Celebrities like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are bucking scientific evidence in favor of giving their own take on COVID-19. Liam Glen writes on why we should stop putting trust in TV doctors that are willing to promote pseudoscience to boost their ratings.
As the coronavirus spreads, so does misinformation about how it is transmitted, how it can be treated, and how governments can best respond. Some lies are sowed deliberately, while others are disseminated by the well-intentioned but ill-informed.
Medical researchers are the best-equipped to look through the evidence and answer these questions. Journalists, science communicators, and public officials must also do their part to listen to the experts and then pass on information to the general public. Problems come when people misinterpret the data, or when they replace evidence-based approaches with their own conjecture.
Unfortunately, this has been the case with many celebrity doctors in recent days – the much-exulted Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, and Dr. Oz have been at the center of controversy for their statements on COVID-19.
Far from being an unfortunate exception in an admirable career informing the public, this is par for the course for these TV doctors, who have become infamous for their willingness to spread pseudoscience and misinformation. These incidents should only lead us to question again why we as a society choose to take them seriously.
Unqualified Takes on COVID-19
Phil McGraw – popularly known as Dr. Phil – holds a PhD in clinical psychology, though his license to practice it has long since expired.
Thus, he may have been qualified to come onto to the Laura Ingraham Show to discuss coronavirus and mental health. But instead he went on a rant wherein he stated without evidence that the government-imposed “lockdown” will cause more death than COVID-19 itself, adding that “45,000 people die a year from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools.”
McGraw is wrong on several accounts, not least because only 3,536 Americans die by unintentional drowning per year. And, of course, that unintentional drowning is not an infectious disease like COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Drew Pinsky – or Dr. Drew – is actually a physician, albeit an addiction medicine specialist rather than a virologist or epidemiologist. This did not stop him from making a series of comments downplaying the threat of COVID-19, then threatening a copyright strike when a YouTuber made a compilation of his inaccurate statements. To his credit, though, Pinksy has since admitted that he was wrong and now tells people to take their advice from NIAID Director Anthony Fauci and the CDC.
However, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz has shown less humility. His advocacy of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, despite scientific uncertainty, has inspired President Donald Trump’s obsession with the medication.
More recently, he raised eyebrows with the cryptic statement, “Schools are a very appetizing opportunity… the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3 percent, in terms of total mortality… that might be a tradeoff some folks would consider.”
As many have already noted, even if some of these individuals hold medical credentials, they are doing a poor job of living up to the principle of “first, do no harm.”
Disappointing But Not Surprising
None of this is anything new. McGraw has a long history of giving junk advice. His business model largely revolves around manipulating vulnerable people to come onto his show, then spending the entire time yelling at them so he can stir up drama and keep the audience engaged.
Such problems have been present throughout his career, from an unethical relationship with a client while he was practicing clinical psychology in the 1980s to getting paid in the mid-2000s hawk the ineffective “Shake Up!” diet products.
Pinsky has hardly had a better run. His own controversies range from unfounded speculation about Hillary Clinton’s health during the 2016 election to being paid by the pharmaceutical company GSK to promote its products “in settings where it did not appear that Dr. Pinsky was speaking for GSK.”
None of them, however, have anything on Oz. He is so often wrong that he may as well be living in an alternative reality. His show has given an uncritical platform to ideas including homeopathy, spiritual mediums, and medical astrology. It would hardly be surprising if tomorrow he said that we should give serious consideration to the idea that performing human sacrifice to Odin is the only way to stop the blight of coronavirus upon our lands.
And, of course, Oz has had his involvement in questionable money-making schemes. In 2014, he was even called before the Senate for his role in promoting weight-loss scams.
Despite this, he – alongside McGraw and Pinsky – is still treated as a medical expert in popular media. In an age where people can supposedly be “cancelled” for the most trivial offenses, it is amazing that being a danger to public health is not harmful to one’s career.
The sheer irresponsibility of quacks and pseudoscience-peddlers is under new scrutiny in the current crisis. Once the new normal comes, we should not forget this. There is no excuse for granting such a large platform for those who will gladly spread misinformation to boost their ratings.