Dear Penn & Teller,
I really don’t want to say this, but I feel obligated to. I’m afraid you screwed up. Big time. (Of course, if this weren’t a generally family-friendly blog, where we rarely go beyond PG-13 language, I’d use a term more like one that Penn would use to describe a massive fail, which, as you might guess, also starts with the letter “f”; I think he’d appreciate that.)
I’m referring, of course, to your appearance on The Dr. Oz Show one week ago (video: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4). Before I begin the criticism, let me just take care of the obligatory but honest statement that I am a fan. I’ve been a fan for a long time. Indeed, I remember seeing you guys perform in Chicago back in the late 1990s when I was doing my fellowship at the University of Chicago. I’ve also seen you in Las Vegas a couple of times, most recently a couple of years ago (see pictures below) at TAM. The two of you have become skeptical icons, through your association with James Randi and over the last several years through your Showtime series Bullshit!, which is advertised with the tagline, “Sacred cows get slaughtered here.” And so they did for the eight seasons Bullshit! was on TV. When you guys were on, it was a thing of beauty to behold, both from the standpoint of entertainment and skepticism.
Dr. Gorski at Penn Jillette’s Private Rock & Roll Bacon & Donut Party at TAM in 2011 preparing to do great harm to his coronary arteries. He hated it so much that he went again during TAM 2012.
That’s not to say that you’ve always gotten it right. In fact, sometimes you’ve gotten it spectacularly wrong, such as when you “debunked” the health hazards of secondhand smoke and were ultimately forced to admit your error in a sort of “notpology” in which you retreated to the excuse that you were dealing with the evidence as it existed at the time of the taping of that show. I can’t help but note that that excuse doesn’t help you, because the evidence indicating that secondhand smoke is harmful to health was overwhelming at the time you were taping your show; even using your excuse, you were still wrong. At least you did ultimately more or less admit that you were “probably wrong.” Less forgivable is your anthropogenic global warming denialism, to which you dedicated an entire episode of your show, complete with numerous shopworn anti-AGW denialist tropes, including the spectacularly easily refuted myth that scientists were predicting an ice age. To my knowledge, you have never admitted you were wrong about that. A few years ago I recall seeing a video of Penn from TAM 6 saying that global warming is probably happening but, when it comes to the question of whether human activity is causing it, he retreated to the rather obvious dodge of, “I don’t know!” Then, during a panel in TAM 7 (the first time I ever went to TAM), I remember Penn again saying “I JUST DON’T KNOW!” (Capital letters intentional, as I remember Penn practically yelling at the audience.) That was the closest I’ve seen either of you come to admitting error on the science, but I have seen you use another common AGW denialist technique of substituting insults directed against Al Gore for real argument.
Aside from these skeptical missteps, more often than not you do get it right. For instance, you’ve taken on a whole host of skeptical topics and done great work on topics as diverse as ESP, PETA, cryptozoology, detoxing, and the like. Indeed, there is some really great science-based stuff in your episode on “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), such as reflexology, magnet therapy, chiropractic, and others. For instance, you guys were nothing less than spot-on great when you decided to deconstruct the antivaccine movement a couple of years ago. You started that episode off with one of the best visual aids to explain herd immunity and the efficacy of vaccines I’ve ever seen, and I applauded you for it. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must point out that one of your producers did interview me, as well as a few people I know, as part of the background for that episode, although I had nothing to do with that brilliant introduction.) In general, you’ve been very good when it comes to quackery and various CAM therapies. (But I repeat myself.) That’s why it puzzles me to no end why you would lend your considerable talents to Dr. Oz, who has had credulous episodes on all manner of rank quackery and even worse.
What sort of quackery am I talking about? Well, did you know that a few short episodes before the one in which you appear, Dr. Oz did a long segment that praised homeopathy, bragging that his family has been using it for generations? Here’s a direct quote:
Despite long-standing skepticism by the medical community because of lack of evidence more and more people, even some of your own doctors, are intrigued by the effectiveness claims of homeopathic remedies on their patients. Could homeopathy be the gentlest and best medicine for you and your family?
What would you call a question like that? I think I know.
