Mehmet Oz, or “Dr. Oz,” as he’s known on TV, is a brilliant ivy-league educated surgeon, who has saved many lives in the operating room. He’s well respected in America, where he started appearing on Oprah in 2004, and debuted The Dr. Oz Show in September 2009. He has also written books on topics such as dieting, staying young, beauty, child-birth, and overall healthy living. He seems to be a medical jack-of-all-trades, though I never paid much attention to him until I saw his January 6 show from 2010, where he stood out by introducing an alternative medicine technique called “reiki.” It wasn’t the only alternative medicine there, but it particularly caught my attention. Much to my dismay, after investigating further, I learnt that this well-educated, well-spoken doctor is in bed with the alternative medicine industry. Literally.
Reiki and Energy
“Reiki” was coined by Mikao Usui in 1922, and the word comes from the Japanese characters “rei” (霊) which basically means “spiritual,” and “ki” (気), which means “energy.” Usui went to Mt. Kurama, Kyoto, to take a 3-week course that allegedly entailed meditation, fasting, and prayers. After the enlightening course, he founded the Usui Reiki Healing Society in Tokyo. Around the 1930’s, the practice spread to Hawaii, and gradually to California, and then the rest of the world. Now, according to reiki.org, there are about a million “masters” learning how not to touch their believers. Indeed, reiki is a practice whereby a practitioner places their hands near someone’s body (without touching), which is supposed to manipulate the person’s energy for their benefit.
The belief in life-force energy is still strong in Africa, China, India, and here in Japan. The problem is that “ki” (Japanese), “chi” (Chinese), “prana” (Sanskrit) – or whatever you want to call it – cannot be detected by scientific instruments. So a complaint I often hear is “modern science just hasn’t caught up with this.” Well, the word “energy” is a huge red flag in medical contexts, because it means whatever you want it to mean, and it is impossible to prove otherwise. And yet people will dismiss “the force” from the Star Wars movie series as merely a fictional thing. The only difference there is that no one is selling you alternative therapy with “the force.”
Reiki masters claim they draw upon energy of the universe. Larry Arnold and Sandra Nevins, authors of The Reiki Handbook (1992) claimed that reiki can be used to treat brain damage, cancer, diabetes, and venereal diseases. Of reiki, Oz has said that it “may be the most important alternative medicine of all,” used to heal all sorts of problems.
Though reiki gets a lot of exposure from Oz, he promotes a variety of scientifically discredited practices. Regarding acupuncture, Oz once remarked “There are a billion people in another part of the world who use these therapies,” to which the anonymous blogger of the Skeptologic blog wrote “I keep having to remind myself that this guy is actually a medical doctor. Statements like that make me wonder if he ever cracked a science book in all those years of medical school.” Robert Todd Carrol, author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, commented that “A billion people [also] believe that some numbers are lucky and some are unlucky. They believe the same about colors. They’ve had these beliefs and many others like them for thousands of years. So what?”
Carrol once received reiki treatment for a wrist injury, recalling “My reiki healer vigorously rubbed his hands across his pants before waving them over my wrist. He seems to have produced some heat and some static electricity, which I could feel when he got close to my skin.” Carrol was told that the treatment didn’t work because he was a non-believer. But if a treatment works only if you believe in it… well, that’s the definition of a placebo. As for myself; a few months ago, an older Japanese lady asked if I wanted to receive some complimentary laying-on-of-hands. Once I admitted to not feeling anything, she said that I was too young for it to work on me. Maybe I’ll come back in a few years and see if it’s any more effective.
A systematic review published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice in 2008 looked at studies of reiki in all languages. Proper treatment research methodology requires a placebo group, which is not so simple for alternative medicines like reiki (considering the treatment doesn’t even involve contact); so of the 205 studies found, only nine met the inclusion criteria. The authors conclude that “the evidence is insufficient to suggest that reiki is an effective treatment for any condition.” Even without a review, however, the placebo effect could easily account for any health improvement, which begs the question: Why would Dr. Oz buy into this? Why would such an intelligent man bring reiki practitioners into the operating room to help with surgery, and promote energy healing on his show? Perhaps this is nothing more than a meaningless observation… but his wife, Lisa, is a reiki practitioner.
Men in Blue
“We can tolerate magical thinking among the intolerably poor and uneducated, but it’s disgraceful for an educated adult dressed in surgical scrubs to use his authority to promote rubbish.” – Robert Carrol
In an interview on the Speaking of Faith podcast, Oz said “We ought to take any tool that’s at our disposal, and that includes nonscientific approaches, as long as we have evidence that they don’t hurt the patients.” This isn’t good enough. When Oz steps out in front of the cameras in his blue scrubs and welcomes his audience to his show, he becomes an authority on medicine. From the viewer’s perspective, any treatment he endorses should therefore be met with acceptance, right? It would seem pretty foolish not to take advice from such a well-respected medical expert. Refusing to do so would undermine your respect for them, not to mention risk stigmatizing yourself as a close-minded skeptic.
