Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why Oprah Was a Bad Choice for Commencement Speaker

On Monday I blogged (here and here) about the announcement that Oprah Winfrey would be Harvard's Commencement speaker. After that was picked up and I was quoted in the Globe yesterday on the selection, Kevin Hartnett of the Globe's Ideas page emailed me some questions, which I answered. As I explain below, this was a good opportunity for me to explain that Oprah's status as a rich celebrity wasn't the real problem, though that was the only part of my interview with the reporter that made it into print on Tuesday. Hartnett has posted a good summary of my main points, filling in some editorial background. Here is his blog post: Oprah at Harvard: A bad fit? I might add, in reference to his suggestion that I am a vox clamante in deserto, that there is hardly a professor I have run into who doesn't share my view--and that half a dozen alums I happened to see at a party last night were all rolling their eyes too.

I had hoped a print version of this exchange might appear, but apparently that is not in the cards. Be that as it may, Hartnett's blog post also omitted some things I had hoped would get onto the record, so I am reproducing our entire exchange (modulo a little copy editing) immediately below.

Hi Kevin. Nice to meet you. I am glad to follow up, because I am afraid the way I was quoted makes it sound like I am against wealthy celebrities. I am not;  my sometime student Bill Gates was a wealthy celebrity too when he came, and he certainly deserved the honor! 

And by the way, I assert in my blog post that Winfrey will be receiving an honorary degree, but that is actually not stated in Harvard's story about her. I suspect that this is just because the formality of voting the degree has to be done by the President and Fellows and that has not happened yet. It would be unprecedented, as far as I know, for the commencement address (actually the HAA annual meeting address, of course) to be given by someone who had not received an honorary degree (and somehow I doubt Winfrey would allow herself to be the first!). But we don't really know that (unless the Globe has been able to figure it out?).

Dear Harry-

I write for the Boston Globe's Ideas section….  I've read the two blog posts you've written on the topic and I have some follow-up questions I'd like to ask:

1. Could you elaborate on why you don't think Oprah is an appropriate choice?
I wouldn't disagree with any of the reasons cited in explaining the selection. My main concern is that she is a leading popularizer of pseudo-science and medical quackery. She is a brilliantly skilled entertainer; people love her and respect her opinion. But that is what makes her so dangerous when her guests, with her enthusiastic support, warn parents off childhood immunizations and otherwise encourage practices that are bad for human health. The notion that there is a parallel universe denied by science where wonderful things happen is fundamentally at odds with the university's commitment to the rule of evidence and reason as opposed to superstition and ignorance. More than that, the advice promoted on her show was often bad for people; Winfrey's success is based in part on the fact that there are certain kinds of falsehoods that people want to believe. The honor being given her legitimates the nonsense on which she has so successfully built her career and made her fortune.

Ultimately it's the dissonant message about the values of the university that is so troubling. There has been a lot of talk about academic integrity at Harvard this year, and a lot of students were given a year off to think about academic values and what it means to pursue and report the truth in an honest way. Marc Hauser was forced to give up his professorship over scientific fraud that was a lot less egregious than the things that have made Winfrey famous. Students witnessing all this can only think that the university itself thinks that the worldly standards Winfrey has promoted are a legitimate alternative to the rules of what must be an academic game, when we should be teaching them that the pursuit of the truth inside academia is continuous with what we hope they will promote in the rest of their lives.
2. Why do you think she was selected?
I am sure the philanthropy and inspirational background were important considerations, but it is hard not to suspect that her celebrity and broad appeal were not also significant factors. People love her, and I imagine it was hoped she would excite no protests. Perhaps the committee overvalues inoffensiveness.

3. Imagining one way in which people might disagree with you, I want to ask, is it at least a little snobby to say that arguably America's most successful woman isn't suited to giving a commencement address at the university?
Not snobbish at all. In fact, I personally don't like giving honorary degrees to academics. We get enough prizes from each other already. I wish this were the day when Harvard looked outward, and recognized the contributions of those living outside academia to the values for which the university stands. Some successful businesspeople, even if any one of us might disagree with their opinions about this or that, generally stand for the pursuit of the truth through informed debate, for the use of scientific methods in separating fact from fiction, and so on, in addition to generosity of spirit, kindness, humility, fairness, human equality, and other such important values. But they don't all do so. Same for politicians -- I wouldn't say that being the world's most successful politician automatically means that you merit an honorary degree from Harvard. Interesting, in this regard, to contrast Harvard-Winfrey with Stanford-Bloomberg, where the university has chosen to honor a wealthy businessman AND politician with whom it has publicly crossed swords. That seems to me just right -- I am sure he will have something to say that will excite rational discourse, even if many in the audience disagree with him and want to argue with him.

