At TIME, Erika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis have penned an article criticising Harvard’s endorsement of Oprah Winfrey, with the awarding of an honourary doctorate and as commencement speaker. As their title indicates, “Oprah as Harvard’s Commencement Speaker Is an Endorsement of Phony Science”.
Oprah’s particular brand of celebrity is not a good fit for the values of a university whose motto, Veritas, means truth. Oprah’s passionate advocacy extends, unfortunately, to a hearty embrace of phony science. Critics have taken Oprah to task for years for her energetic shilling on behalf of peddlers of quack medicine. Most notoriously, Oprah’s validation of Jenny McCarthy’s discredited claim that vaccines cause autism has no doubt contributed to much harm through the foolish avoidance of vaccines.
It’s good to see that those working in Harvard, as both writers do, are heavily critical of this decision.
[This] vote of confidence in Oprah sends a troubling message at precisely the time when American universities need to do more, not less, to advance the cause of reason. As former Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, pointedly noted in a blog post about his objections, “It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.”
Oprah Winfrey of course is an interesting case. She’s the type of celebrity who needs only be referred to by her first name. She has an entire network named after her; a magazine that sells because it carries the first letter of her name. There’s little doubt that Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful people in the world today; someone who no doubt has helped many people, in minor and major ways.
All this, however, doesn’t get her a free pass when it comes to peddling nonsense – especially nonsense dealing with people’s health. Indeed, there is a greater responsibility to be more careful with what she endorses, since many people would choose an Oprah-endorsed product over a boring old scientifically-validated one. There are fewer examples of such a mindset than the anti-vaccination movement, which has none of the evidence and lots of celebrity support.
However, there appears to be an imbalance of powers here. While we would like to think that science by itself is authority enough, it clearly isn’t. There’s no point in having all the evidence if no one believes you. This isn’t “science’s” fault (whatever that means). But before we give up on quests to tackle people with such massive platforms, we should recognise that science often gets dismissed by large numbers of people: Evolution is “just a theory”; there must “be more to life” than what’s currently detectable; but “it worked for me”; and on and on it goes.
Writing about the terrible, fake Mermaid documentaries that was on Animal Planet, Wired‘s Brian Switek makes an important point that’s worth quoting in full.
[My] debunking will [not] do much good. I don’t know how many people watched Mermaids, but I’m certain that many more people saw it than will ever read this post. That’s one of the most frustrating aspects of science communication. Misinformation spreads wide and fast, whether it’s coming from a fake documentary or a news report. Debunking false claims only makes a difference if people actually pay attention to the correction… [My] cranky takedowns usually amount to little more than damage control and are primarily read by people who are similarly annoyed with the media. It’s only when my complaints influence writers and reporters with broader platforms … that my efforts make much of a difference. That’s just the way it goes, and that’s why I’d much rather stop bullshit splattering all over the place than only try to clean up the mess afterward.
Sometimes it does feel like any form of debunking or criticism is pointless, especially when one of the most prestigious universities in the world hands out awards to supporters of pseudoscience. But that ignores the numerous examples of people convinced or who have at least had their critical thinking skills sharpened by debunking, like Switek’s, or James Randi’s, or Martin Gardner’s. I hope that any cranky takedowns from such excellent writers never stop and that their pessimism doesn’t lead to apathy. That’s when nonsense will truly win.