Monday, March 4, 2013

Oprah at Harvard, Part II

A comment on the Crimson story got me poking around (I am not a big Oprah watcher) and now I wonder: Did anyone on the Harvard honorary degrees committee consider the fact that Oprah is a major purveyor of pseudoscience? Four years ago Newsweek did an extensive debunking of pseudo-medicine pandered on her show. She was #1 on Brian Dunning's list of the top 10 purveyors of pseudoscience, citing her as follows: "she promotes the paranormal, psychic powers, new age spiritualism, conspiracy theories, quack celebrity diets, past life regression, angels, ghosts, alternative therapies like acupuncture and homeopathy, anti-vaccination, detoxification, vitamin megadosing, and virtually everything that will distract a human being from making useful progress and informed decisions in life." Or read Martin Gardner's take on Oprah -- and her frequent guest, Harvard's own Dr. Oz.

There is an old formula associated with the Harvard presidency. It has been used in the past by the Senior Fellow as an inaugural incantation: "We ask you to dedicate yourself to the University's paramount purpose - giving a true account of the gift of reason." It goes back to Josiah Quincy, but it is actually a paraphrase of Francis Bacon. I am not sure whether it was used at President Faust's inauguration.

It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can't square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.

9 comments:

  1. Everything is wrong about having her as the speaker, including the very outdated photo used to promote the story.

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  2. What are the criteria for giving out an honorary degree?
    I propose some criteria, but my question remains non-rhetorical.
    Intellectual?
    Has had an impact? This breaks down into positive and negative impact.
    Celebrity?
    Has something inspiring to say to the youth of America, or of Harvard?
    Is a good speaker?
    Someone who will return the favor by donating money?

    If Oprah gives an excellent inspiring speech then will you say that
    was a good choice OR will you still say that what she represents
    (nonsense science) is so bad that its still bad to give her a platform? I ask that nonrhet also.

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    1. Harvard doesn't actually say what the criteria are, but you can nominate anyone you'd like by filling out this form.

      Yes, my view is that we should not be giving honorary degrees to people who have been major adversaries of the university's fundamental mission of the pursuit of the truth through the rule of reason. I would say, based on the evidence, that this view is not shared by the Advisory Committee on Honorary Degrees or by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

      I am sure she will give a good speech, deeply moving about educating girls and lifting people out of global poverty. We shall see if it is anything she hasn't said before. That is another aspect of celebrity speakers -- they tend to be so busy they don't produce new material for us, and that used to be a basic courtesy.

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  3. The impossible lives right next door to the possible. Folks ring its doorbell by mistake all the time.

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  4. Most of the criticism of Oprah has just been guilt by association. She's interviewed over 30,000 people in the last quarter century so it's very easy to write a hit piece cherry picking dozens of examples of quacks/pseudo scientists that have appeared on her show, but most of the time they were there just because they're celebrities and their pseudo-scientific theories only get mentioned in passing.

    I wouldn't consider her a major promoter of pseudoscience at all; in fact science of any kind was rare on her show except when Dr. Oz was on. The only irrational thing Oprah consistently promoted was spirituality, but it was a new-age secular inclusive spirituality that was a huge improvement over the intolerant dogmatic organized religion that dominated the culture prior to the age of Oprah.

    Oprah also promoted literature through her book which is consistent with Harvard's values and the single most imporant thing she promoted was Obama, who appears to be one of the more rational presidents America has had.

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    1. It's amazing how Newsweek managed to pick enough medical cherries out of her shows to produce a long and devastating cover story. Here is a fuller account of the Jenny McCarthy chapter: (From Live Your Best Life Ever!

      It is easy to see why parents like McCarthy have latched onto vaccines as the culprit. They want answers, and sadly there are few. Studies have found some genetic and environmental links that may increase the risk of autism, but its causes are still unknown. The baffling rise in the number of autism cases has loosely coincided with an increase in the number of childhood immunizations. Yet researchers have not found a link between the vaccines and autism. Here is what we do know: before vaccinations, thousands of children died or got sick each year from measles, mumps and rubella.

      But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy's charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy's bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link. Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem. But McCarthy got the last word. "My science is named Evan, and he's at home. That's my science." Oprah might say that McCarthy was just sharing her first-person story and that Oprah wasn't endorsing her point of view. But by the end of the show, the take-away message for any mother with young kids was pretty clear: be afraid.


      Oprah told viewers that McCarthy would be available to answer questions and give guidance later that day on Oprah.com. One viewer went online to ask McCarthy what she would do if she could do it all over again. "If I had another child," McCarthy answered, "I would not vaccinate." A mother wrote in to say that she had decided not to give her child the MMR vaccine because of fears of autism. McCarthy was delighted. "I'm so proud you followed your mommy instinct," she wrote. A year later, McCarthy was back on the show for an episode about "Warrior Moms," which gave her another opportunity to expand on her claims about vaccines and autism. Oprah must have liked what she heard. McCarthy became a semiregular guest on the show, and in May, Oprah announced that her production company had signed McCarthy for a talk show of her own.