After an ill-informed consumer receives alternative medicine and goes home, do you think they will go that extra mile to continue with conventional medicine? Or will they believe that the respected physician’s word was satisfactory, and that their condition will improve? Some do in fact go home and keep up with their conventional medicine, though they may end up mistakenly attributing their improvement to the alternative medicine. But others don’t, and they may end up in the obituary at whatstheharm.net.
Oz’s disregard for scientifically tested health treatments has not gone unnoticed. On an article in Financial Times which quotes Oz on health advice, nutritional medicine expert Michael Eades says “[Oz’s advice] struck me much more as a prescription from a witch doctor than from a trained physician.” Eades gives a detailed account on his blog proteinpower.com about why Oz’s advice was careless and irresponsible, including false information about detoxifying the liver, caffeine in tea vs. coffee, and basic metabolism. Eades believes that pseudoscience promoters like Oz will eventually “be shown for the idiots they are [...] Too bad they will leave a lot of corpses in their wake.” We can only hope that Dr. Oz’s success is not at the expense of those who seek his expertise.
Mark Crislip, who teaches medical students how to critically analyze data, calls into question the advice given by Oz and colleague Mike Roizen, together called the “YOU Docs” (which is the name of their book series and weekly column). An article they wrote on December 30 2009 made claims about the research to support acupuncture. On ScienceBasedMedicine.org (SBM) – a website where doctors of various expertise blog about medical matters of public interest – Crislip writes a revealing article that exposes the real research behind their claims. “[The] research is mostly a collection of poorly done studies that demonstrate marginal effect and a few definitive studies that show no efficacy.” He wonders whether the YOU Docs misunderstood the research or chose to interpret them in a way which suggests that the alternative medicine works.
One comment from the Skeptologic blog is by Dr. Anthony Bailey, who says “With the strong educational background like Harvard and going on to pursue a rigorous specialty like CT surgery, he has got to know that his ideas defy what we know about science and medicine. …[But Oz] also graduated from Wharton, a wonderful business school, prior to medicine, suggesting an intent to pursue fortune. People like Oprah and others are easy prey. He will continue to do well.” I personally doubt that he is knowingly misleading anyone, and I suspect he has simply allowed himself to be misled, but regardless… he certainly does seem to know how to make money.
RealAge, Inc., a media corporation that provides health information – of which Dr. Oz is the spokesman – also caused a stir in America. In 2009, Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times wrote about how taking the ‘RealAge test’ (a lengthy survey) on their website may be a clever way to get information about your lifestyle and family history. “RealAge allows drug companies to send e-mail messages based on those test results [...] allowing them to use almost any combination of answers from the test to find people to market to, including whether someone is taking antidepressants, how sexually active they are and even if their marriage is happy.” RealAge will send an e-mail – usually sponsored by a drug company – about a condition (based on survey results) that the company sells medication for.
On the Guest List
Not only did Oz defend a big name in the anti-vaccine movement, Joseph Mercola – a man who tries to make people fear conventional medicine – but also promoted a dangerously neglectful vaccine regime by Dr. Robert Sears, another misled doctor with a daytime TV show, as well as other sorts of pseudoscience-minded people. Any doctor who believes that vaccines cause autism is sorely ignorant of the long history of vaccine research, and deserves to be taken less seriously automatically. If that wasn’t bad enough, Oz also brought on John Edward. This is the famous psychic medium who claims to be able to speak to dead family members on his show “Crossing Over with John Edward.” On The Dr. Oz Show, Oz suggested that speaking to the dead may be a new form of therapy. Talking with the dead was actually the subject of magician-duo Penn and Teller’s first episode of their hit TV show “Bullshit!” and discusses John Edward in detail. I urge you to watch it at your convenience. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t actually talk to dead people…)
The most recent award Oz received was James Randi’s “Media Pigasus Award,” for a second year of disservice to the public. Randi’s organization, the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has had a close eye on Oz for a while, and one staunch Oz-critic has just been appointed a Senior Fellow at the JREF. I’m talking about Steven Novella – Director of General Neurology at Yale University School of Medicine – who has done wonders for the skeptical movement, including founding the SBM site mentioned above. The reason I bring up Novella is because for the first time since the show aired, a prominent skeptic will appear on it. In fact, the show is airing in North America today (April 26), and Novella will face off against Oz in a battle of wills, wits, and sound bites – which is to say that I fully expect it to be highly edited in order to favor Oz. But still, I give Oz a lot of credit because I never thought I’d see the day. And who knows, maybe even after the editing, Novella will not just turn some heads but change some minds.
[Update: The video is on the Dr. Oz website! In addition, an excellent and informative commentary was posted by Orac; or you could hear what Novella himself had to say about the experience, after the show aired.]