I wish we would recognize the contributions of the most humble members of society to the values universities hold dear -- Oseola McCarty, for example. They are a reminder to our graduates and to the rest of us about how we should be leading our lives, things that transcend our material success.
4. Do you see Oprah as symptomatic of bigger troubling trends about America?
There is nothing new here. Sinclair Lewis talked about the same sort of American hucksterism and fraud in Arrowsmith almost 90 years ago. But I can't think of a time when Harvard was involved in validating it.
5.  Lastly, you mention the Shah of Iran and J.K. Rowling on your blog.  Are there any other commencement speaker selections you think were incongruent with Harvard's values?
To be clear, I thought Rowling turned out a much better choice than I had expected. I started off annoyed because she had adopted a radically protectionist posture about copyright. But her speech actually validated the incredible learning that had been the foundation for her books, as well as the simple lesson of determination and commitment in the face of extreme poverty. And I am sure there were good reasons for choosing the Shah. I was actually not a big fan of the Zakaria choice; it really isn't clear to me just what contribution he has made that earned him the degree, so part of my worry about Winfrey is the direction of the vector pointing through these two TV celebrities. Humility (cf. David Souter) seems not to be "in" these days!

One more thing. Looking at this video that a colleague passed on to me, I can't help thinking how much better served the audience would have been last year to have heard from John Lewis than from Fareed Zakaria.   Yes, most Commencement speeches are soon forgotten, but it is hard to forget the presence of greatness, even if you don't remember anything else and even if you find the great figure not to your taste ideologically. I wonder what truly great figures will share the stage with Winfrey this year? I doubt anyone who was there will forget being in the presence of Nelson Mandela or Alexandr Solzhenisyn, whatever they said. I really do wonder whether we are now tipping for younger, hipper speakers, and the days of learning from the venerables are over at Harvard. [NB. Mandela spoke when he received his honorary degree, but that was not at Commencement.]


  1. one solution - stop giving away honoray degrees, and, when and where appropriate, take back certain recipients' said awards ... - rlds

    1. The MIT solution (at least the first part). The founder thought them "literary almsgiving ... of spurious merit and noisy popularity." I actually rather like having them, but it has become challenging to figure out what they mean.

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  3. My main concern is that she is a leading popularizer of pseudo-science and medical quackery.

    No she's not; she was the leading popularizer (and pioneer) of confession culture. Her show was one big group therapy session with a lot of celebrity guests stopping by, but science and medical issues were seldom discussed except when Dr. Oz was on, and if Dr. Oz is a quack, then by your logic Harvard is a leading proponent of medical quackery because that's the school that launched Dr. Oz's career.

    She is a brilliantly skilled entertainer; people love her and respect her opinion. But that is what makes her so dangerous when her guests, with her enthusiastic support, warn parents off childhood immunizations and otherwise encourage practices that are bad for human health.

    While it's true that celebrity Jenny McCarthy very briefly made ant-vaccine comments on Oprah (and many other shows), Oprah DID NOT enthusiastically support McCarthy's comments. On the contrary Oprah immediately read a disclaimer that made clear that the scientific community rejects McCarthy's views.

    1. See my response to your comment in the next blog post below. Dr. Oz is not in the same league with Winfrey, but given the recent New Yorker article, if he were up for an honorary degree I would be worried about that too.

      The illogic of your first paragraph suggests you don't really want to be taken seriously. Harvard has graduated some serial killers too, but that does not make the university a leading proponent of mass murder.

    2. Harvard has graduated some serial killers too, but that does not make the university a leading proponent of mass murder.

      My point is that any institution, whether it's Oprah or Harvard, that has promoted tens of thousands of people, will inevitably have advanced some pretty bad apples. So just because out of the 30,000 guests who have appeared on Oprah, half a dozen have been "pseudo-scientists" does not make Oprah a leading proponent of pseudo-science. I bet more "pseudo-scientists" and quacks, have had their careers launched by Harvard and other prestigious schools; they don't even get on Oprah until they're already famous. Your criticism of Oprah seems like little more than highly selective guilt by association.