In that episode, Oz featured a naturopath named Lisa Samet, who according to him has been practicing homeopathy for 20 years, who told Oz that her practice is made up mainly of people who are “fed up with conventional medicines,” such as antibiotics and the like, that “manage symptoms but don’t treat the real cause.” Like homeopathy does! Think about it. After all, the central premise of homeopathy is “like cures like.” Dr. Oz even admits that. The “like” in this principle refers to symptoms. That’s right. Homeopathy is designed to treat the symptoms, not the cause! Yet you will hear homeopaths and naturopaths pontificate endlessly about how “Western medicine” supposedly doesn’t treat the cause. This naturopath does that and more, claiming that homeopathy is “holistic,” treats the “whole person,” and that it treats the root causes of disease. It was utter nonsense, of course, but it was utter nonsense given the imprimatur of Dr. Oz himself. There’s even a video of Samet repeating the same quackery, going on about how homeopathy is natural, “treats the cause of disease and not the symptoms,” and talking about how succussion (shaking) “liberates the forces” in the remedy that heal. She even spews the “nanoparticle” pseudoscience that homeopathy quacks have been pushing lately, to the alternating fury and mockery of chemists everywhere. Oz even had Samet put together a “homeopathic starter kit” for his audience, in which she recommended homeopathic belladonna for fever. Why? Because belladonna, undiluted, will make you feel sick and feverish. Not only that, but she recommends a 200C dilution. Remember, each “C” dilution is a 1:100 dilution. Thus, a 200C dilution represents two hundred 1:100 dilutions or 1:(102)200 or 1:10400. Given that the number of atoms in the known universe is thought to be between 1078 and 1082, as you know, this is a truly ridiculous level of dilution.
It is, as you would say, Bullshit!
But that’s not all. It’s bad enough that Oz routinely features all manner of quacks on his show. He also loves the dubious weight loss products, even at one point skirting the edge of medical ethics with a dodgy “clinical trial” of green coffee bean supplements. Oz also features worse. For instance, he’s featured quacks such as:
- A faith healer named Dr. Issam Nemeh, who is an anesthesiologist from the Cleveland area who for some reason decided that he’d rather be a faith healer.
- Joseph Mercola, who runs one of the largest “alternative health” websites on the Internet and promotes every nutty idea from antivaccinationism to cancer quackery such as a guy named Tullio Simoncini who thinks that all cancer is really a fungus—because it’s white, I kid you not—and that the treatment for all cancer is to inject baking soda into it and a woman named Hulda Clark, who, before she died of cancer, thought that all cancer was caused by a liver fluke and promoted a “Zapper” (which looked like a Scientology E-meter) as the treatment for all cancer.
- Psychic mediums such as John Edward and “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo. In the case of the psychic mediums, Oz gave them free rein to do their cold reading schtick on his show as a means of “healing” anxiety and other conditions.
This is in marked contrast to the very first episode of your series, Talking to the Dead. Seriously, I urge you to watch John Edward’s appearance on Dr. Oz’s show (here) and Theresa Caputo’s appearances (here and here). With your knowledge of how cold reading works, I’m sure you will be as outraged as I was that Dr. Oz would feature such psychic scammers on his show, much less how he would use selective editing to make it seem as though a real psychologist sees value in using someone like Edward as if he were a useful therapist or that he would discuss the question, “Could your anxiety be a psychic gift?” with Caputo.
I think I know what you would call that question, too.
All of this brings us to your appearance on Dr. Oz’s show. I can’t for the life of me figure out what you thought to gain from it other than exposure to Dr. Oz’s audience of millions. Certainly it didn’t do anything for your reputation, nor did it in any way promote your professed mission. Worse, what bothered me about the show almost as much as two skeptical icons lending their names to a daytime swamp of nonsense was that the segment was just so pointless and the “myths” debunked by Oz so completely banal (that is, if they are even “myths” at all). If you swallow bubblegum, does it take seven years to digest? Seriously? Does anyone actually believe this “myth” anymore? Did anyone ever really believe it? I didn’t even believe it when I was a kid back in the 1970s! Oz’s producers and writers really scraped the bottom of the barrel with that one. Moreover, I can’t for the life of me figure out how the magic trick Teller did (the old trick of swallowing needles and thread and regurgitating the thread with the needles threaded on it), as entertaining and cleverly performed as it was, had anything to do with “debunking” this myth. The advertising in the run-up to the show billed this as a show that debunks myths that “even your doctor believes.” I’d like to find the doctor who actually believes this one.