      To be sure she is a complicated person. That is why Martin Gardner noted the good along with the bad:

      There are two Oprah Winfreys. One is the African-American woman who struggled against incredible odds in abject poverty to become the wealthiest, most admired woman in America. No one has summarized this Winfrey better than Ken Frazier in a letter to me that I quote with permission:

      "She has done some enormous good, it seems to me. She has, among other things, strongly empowered women, instilled a love of reading books through her book club program, taken on a number of very difficult issues with a seriousness and directness not usually associated with daytime TV, funded and built schools in South Africa, and otherwise served as a successful role model for millions of women worldwide."

      The other Oprah Winfrey is an attractive, intelligent woman with a heart of gold, but who has only a pale understanding of modern science. On her daily television show (which, she announced in November to stunned viewers, will end after its twenty-fifth season, 2010–11) she promotes, as frequent guests, men and women who preach views and opinions that are medically worthless and in a few cases can even lead to death. This na├»ve Winfrey is the topic of this article.

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  5. It's amazing how Newsweek managed to pick enough medical cherries out of her shows to produce a long and devastating cover story

    Skilled propagandists can write a devastating story about any public figure through a biased, selective and misleading representation of the facts.


    But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy's charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy's bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link.

    That's because the show was not ABOUT the alleged vaccines-autism link. Oprah was interviewing McCarthy about the struggles of raising a disabled child and vaccines were only mentioned in passing.


    Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem.

    Since McCarthy's attack on vaccines was extremely brief, Oprah's brief rebuttal was sufficient.

    But by the end of the show, the take-away message for any mother with young kids was pretty clear: be afraid.

    I disagree. I watched the show and I did not become afraid of vaccines as a result of McCarthy's very brief attack on them. That was not the theme of the show, it was just a brief comment made in passing, and the disclaimer Oprah read made clear that actual scientists disagreed with McCarthy's anecdotal opinion.

    One viewer went online to ask McCarthy what she would do if she could do it all over again. "If I had another child," McCarthy answered, "I would not vaccinate." A mother wrote in to say that she had decided not to give her child the MMR vaccine because of fears of autism. McCarthy was delighted. "I'm so proud you followed your mommy instinct," she wrote.

    Oprah's not responsible for everything people write on her web site. I could have written an anti-vaccine tirade on your blog had I wanted to, but that wouldn't make YOU culpable. You could argue that Oprah was reckless to allow someone like McCarthy to host an on-line discussion in the first place, but the discussion was not about vaccines, though that inevitably comes up. Still, people were free to challenge McCarthy, and it's not like McCarthy needed Oprah to reach an audience; she's a celebrity in her own right who was giving her opinion all over the media.

    A year later, McCarthy was back on the show for an episode about "Warrior Moms," which gave her another opportunity to expand on her claims about vaccines and autism.

    If I recall the "Warrior Moms" episode, McCarthy appeared only in a brief clip about mothers fighting formidable opponents (i.e. the medical establishment).

    Oprah must have liked what she heard. McCarthy became a semiregular guest on the show, and in May, Oprah announced that her production company had signed McCarthy for a talk show of her own.

    While it's true that McCarthy appeared on Oprah several times, she virtually never spoke about vaccines which is why Newsweek had to scrounge through thousands of Oprah message board comments to find quotes where McCarthy condemned vaccines on an Oprah venue. She did very briefly attack vaccines on one show about autism and a second show about warrior moms, but other than that she appeared on Oprah in her capacity as a comic entertainer, celebrity mother and wife of Jim Carey. As for Oprah giving her a talk show; that plan was axed.

    On her daily television show (which, she announced in November to stunned viewers, will end after its twenty-fifth season, 2010–11) she promotes, as frequent guests, men and women who preach views and opinions that are medically worthless and in a few cases can even lead to death.

    Out of 30,000 guests I'm sure she has promoted some worthless and dangerous people but you could say the same about any major media entity.

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    1. Martin Gardner and Brian Dunning, these guys are always getting swept up in paranoid propaganda.

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    2. Even the most brilliant critical thinkers can get swept up by propaganda if they haven't done their own independent research in a scientific way. Gardner and Dunning probably don't even watch Oprah, they have no objective definition of pseudoscience, they've done no statistical analysis of how much pseudoscience Oprah has promoted compared to anyone else, so to call Oprah a leading promoter of pseudoscience is itself pseudoscience. Where's the data?

      Just taking the vaccine controversy as an example, just going on youtube I found half a dozen major media venues (everyone from Fox News to MSNBC to HBO) promoting anti-vaccination FAR more aggressively than Oprah ever did. At least when Oprah's guest briefly attacked vaccines, Oprah read a disclaimer; on other shows, not only is the disclaimer often neglected, but it's the host HIMSELF who is in some cases attacking vaccines:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ry7toSjjgXE

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB5DLf1Qt78

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUndbmAzPqs

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17E1ORNFomg

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN5Ylm8_cD8

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FSg6lG3cvTE

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zdCeRficNvQ

      And yet none of these media sources was so much as mentioned in passing in the Newsweek hit piece. As I explained in the other thread, Newsweek probably had a very specific agenda in attacking Oprah and of course others just repeated Newsweek's propaganda without taking the time to do their own research.


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