As a physician, it’s hard for me to support the absurd media fashion of presenting two, equal sides to every issue. In politics, perhaps, many debates have two equally-valid viewpoints, but this isn’t so in science and medicine. A treatment is either proven to work or proven not to work. Occasionally, plausible ideas are sitting somewhere in between hoping for evidence to push them one way or the other. Notice the word “evidence”—not waiting for the verdict of a TV talk show, not waiting for a news anchor’s opinion, but waiting for evidence. That’s why there is no such thing as “alternative medicine”; there is only that which has been shown effective, and that which has not.
In the latest “Oprah Wars”, the mainstream media have finally noticed that the Daytime Diva actively promotes quackery. Some folks are unhappy about the “unfair attacks” on their best TV friend. Those who think that Oprah is revealing secrets long suppressed by some Cabal of the FDA and Big Pharma are beyond reason. But those who think that Oprah is actually performing a service need some education.
One such person is Lee Schneider, writing at the Huffington Post. He basically falls for the infamous “Semmelweis Fallacy” also known as the “Galileo Fallacy“. This error in reasoning represents some fundamental misunderstandings of how science works (not how “they” say it should work, but how it actually accomplishes its successes).
According to Schneider:
Newsweek portrays her as laughable, but I agree with Oprah – [Suzanne] Somers might be a pioneer. Self-experimenters have often advanced science. At the age of 22, Sir Isaac Newton nearly blinded himself by staring at the sun in a mirror because he wanted to study the after-images it left on his retinas. Australian physician Barry James Marshall swallowed some foul-smelling bacterial crud to show that Helicobacter pylori caused ulcers. Sir Issac ended up with marks on his eyelids; but Marshall ended up with a 2005 Nobel Prize for linking the bacterial crud, H. pylori, to ulcers. I’m not saying Suzanne Somers is going to surprise us with a treatise on gravity, but she has courage.
Suzanne Somers, promoter of dangerous women’s health advice, will never win a Nobel Prize, and not because she is an idiot. She will never win a Nobel (or a Lasker) because she is no scientist. The Dr. Marshall to whom Schneider refers actually had a plausible hypothesis and collected data. Somers has no plausible hypothesis for her bioidentical voodoo, and wouldn’t know real data if it jumped into her notebook.
Schneider further opines:
Newsweek is going backward, contributing to the backlash against new medicine. Oprah is going forward by supporting medical pioneers. While looking into the sun, drinking crud or shooting up in the vagina may not seem so brilliant, breakthroughs come from acts of courage or folly and sometimes both.
Science is a system of understanding the real world. It’s a system that, though it has imperfections, has served us well. Simply asserting that something is so is not “being a pioneer”—it’s being a crank. To show that something is so, even something strange, one must actually study it systematically, not go on TV and assert that it is true. To assert requires no courage, only folly. And in medicine, folly kills.