    3. Well, sure I hold her responsible for her association with the guests she herself invites in, often repeatedly, knowing exactly what nonsense they are going to spout, and for cheerleading them with her staging and commentary and body language.

      Here is her own response to the Newsweek piece, by the way.

  4. I actually watched those episodes of Oprah, unlike you who has only read Newsweek's highly biased, editorialized and selective interpretations, and virtually the only case where Oprah's staging, commentary and body language cheer-leaded the guest was Suzanne Somers, and it was the Suzanne Somers show that initially gained Oprah the criticism.

    Suzane Somers promotes biodentical hormones which are probably anathema to Newsweek's pharmaceutical advertisers who rely heavily on the sales of synthetic hormones and probably dislike bioidentical hormones because they are individualized and thus can not be easily patented for large profits. Newsweek (which recently went out of print because of poor sales) during tough economic times for print media was probably especially beholden to its pharmaceutical sponsors who probably demanded a hit piece to discredit Oprah who unlike Newsweek, has the financial success to speak independently whether pharmaceutical sponsors like it or not.

    It certainly wouldn't be the first time corporate interests had attacked the integrity of Oprah's public health reporting; in the 1990s Oprah won a huge legal victory against the beef industry who sued her for questioning the safety of American beef, and Oprah's show was instrumental in getting a ban on unsafe cattle feeding practices in the U.S..

    Immediately after the Suzanne Somers show Newsweek ran an article condemning that episode but when that failed to make waves, they went on an all-out witch hunt, scrounging through the tens of thousands of guests Oprah interviewed and thousands of message board comments on her message board searching for any examples they could use to paint her as a promoter of pseudoscience in a huge cover story. Of course you could promote anyone as a promoter of anything through this kind of extreme data mining, but I strongly suspect they singled out Oprah because her promotion of Somers was a financial threat to their sponsors.

    Of course, just because Newsweek might be an attack dog for big pharma does not mean they made no legitimate criticisms. It's true that bioidentical hormones (as far as I know) have not been legitimized by large scale double blind placebo controlled studies, however such studies are extremely expensive and with such opposition from big pharma, it's hard to get such studies funded and published in reputable journals.

  5. John, it would be wonderful to hear evidence that Newsweek "might be an attack dog for big pharma". I'm as critical of the corporate establishment as any good academic, but in medical science, double-blind, controlled studies aren't optional. In many cases, in fact, their neglect is downright dangerous.

    As far as the larger question is concerned, I for one find it incongruous that the university, famed for holding its students to strict academic standards, should in its choice of a speaker for their commencement address, neglect the same. I'm certain that her address will bear no relation to the criticisms Prof. Lewis raises, yet remain fundamentally uneasy that the university's 'honorary degree' remains a 'certificate of appreciation'.

    1. John, it would be wonderful to hear evidence that Newsweek "might be an attack dog for big pharma". I'm as critical of the corporate establishment as any good academic, but in medical science, double-blind, controlled studies aren't optional. In many cases, in fact, their neglect is downright dangerous.

      I agree, but large scale double-blind placebo controlled studies are very expensive, and its very hard for such studies to get funded and published in reputable journals when they are opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, and big-pharma controlled media/academics then use the lack of reputable studies to further discredit the ideas, which in-turn makes it even harder to get funded and published.

      So I don't fault Oprah for having discussed unproven ideas on her show, because there are gatekeepers who make it very hard for some ideas to be proven. As long as Oprah makes clear that the ideas are rejected by scientists (which she did), then I have no problem with a free public discussion. Is it dangerous? Yes. But it's even more dangerous to live in a society where voices rejected by big pharma can't be heard.

      Do I have evidence that Newsweek served as an attack dog for big pharma? Not enough to prove it, but it's a logical theory. An enormous fraction of their add revenue came from big pharma making them especially beholden to this industry during tough economic times for print media. Their attacks on Oprah began suddenly after Oprah promoted Susan Somers, a woman whose ideas are especially damaging to big pharma's interests, because bioidentical hormones are individualized and thus much harder for big pharma to make money off than the synthetic hormones they promote.

