Newsweek Goes After Oprah’s Promoting of Pseudoscience May 31, 2009

Newsweek Goes After Oprah’s Promoting of Pseudoscience

An article critical of The Oprah? In a mainstream magazine?

Nice work, Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert of Newsweek.

They manage to point out the flaws in the thinking of anti-aging Suzanne Somers and anti-vaccine Jenny McCarthy. And they go after the idiotic message of The Secret. Basically, they go after the things gullible Oprah viewers have been taking as fact when, in fact, it’s all dubious or outright lies.

You know how they do it?

They talk to credible doctors who have expertise in the topics above instead of celebrities who crave attention by peddling pseudoscience.

This is where things get tricky. Because the truth is, some of what Oprah promotes isn’t good, and a lot of the advice her guests dispense on the show is just bad. The Suzanne Somers episode wasn’t an oddball occurrence. This kind of thing happens again and again on Oprah. Some of the many experts who cross her stage offer interesting and useful information (props to you, Dr. Oz). Others gush nonsense. Oprah, who holds up her guests as prophets, can’t seem to tell the difference. She has the power to summon the most learned authorities on any subject; who would refuse her? Instead, all too often Oprah winds up putting herself and her trusting audience in the hands of celebrity authors and pop-science artists pitching wonder cures and miracle treatments that are questionable or flat-out wrong, and sometimes dangerous.

I do have one problem with the article. They blame Oprah for just about all of this. And yes, Oprah deserves most of the blame.

But at the same time, the viewers who buy into what Oprah says without doing any critical thinking or fact-checking themselves should be reprimanded. If they didn’t fall for the lies, Oprah wouldn’t have this much power.

What’s sad is that with her wealth and celebrity, Oprah could actually be doing a great service to the country. She could be promoting sound science. Instead, she misleads her audience when she allows people like McCarthy and Somers to go on air. It hurts all of us in the process.

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  • Christi

    I’m not a huge Jenny McCarthy fan, in general, but she does have a valid point. Vaccines deserve a critical, SCIENTIFIC review and many of the studies are flawed. Sometimes due to a conflict of interest; sometimes the “control substance” was not actually a control at all, but contains the same poison (aluminum, formaldehyde, whatever) that is in the vaccine, it is just missing the actual “vaccine” part–the germ that we are aiming to inoculate against.

    Vaccines are not without side effects and as much as we should not dismiss their efficacy without looking at the data proving that they work, we should not dismiss those who have suffered adverse reactions without thoroughly reviewing vaccine safety studies.

    I may be in the minority, but I am an atheist who is skeptical of vaccines. I am constantly reviewing the medical and scientific studies to help me make the best decisions (risk vs. reward) for my family. I don’t take doctor’s word as gospel any more than I’d take a pastor’s. In all things–“show me the evidence”.

  • I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate to blame the victim. Especially given that many people don’t have the skills for critical thinking thanks to a craptacular school system. Oprah has underlings and overlings that should share some of the blame, though.

    @ christi: there is no formaldehyde (at least not in the form you’re thinking of) in vaccines, and how much aluminum are you exposed to in a given day? Pop cans, aluminum foil, etc. Some people suffering adverse reactions is no excuse for the now thousands of people suffering potentially fatal illnesses because of a choice someone else made. It’s not about treating doctors’ word as gospel, it’s about saving lives.

  • Vaccines have been critical and scientifically review. TONS actually. And there is no data to show they work, I wish there was.

    I don’t know what Suzanne Somers is pushing but if she is pumping low-carb diets then she’s right on track. The science is behind her. There is no good science supporting low-fat diets (a dangerous idea).

    Dr. Motley

  • The question is…Is not getting vaccinated the better choice? I would think the benefits of getting vaccinated outweigh the risks. Do more people die in a population from the vaccine or the disease if not vaccinated? (that’s a serious question, as I don’t really know)

  • Bletchley Park


    You’re not evaluating studies accurately if you think there’s still a question about the safety of routine vaccination. The Institute of Medicine’s conclusion is reasonable and can be embraced. Your emotions about a subject you obviously feel strongly about are keeping you from accepting “defeat”. You were wrong. Period. Stop acting like there’s a legitimate debate.

  • Christi

    Point was not to get into the vaccine debate, only to say that every choice we make is worth thinking critically about and not just being a sheep and doing as we’re told (whether by Oprah, our doctor, or an internet blogger).

    @Bletchley: What part of my original post are you speaking of when you say that “I was wrong, period”? I never made any claims–only said that the issue was worth a critical review.

