Dr. Oz spouts misinformation, but his rise may have silver lining for science

WASHINGTON — In his run for the US Senate, Dr. Oz repeatedly reminds audiences that, yes, he is a “Doctor.” He refers to himself as a “world-class” surgeon, pausing during campaign stops to measure voters’ blood pressure and pose for pictures with former patients. He’s spent the past year warning voters that “America’s heartbeat is in a code red.” His Trump-like slogan even has a health care twist: “Heal America.”

Even as Mehmet Oz brazenly promotes his medical bona fides, the surgeon-turned-TV star has spent much of his career embracing untruths, including touting astrology as a legitimate medical tool and the myth that apple juice contains unsafe levels of arsenic. Still, though, Oz’s strategy of touting his medical career — coupled with a surprise endorsement from President Trump — seems to be working: If the latest polls hold up, he’s poised to eke out a win in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary on May 17.

In a country plagued by medical misinformation, many health experts see the prospect of Senator Oz as just the latest assault on a basic scientific fact. Others, though, argue the celebrity doctor is a more complex character. Even amid the falsehoods, they say, he’s endorsed vaccines and masks and accurately spoken about the science of abortion in a way that — at least when compared to the rhetoric of other GOP candidates — resembles a sound scientific message.

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“The assumption is that if people traffic in some misinformation, they’re always trafficking in misinformation,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor and health communication expert who has studied Oz’s on impact rates among his viewers. “But we found Dr. Oz is often on the side of traditional medical science. … He developed a relationship with his audience that influenced people in the direction of science consistency.”

Oz’s emergence as a national political figure representing the latest instance of basic science becoming a ballot-box issue. Throughout the Trump administration, politicians couldn’t agree on issues as simple as whether masks help prevent Covid (they do) or, in some cases, whether Americans should be vaccinated.

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It underscores, too, the contradictions inherent in candidates like Oz — that even if they’ve peddled misinformation to one audience, they have the potential to convey a sound public health message to another.

To date, Oz’s GOP opponents haven’t used his track record of misinformation against him. And even as they’ve questioned his stances on Covid and abortion, they’ve largely ignored his credentials as a highly respected heart surgeon in the early 2000s.

Still, Pennsylvania’s primary also highlights how health and science — not traditionally standard campaign fare — can influence elections, especially as some Trump-aligned candidates have begun to advertise they’re not vaccinated against Covid-19. Given Oz’s comparatively pro-mask, pro-vaccine stance, his candidacy could be a test case for whether scientific evidence will speak for itself, or whether public figures will be held accountable for misinforming the public on basic facts.

On that point, at least, Oz agrees — even if, at times, he’s among the biggest culprits.

“When you mix politics and science,” he has said“you get politics.”

Oz’s campaign declined STAT’s request for an interview.

For Oz, the tension between fact and fiction is nothing new.

Among other products that health experts dismiss as nonsense, Oz has attempted to sell his TV audience on “miracle” raspberry ketones and “magic” green coffee beans as weight-loss aids and the use of astrological symbols as a tool. And at times, he has provided a platform to many of the country’s most prominent anti-vaccine conspiracists, including Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Joseph Mercola.

Oz’s loose relationship with facts has even landed him in hot water with the federal government. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration approved him for a television segment declaring that several brands of store-bought apple juice contained dangerous levels of arsenic. And in 2014, he was called to testify before a Senate committee amid complaints of misleading marketing.

“I actually do personally believe in the items that I talk about on the show,” he told lawmakers then. But he conceded: “I recognize that oftentimes, they don’t have the scientific muster to present as fact.”

For all his controversial stances on dietary supplements, Oz has remained a popular public figure. His show recorded 13 seasons and 1,681 episodes — and until he left his TV gig earlier this year so he could run for office, The Dr. Oz Show was among the most-viewed daytime programs in the country.

In fact, his stances on dietary supplements may even have given Oz — a multimillionaire who three Ivy League degrees and served on Columbia University’s faculty for two decades — “a little bit of populist street credit,” said Dan Judy, a vice president at North Star Opinion Research, a GOP-aligned polling firm.

“If you’re the average voter supporting Dr. Oz, you don’t necessarily know about these controversies,” he said. “But you have a sense that this guy’s not like Fauci or the other doctors in Washington trying to push down all these Covid solutions. And it gives a lot of people some cover for their own positions, Covid or otherwise, that are a little bit off the reservation.”

Oz, indeed, has focused much of his messaging on differentiating himself from government scientists, with his sharpest barbs reserved for Fauci, whom he accuses of “flip-flopping on almost every single portion of addressing the pandemic.” Since declaring his candidacy, Oz has challenged Fauci to a public debate — and called for him to be fired.

