulp into paper?

      1. Theres lots of reasons-read forest forever page on genetic engineering=heres a big-why destroy thousands of living wild trees so creationists and their ilk have access to cheap paper to print crap that everyone would be better off not reading.Or how about computers were supposed to bring on the paper free office.I could go on and on

          1. OH YEA THIS TOO-EVOLUTION IS SMARTER THAN YOU ARE=LEAVE YOUR GREEDY GE HANDS OFF HER WILD MASTERPIECES.wHAT IF WE GO EXTINCT,AND LEAVE THEM ALL CRIPPLED HOW ARE THEY GOING TO SURVIVE

  14. … a seed saver for trying to help farmers save their own seed…
    OMG YOU ARE AMAZING!! HOW DO YOU KNOW STUFF LIKE THIS?? ARE YOU SOME KIND OF WIZARD????

    Or are you just a run-of-the-mill artard who saw ‘Food Inc’ and think you are like, SUPER educated and aware now?

    New question: Anyone want to explain why companies go after people pirating their operating systems/programs/games?

    I swear to god 99.999999% of the people against GMOs have no idea what the hell they are talking about. Evidence that the public NEEDED Pam to have this platform.

    1. why dont you ask the man who had his livelihood destroyed by monsanto?why dont you contact him yourself and ask him?buck fuller state that patents are all bullshit.if it works its a property of universe and it belongs to everyone.oh,and you are an asshole

      1. I believe,IF you read my post,I stated that I believe gm has a future with a precautionary principle.misrepresentation,anyone

        1. oh yea=i am just a run of the mill average joe you wish you were a real genius name caller.Like I SAID JUVENILE NAME CALLING IS NOT FACT BASED DISCOURSE

        2. And vaccines have some use if they’re proven to be safe – so say the anti-vaxxers. The “we need to prove GMO is safe” is a lie which the anti-science crowd has been parroting for 2 decades. Not only is the food demonstrated to be safe, based on what people know of biology (which is a hell of a lot) there is no reason to imagine that GMO can somehow not be safe.

        1. And he was the one claiming he doesn’t like the juvenile name-calling. Is that irony or hypocrisy?

      2. Can we all please agree to keep the following separate:
        1. whether or not Monsanto or any other company do unethical or even immoral things
        2. whether or not GM food is safe for human consumption
        3. whether or not GM agriculture is a net good for the environment

        Of course, even this is too reductionist, as each different GM crop is (or at least should be) independently evaluated on points 2 and 3, and moreover there are separable questions within each which may even conflict (e.g. on the environment, a particular crop could reduce water consumption and soil erosion but still carry the risk of contaminating centers of biodiversity) but it’s a good start.

        1. I dont see the huge emergency to develop GM,or GE.There other strategies for feeding people.One really neat idea would to stop making so many people.Its not really whether GM is harmful.Its what the greedhead,monopolistic corporations will do with it when they get their hands on it.Just cause you can do something doesnt mean you should.Some things are better left undone.Read the sad tale of human error in history,my dear.

          1. guess my real name.not very big deal.another blow for free and open discourse,with civility as a topping.Happy new year,and may you all live long and prosper

  15. Dr. OZ looks like a dork in that picture—-there I said it. He has been knee-deep in woo from the get-go. He often does shows on spiritual themes and alternative medicine. His wife is really out there. She calls herself a Reiki master (I’m not making this up). Once Orac wrote a post saying that Oz said his wife was anti-vaccine! I saw a video several months ago of the Oz show showing an application of Reiki. A woman was brought from the crowd, there was some laying of the hands, and then Oz asked her how she felt. “Fine” of course. No mention by Oz that this might, just might, be a placebo effect.

  16. I wonder if Chris Mooney, who’s been so vociferous in promoting Rock Stars of Science as a way to communicate good science to the public, will disclaim this show? After all, he’d surely do that if one of his “rock stars” hosted a show that denied global warming.

    I most assuredly do not share your optimistic confidence in Christ Money’s scientific integrity.

  17. “The show is precisely equivalent to one in which a scientist armed with data on human-caused global warming is opposed by two denialists with no data but a lot of sand to throw in the viewers’ eyes.”

    Exactly

    1. to all of the above-I say there are more importat fish to fry than the ones you are frying here-why dont you all pick on somebody who can bite back-like the DOD,or Monsanto,or the Timber Beast destroying the orangutangs home.Please,picking on Dr. Oz-reminds me os schooolyard bullies

  18. I am 100% for GMO food, especially if it makes crops more drought resistant or disease resistant. And, I don’t believe that current GMO crops are that big of a risk to human health. But, I also don’t think that the current GMO RoundUp resistant corn/soybeans/canola are that great for the environment either, as millions of square miles of of land must be drenched with RoundUp for their use. I believe that tillage, mulch or living mulch, and even landscape fabric/weed barrier methods are far better for the environment and more sustainable than using GMO RoundUp resistant seed.

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