  • I would rather my daughter be autistic than dead from a preventable disease. That’s how I look at vaccines in a nutshell. My apologies if that offends anyone.

    It’s about time Oprah gets criticized for the pseudoscience she represents. Newsweek, however, is not much better. They may report actual science, but by the time they finish botching up what the study actually said, it is often unrecognizable from the original research. Not that they are alone in their journalistic misrepresentation of studies. . . People need to take some kind of critical thinking/science class. More important than high school chemistry in the real world. The autism debate proves that.

  • Christi

    I am always willing to evaluate evidence from all sides of issues. That is how we improve our world. If (and this is a notional example) a percentage of people suffer side effects from a product that is otherwise fabulous, why shouldn’t we strive to make it even better? Shouldn’t the goal be to maximize the benefit while at the same time minimizing the risk?

    And Laura–why would your comment offend? I think you made a great point. Certainly no one wants their child to die from a VPD. You looked at all sides of the issue and made the best choice for your family…that is exactly what I was talking about…thinking critically. 🙂

  • Aj

    Christi ,

    I’m not a huge Jenny McCarthy fan, in general, but she does have a valid point.

    No… she promotes pseudoscientific bullshit, she isn’t the least be skeptical or scientific.

    but contains the same poison (aluminum, formaldehyde, whatever) that is in the vaccine

    That’s not skeptical or scientific, that’s the same bullshit fearmongering that pseudoscientific people like Jenny McCarthy peddle. There’s such a thing as water poisoning but we don’t go around labelling it a poison, context and amount are actually important. Babies are exposed to more aluminum through breast milk or formula, and formaldehyde is a necessary component to metabolism, a baby would have greater amounts flowing around their circulary system in their blood.

  • Jude

    Ah, Oprah. She preaches conspicuous consumption with her giveaway shows; she learned about the environmental movement from Leonardo diCaprio (she’d never even *heard* of global warming until he brought it up); she gets people to read, but most of it is tripe; she promotes people who are quacks; she promotes nonsense because she’s ignorant about science. Too bad she never learned to think critically.

  • zoo

    They may report actual science, but by the time they finish botching up what the study actually said, it is often unrecognizable from the original research. Not that they are alone in their journalistic misrepresentation of studies. . .

    This is so very true. Some agencies can’t get even super simple easily verified facts right (did you know a reticulated python is highly venomous?) let alone properly interpreting journal articles.

  • BigMKnows

    That article gives props to Mehmet Oz for providing “interesting and useful information.” Looks like the Newsweek authors didn’t do their homework. Oz peddles pseudoscience, too. He promotes acupuncture and explains it with various New Age references to energy and meridians. He allows an “energy healer” named Julie Motz into his operating room (he’s a cardiothoracic surgeon) to work her magic. Apparently she wrote a book called “The Hands of Life” that’s complete woo.

    If Oz is the most science-based and rational expert that Oprah can produce, I wouldn’t listen to a damn thing she says.

  • andrew

    Dr. Oz does not deserve props. He peddles pseudo science and is an active advocate for CAM.

    Other than that, I’m glad Oprah’s being taken to task.

  • And Laura–why would your comment offend?

    Well, my daughter doesn’t HAVE autism, and I thought it might possibly sound overly harsh/judgmental to someone whose child does.

  • gwen

    Oprah has enough money and resources to do the research to separate the science from the woo, yet she goes for the woo EVERY TIME. I am an African American woman who stopped watching her show 15yrs ago when I could no longer stomach her woo crap. I love to read and have an entire library of books, but even her books are crap.
    Oz promotes reiki and magic touch in his operating room and all sorts of other nonsense. As a medical professional, I wouldn’t let him near my dog. Dr Phil is a quack, or at least a failed marriage counselor until he was propped up by Oprah. I can’t believe she has given Jennie McCarthy the legitamacy to have her own show to further promote HER ignorance. We are already seeing a huge spike in vaccine preventabel illnesses and deaths, and it WILL get worse.

  • Zar


    Information on the anti-vaccine claims can be found at

    It’s no good to blindly follow authority figures, but blindly following gut fears isn’t any good either.

  • Gareth

    This sums up the issue for me:

    But at the same time, the viewers who buy into what Oprah says without doing any critical thinking or fact-checking themselves should be reprimanded

    Extend this to just about everything in society. The vaccine issues already raised, the political process, the prevalence of pseudo-science, etc.

    Americans as a whole are not intellectually lazy; sections of society are selectively intellectually lazy regarding select topics. Everyone has their pet issue or issues, one might perform due dilligence on that issue while accepting conventional wisdom with others.

