Harvard’s Oprah endorsement is a blow to reason

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.

Ms Winfrey does tend to endorse a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense: Rhonda Byrne (who “wrote” The Secret and The Power), Dr Oz, and similar promoters of nonscience and nonsense.

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.


  1. trucreep says

    I think a great example would be in your own Chris Rodda – if facts alone were all it took, David Barton would have nowhere to go with his bullshit.

  2. timanthony says

    Habit trumps reason. At least it does at Harvard, and everywhere else.

    As schoolchildren, we learn that different weights fall at the same speed. This simple and readily tested observation, first published by Galileo, refuted Aristotle, who claimed that heavy things fall faster. As Galileo put it in Two New Sciences “I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true…” We are left to wonder how people could have believed what they were told, and for two millennia at that, without ever checking? Surely the power of evidence over authority is obvious.

    No, it isn’t. And that is the point. And, it is a point that cannot be repeated often enough, for no one remembers it for longer than about a minute after each time they are reminded of its truth.

    We’re programmed to follow Authority over Evidence, AND we are programmed to always ignore, and if necessary, to angrily deny, that fact. Suck on that, mortal humans! Oprah knows it!

    [-Clay Shirky, edge.org/q2007/q07_9.html]

  3. MrHolbyta says

    This post highlights what I see as one of Sokrates’ most frustrating false dichotomies in all the Platonic Dialogues. In the Gorgias, he argues as though one must either be a rhetorician or have a ‘real’ craft or trade. He completely dismisses the value of persuasion (and, admittedly, the rhetoricians were, by and large, worse than useless) rather than recognizing that it is useful as one skill in a person’s arsenal.

    Likewise, while celebrities like Oprah are better sellers than researchers, this doesn’t make salesmanship itself a bad thing. Salesmanship is a tool, and like all tools can be used well or ill. It behoves those who want to provide a positive impact on society to spend some time learning how to persuade others and how to get their voices heard.