In February, he even wrote him a caustic Valentine’s Day message: “Roses are red, violets are blue, Dr. Fauci lied to you.”

In the spring of 2019, Oz did something that may have surprised his detractors: He endorsed a scientifically sound product.

Amid a series of measles outbreaks across the country, he told viewers that the measles, mumps, and rubella immunization — long a focus of anti-vaccine advocates — was “97% effective,” and that there is “no reason not to get vaccinated .”

The effect was almost instant: according to Hall’s research at the University of Pennsylvania, among “low-information” viewers of The Dr. Oz Show, the percentage of people who viewed the MMR vaccine as “low-risk” more than doubled. The study observed a nearly identical effect with the flu vaccine — and for both vaccines, rates of trust ticked upward for high-information viewers, too.

The phenomenon, Jamieson argues, shows that despite his history of misinforming his audience, Oz has the potential to do good when he communicates scientifically sound information to his audience.

“There are a lot of people who don’t have a medical provider, who don’t have regular access to medical advice from someone who knows their specific circumstance,” she said. “In that show, he did perform useful functions — and he also caused doubt.”

It extends beyond the MMR vaccines, too. He has called Covid-19 vaccinations “darn effective,” and hosted a number of pro-vaccine advocates — including then-Surgeon General Jerome Adams — to tout the vaccines’ safety and effectiveness. Throughout the pandemic, he’s devoted segments of his show to teaching viewers how to wear masks.

On the fraught issue of abortion, Oz has pushed back on the popular talking point that a fetus’ heart begins beating roughly six weeks after conception.

“There are electrical exchanges at six weeks, but the heart’s not beating,” he said in 2019. “If you’re going to define life by a beating heart, then make it a beating heart, not little electrical exchanges that no one would hear or think about as a heart beat.”

And even on hydroxychloroquine, arguably his biggest Covid-era gaffe, Oz has taken a more cure nuanced tack than the many right-wing politicians who stuck to their guns that the medicine could Covid, even when doctors and data proved it couldn’t .

Though he did initially tout hydroxychloroquine, Oz quickly acknowledged the lack of data supporting its use, and eventually told doctors and patients they should wait for the results of randomized trials before seeking the drug.

“There’s no question it’s not proven to be beneficial in the large clinical trials we expect in America,” he said during a Fox News talk show in April 2020. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t know.”

Increasingly, Oz’s occasional deference to scientific principles has become a campaign issue. His political opponents have begun to criticize him for a range of statements, ranging from his early-2020 endorsement of China’s strict Covid lockdowns to his views on abortion. One recent ad from GOP opponent David McCormick calls Oz “100% pro-abortion.” Other conservative have spent months attacking Oz for his recommendation in early that the US “copy what [China] did” in response to Covid.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the attacks have escalated, Oz has not held true to many of his prior stances. As the primary heated up, Oz escalated his rhetoric about firing Fauci, told voters to “push back” against mandates, and changed his stance on abortion: He now argues, like most Republicans, that “life begins at conception.”

With the primary fast approaching, other science communication experts warn that despite moments of scientific accuracy, Oz hasn’t redeemed himself. The year 2019,d Yotam Ophir, a University of Buffalo professor who studies health misinformation, was too late to take a pro-vaccine stance.

“The guy had been cheapening the values ​​of science for years,” Ophir said. “He’s used his show to give stage to a lot of prominent conspiracy theorists and misinformation peddlers, including very infamous anti-vaccine advocates. So the fact that once in a blue moon he makes a statement that actually promotes science doesn’t help me sleep better at night.”

OZ, experts caution, should be viewed not as a doctor who sometimes stumbles into accurate advice, but as a broader pushback against mainstream science and medicine.

Oz’s political rise, of course, comes during an era of scientific and medical polarization. The final year of the Trump administration was characterized by the president publicly warring with key scientific agencies. Major GOP figures, like Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisc.) or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have publicly questioned vaccines’ safety and touted Covid therapies that, according to clinical data, simply aren’t effective.

The phenomenon “is medical on the surface, but it’s really cultural,” said Judy, the GOP pollster. “It’s backlash against the elite medical establishment.”

Depending on who you ask, Oz’s potential to help a scientifically vulnerable audience see the light on vaccines, or other baseline public health strategies, is either a silver lining of his ascent or a distraction from the bigger picture.

“To what extent would Dr. Oz, in the Senate, be a moderating voice, a voice that is science-consistent in ways that could be helpful?” asked Jamieson. “Our evidence suggests that he could be.”

Yet simply “moderating” the unscientific impulses of mainstream politicians, Ophir argued, isn’t enough.

“Sure, he’s not as anti-science as some are these days, unfortunately, on the conservative right,” he said. “But that’s a very low bar. Doesn’t that just reflect on how low we’ve gotten with regard to what we expect from our politicians?”

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