"60 Minutes" has hired Oprah Winfrey as a special contributor.
This is not good. This is the woman who made Dr. Oz famous, allowing him to spread pseudo-science to millions of viewers over and over again. This is the woman who gave Jenny McCarthy a national television platform to spread anti-vaxxer lies and fear-mongering. Oprah has wrapped her arms around other purveyors of nonsense, too.
In 2013, at Harvard's commencement, Oprah was awarded an honorary doctorate before addressing the crowd. That didn't sit well with some members of the Harvard community, including Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medicine and sociology, and Erika Christakis, an early childhood educator and Harvard administrator. In an op-ed for Time, they blasted the university's choice of Winfrey, saying it is an assault on science that sends the wrong message:
Honorary degrees are often bestowed to non-academic leaders in the arts, business, and politics. Harvard’s roster in recent years has included Kofi Annan, Bill Gates, Meryl Streep, and David Souter. But 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.I couldn't agree more. Read their entire piece here.
Famous people are entitled to a few foibles, like the rest of us, and the choice of commencement speakers often reflects a balance of institutional priorities, allegiances, and aspirations. Judging from our conversations with many students, Oprah was a widely popular choice.
But 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.”
When Oprah endorses pseudo-science -- with claims that go virtually unchallenged, without any real equal time for skeptical rebuttal -- it carries tremendous weight with her audience, and that can be very dangerous. So, it was nice to get some reinforcement from Newsweek, which published a cover story on Oprah's crazy talk, exposing some of the ridiculous medical claims she and her guests have been pushing on her show and website and magazine, and their impact with the world of women who worship All Things Oprah.
I'm not holding my breath for Oprah to do a "60 Minutes" segment spotlighting real medical experts who can easily debunk the junk science she has preached for so many years. Instead, CBS will give her an even bigger platform from which she can spread a layer of garbage across the TV news landscape.
As we've seen, the American public swallows that stuff whole, which means she's now qualified to be President.