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Remember, Oprah Winfrey Is Our Premier National Snake Oil Salesman


After her rousing speech at the Golden Globes about sexual harassment—she’s got to do something to atone for her years as one of Harvey Weinstein’s celebrity pals—we’ve been inundated with calls for Oprah Winfrey to run for president.

The official NBC network account went so far as to post (and later delete) a tweet hailing her as “OUR future president.” Her long-time consort Stedman Graham told the Los Angeles Times, “She would absolutely do it.” Meryl Streep got so carried away she told The Hill, “Now she doesn’t have a choice” but to run. It continues to amaze me that there are actors in Hollywood who can portray intelligence on the screen without possessing a scrap of it themselves. Acting is truly a magical art.

There are a great many reasons Winfrey should not run for president. Chief among them is that she has built her career, not just as a charismatic daytime television star, but also as our nation’s premier snake oil salesman. She is responsible for promoting a whole variety of quack medical nostrums and launching the careers of questionable experts. She may not be as prolific as Gwyneth Paltrow—to my knowledge, she has never tried to sell us a coffee enema—but she is far more influential.

She invited Suzanne Somers onto her show to peddle hormone injections and an absurd vitamin regimen.

Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims ‘have been met with relentless criticism’ from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn’t quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. ‘Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.’

Sounds like the perfect candidate for the Party of Science! Oprah also brought on Jenny McCarthy to peddle the anti-vaccination scare.

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.’

One of her favorite guests has been Dr. Christiane Northrup, who “has written about how she has used Tarot cards to help diagnose her own illnesses.” Oprah promoted “The Secret,” which mostly seems like a rehash of the power of positive thinking, but also includes this:

The book that Oprah urges everyone to live by teaches that all diseases can be cured with the power of thought alone: ‘The question frequently asked is, ‘When a person has manifested a disease in the body temple…can it be turned around through the power of “right thinking”?’ And the answer is absolutely, yes.’

If all this weren’t enough, Oprah is the one who anointed Mehmet Oz as “America’s Doctor.” Dr. Oz has a long history on his own show—produced by Oprah’s company—of hawking miracle cures and bogus weight loss pills. Ross Pomeroy at RealClearScience has documented some of the “magic” and “miracle” hokum Oz promotes to his millions of viewers without any supporting scientific evidence. A group of his Columbia University medical school colleagues went so far as to publish an op-ed taking him to task.

[A] 2014 report in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) reported that less than half of the recommendations on his show are based on at least somewhat believable evidence. This report raises concerns that Dr. Oz’s presentations of anecdotal therapies as ‘miracle cures’ occur in the absence of what we see as obligatory discussions of conflicts of interest, possible side-effects and evidence-based medicine (or lack thereof). Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms regarding metabolism game changers.

Ah, but Dr. Oz told us in congressional testimony, “I actually do personally believe in the items I talk about on the show.” But: “I recognize they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.” Say hello, everyone, to our future surgeon general.

You could attribute Winfrey’s history on this to ruthless cynicism—getting rich and famous by telling the suckers what they want to hear. Or you could attribute it to her own gullibility, scientific illiteracy, and tendency toward subjective emotionalism and outright mysticism. Neither possibility is very reassuring, but both are oddly familiar. Let’s see: a lowbrow TV star with a tendency toward gushing hyperbole and relentless self-promotion, who shows a tendency to be influenced by bogus experts and crackpot theories. What could possibly go wrong?

There is a popular theory that opposition to Donald Trump among left-leaning “elites” is less about his policies or his abilities or his actual decision-making in office and is really a matter of taste and style. In this view, he is resented because he is too crude, lowbrow, and downmarket for the pretentious hipsters and the Georgetown cocktail party set. The frenzy over Oprah kind of puts this theory to rest. She is the female, left-of-center equivalent of Trump—yet they all gush over her, urge her to run, and embrace her as their president.

I’m afraid the truth is much simpler. It’s not about policy, it’s not about experience, it’s not about competence, it’s not even about taste and manners and personality. A lot of our politics is just about who can make people feel good about themselves by echoing their emotions and convincingly repeating back to them the catchphrases currently popular among members of their political tribe.

When you think about it, maybe that makes snake oil salesmen the ideal political figureheads for our era.

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