      Maybe bioidentical hormones are dangerous and Oprah should never have given Somers a forum, however I seriously doubt that protecting the public was Newsweek's real motive.

      As far as the larger question is concerned, I for one find it incongruous that the university, famed for holding its students to strict academic standards, should in its choice of a speaker for their commencement address, neglect the same.

      Actually, not even Harvard, the most prestigious university in the world, consistently holds people to high academic standards. Just off the top of my head, I can think of three Harvard professors who built their entire careers out of teaching pseudoscience, not just to their students, but to the public too, and their pseudoscience gained enormous credibility, precisely because it was pushed by Harvard professors. Oprah is only guilty of giving a few pseudo-scientists a forum to talk (out of 30,000 guests). The problem is we as a society don't place enough value on the scientific method, but it's completely hypocritical to hold a guest speaker to standards Harvard doesn't even hold its actual professors to.

  6. Oprah was at Harvard with Lady Gaga last year, I believe, to launch an anti-bullying campaign which began with a bang but has dropped off my radar completely. I agree that Oprah has provided a platform for a lot of spurious information and damaging ideas, the whole The Promise debacle being foremost. Kinda gives a slight odor to the proceedings although I'm sure she'll provide a heartfelt and inspiring talk.

  7. Is there some sexism going on here? Because that's what it feels like to me. There are plenty of people out there receiving honorary degrees who promote, every now and then, new or not fully tested or proven ideas that end up debunked, and yet, as innovators, still have merit in their fields and are of prime interest and excitement as commencement speakers. Here's why I think she'd be a superb choice for Harvard:
    1. She's done more to instill a culture of reading in this country than anyone else in the last fifty years.
    2. She's created a sense of community among her viewers and women especially worldwide, something that's sorely lacking on many college campuses.
    3. And speaking of which, she's not afraid to be honest, both in terms of her personal story which is gloriously inspirational and was often deeply challenging, and in terms of how seh addresses issues in society today, which is a great role modeling for all your young people setting forth on their own journeys.

    1. pamallyn, I agree that Oprah's a superb choice. Harvard stands for talent and excellence and Oprah's a spectacularly gifted entertainer:

      Her syndicated talk show completely dominated an extremely competitive industry for a quarter century, and in the process she became the most influential woman on the planet and the richest and most philanthropic African American of ALL TIME. That alone deserves a Harvard business degree!

      She launched the most successful book club in history, getting millions of TV viewers to read often challenging literature. That deserves a Harvard English degree.

      Her 2007 endorsement of Obama was brilliantly timed, directly netting him over one million votes, effectively deciding the Democratic primary and changing the course of history. That deserves a Harvard political science degree.

      There was also a book called "Freaks Talk Back" by a Yale sociologist which argued that genre of talk shows Oprah popularized during the 1980s was instrumental in gaining LGBT people mainstream acceptance. She sparked dialogue on countless taboo topics; by confessing she was sexually abused and doing dozens of shows on the topic, she helped lead millions of abuse victims to recovery. For all this she deserves deserves a Harvard sociology degree.

      A true original thinker, she pioneered confession culture and created an intimate touchy-feely form of media communication that has been copied by everyone from news anchors to presidential candidates. For this she deserves a Harvard communications degree.

      The only real strike against her is she does promote some irrational ideas; mostly new-age spirituality. But by giving viewers these alternatives to organized religion, she has helped water down the influence of the church, thus creating a more secular, and thus rational society.

      Through incredible talent and innovation, she overcome poverty, sexual abuse, racism, sexism, weightism, teen pregnancy, and drugs to become one of the richest, most philanthropic, most admired, and most influential figures in society. It's hard to imagine anyone more worthy of an honorary degree.

    2. Sexism? What a disgusting comment.

      As for your "reasons" for why she is supposedly superb for Harvard:

      1) Untrue. What she has promoted, is a culture of "quackery", as the Professor put it. Most of her exploits are vastly exaggerated.

      2)Irrelevant. A sense of community among women has no bearing on Oprah or academia in general. Women's groups in campuses have done more harm than good.

      3) Same as #1.

      I suppose, these days, it's common to find ideological types like yourself who wallow in an eternal cycle of victim-hood.

      An absolute disgrace to the rest of us. Pathetic.

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