    We do not need to critically examine what Oprah says, we need to critically examine everything. Easy to say, difficult to do – or at least that is my limited experience.

  • Larry Huffman

    To add more to the Vaccine arguements…IF there is a small number of children who devlope autism as a result of vaccines…vaccines are not just about the individual. Vaccines are about society. Vaccines, in effect, remove the threat of the disease to an entire society…by irradicating it. So it is not about ‘I will do what I want for my child’ it is about ‘What is best for society?’. I assure you, from society’s standpoint, a few autistic kids is far more acceptable than large numbers of people dying from diseases that cannot be controlled or prevented.

    If you just look at some completely pseudo numbers to illustrate the point. Let’s say there are 10,000 people in a community. Let’s say 1 in 1000 develope autism as a result of vaccines. That would result in 10 children being autistic because of the vaccine in our fake society. Now…lets say a person with small pox comes into contact with the community. If they are vaccinated, there will be no casualties due to the illness. If half are vaccinated…5 kids would have autism…and roughly 500 people would die from smallpox. So…5 kids are spared autism, while 500 die of a disease.

    As I said, the numbers are totally psuedo, but it illustrates a very real fact. EVEN IF…and there is no actual scientific evidence to support it…but EVEN IF the vaccines cause a small number of children to be born with autism…societally speaking, that is more acceptable than the death and suffering the initial disease would cause.

    To put it in cold terms…several kids with autism is acceptable in order to prevent catastophic disease. It is not at all like society has pre-chosen ‘your child’…so it is not a personal thing. It simply makes sense in trying to provide the safest society possible. And…well…having had a child born with a terminal syndrome and another one that had a stroke during her birth and now has Cerebral Palsy…the world pretty much works in cold terms, whether we like it or not. It is not like the disease is going to go easy on a society because they were trying to keep a handful of kids from being autistic (and they guessed without proof that maybe it is the vaccines to blame)…nope, the disease is going to be cold and unpredjudiced.

    Getting back to the original point…simply because you do not want to risk autism does not give you the right to keep your child un-vaccinated in a society that has determined that the original disease must be erradicated. By remaining unvaccinated, your child is now part of the threat to allowing an illness to take hold that is far more devastating and unwanted than autism. In those terms, not having a child vaccinated is purely selfish.

  • Aj

    …we should not dismiss those who have suffered adverse reactions without thoroughly reviewing vaccine safety studies.

    Is this not an obviously backwards statement? How would you know that a vaccine caused an adverse reaction without a study? A child might die shortly after having a vaccine, an anecdote supports nothing, only that some children die. The only way you’d know a vaccine caused adverse reactions was by first reviewing studies on vaccine safety. People should rightly dismiss anecdotes.

    Sometimes due to a conflict of interest; sometimes the “control substance” was not actually a control at all…

    They’re not going to control every substance, that’s ridiculous, there’s no logical suspicion. If all the anti-science scaremongers spent the money they spend on bullshit then they could waste their money on some studies.

    There are actually studies with no aluminum vs aluminum vaccines because the efficacy of it was tested (it increases the effectiveness of vaccines), and surprise surprise, a metastudy shows absolutely no longterm negative effects.

  • Mountain Humanist

    What surprised me most about this article was the fact that it was published in Newsweek — not always a bastion of critical thinking.

    With the exception of the above-noted pass it gave to Dr. Oz, the article could have almost appeared in Skeptical Inquirer. Small steps, folks but we are “getting there.”

  • Anne

    It’s about time someone took her to task for this. She’s much too smart a woman to believe all this crap. So you have to think it’s all simply greed motivating her. Catering to the wishful-thinking me generation. Anything for ratings.

    It would be nice to see her demonstrate some real moral values and a backbone.

  • Pseudo-science, vaccines & the like

    As someone with a scientific and legal education, I view most things with a healthy dose of skepticism. With medical or scientific issues, I favor scientific studies over Oprah. But then, I never liked Oprah except in the movie “The Color Purple.”
    On the other hand, there is a growing (and legitimate) concern about the influence of corporate sponsors and funding of medical studies. I’m only glad I don’t have a young child now – I wouldn’t want to make the decisions young mothers have to make. Medicine is not “black and white” – esp in the area of immune disorders. What causes MS, for example? We still don’t know. What is the effect of certain foreign chemicals or substances in our system? Causation of immunological diseases is still largely a mystery. We do know the effects of polio, tuberculosis, measles, smallpox etc. If I had to make a choice, I’d probably choose vaccines over disease.
    Regardless, the older I get, the more I realize how much doctors don’t really know.

  • Almond

    I just heard a great podcast about vaccines and autism today. Check it out at

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