Next up was the question, “Does the ‘G-spot’ exist?” Again, as entertaining as the three cup/three ball trick used to “debunk” this “myth” was, I fail to see how it had anything to do with this particular “myth,” which Oz ultimately concluded not to be a myth at all. Never mind that it’s at best far from certain that the G-spot exists as a distinct anatomic entity. Indeed, the latest study I saw on it was based on the dissection of the cadaver of an 83-year-old woman, and there wasn’t even any histological analysis! Even worse was Oz’s use of a spot on the hard palate that, or so he says, is the analog of the G-spot in the mouth, a moment that led Penn to say in a most cringe-inducing fashion, “I love you, Dr. Oz.”
Finally, there was the segment in which Oz recommended learning juggling to keep your brain “young.” While it’s true that keeping one’s mind active can probably help delay the onset of age-related cognitive and memory decline and it’s also true that remaining physically active helps keep both the body and mind in good shape, Dr. Oz, true to form, cherry picked a single study from three years ago that showed that learning juggling appeared to increase grey matter in specific areas and generalized it to claim that you can basically keep your brain young forever. Would that it were true!
Look, I get it. I get how one’s political views can lead one to fall prey to rejecting certain conclusions of science, as you have at times in the past with AGW science and the question of whether secondhand smoke is a health hazard. I understand, and can forgive and forget if the error is admitted and corrected. What I have a harder time understanding is appearing on the show of someone like Dr. Oz, who promotes everything you guys purport to oppose, promoting chiropractic, psychic mediums, faith healing, and, yes, The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy (the last of these appearing less than a week before you did). Yes, I realize that you two are entertainers and comedians, but even so, surely you can’t be unaware of how Dr. Oz promotes the most ridiculous quackery, “integrating” it with real medicine to the point that it’s sometimes hard for any but a hardened promoter of SBM to tell the where the quackery begins and the real medicine ends. (I would point out, however, this is not the case for homeopathy, psychics, or faith healing, where it’s all quackery.) Indeed, a mere week or two before your appearance, Michael Specter published an excellent article in The New Yorker discussing Dr. Oz’s rather fast and loose relationship with science, in which Oz was quoted as saying:
“Medicine is a very religious experience,” he said. “I have my religion and you have yours. It becomes difficult for us to agree on what we think works, since so much of it is in the eye of the beholder. Data is rarely clean.” All facts come with a point of view. But his spin on it—that one can simply choose those which make sense, rather than data that happen to be true—was chilling. “You find the arguments that support your data,” he said, “and it’s my fact versus your fact.”
Steve Novella called this the Oz Manifesto. My alter-ego called it going back to when religion and medicine were one. Whatever you call it, it was clearly a postmodernist assault on the very scientific basis of medicine.
Speaking of Dr. Novella, what you did is not at all like what our fearless leader Steve Novella did a couple of years ago when Dr. Oz, apparently feeling the pressure, decided to take on his critics. Steve acquitted himself rather well, certainly as well as any skeptic could be expected to in such a hostile environment. You, unfortunately, did not, and I can’t see any useful educational purpose served by your having appeared with Dr. Oz and placed your lips metaphorically firmly on his posterior.
We all make mistakes. You’ve made them. I’ve made them. We all make them. The key to recovering is to admit them, correct them, apologize for them if an apology is warranted, and move on. You’ve done it before and had even promised to finish Bullshit! with an episode entitled The Bullshit of Bullshit! in which you pointed out where you had gotten it wrong. Alas, your show ended before you could do this episode.
In that spirit, as disappointed as I am, I still hope that you realize your mistake of not just appearing on Dr. Oz’s show when everything Oz stands for is counter to what you stand for, but actively serving his message, admit that mistake publicly, and move on. I don’t know what you were thinking when you agreed to be on The Dr. Oz Show, but I do know that it was a huge disappointment that did not serve skepticism or science-based medicine. If you don’t believe me, talk to your friend and mentor Randi. Ask him to watch your segment and read this letter, which contains copious links to examples of what I’m talking about with regards to Dr. Oz’s support of quackery. Have him watch the links to videos of Oz promoting quackery, psychics, and faith healing. I suspect he’ll probably agree with me.
As much as it pains me to write this, you two screwed up. It’s time to own up to it.
David H. Gorski, MD, PhD, FACS