Why does blatant misinformation persist?
Why does blatant misinformation persist in the face of so much evidence to the contrary?
One big reason is money. Another is people’s biases and desires. Combine those two, and the result is almost inevitable: it’s often highly profitable to tell people things they want to hear … no matter how untrue those things might be.
Case in point: the recent brouhaha over “Dr. Oz’s” peddling of “miraculous” weight-loss products. While US Sen. Claire McCaskill grilled Mehmet Oz during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, John Oliver put the whole problem in far better context during an epic rant on “Last Week Tonight.”
Julia Belluz adds another dimension to the issue in her Vox post, “Why Dr. Oz can say anything and keep his medical license.”
Belluz writes, “The fact that Oz hasn’t lost any credentials speaks to a larger challenge in modern medicine: Once you get a medical license, it’s actually really difficult to lose it.”
As Harvard professor David Jones tells her, “You either need to have sex with patients who file a complaint, be a really bad substance-using person… or you’re malpractice-level bad as a doctor. Nothing in Dr. Oz’s conduct is even close to getting the attention of the state boards because they are dealing with sex criminals, alcoholics, and gross misconduct.”
There’s also the toothlessness of other regulatory agencies, in particular, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration. Big-money lobbying efforts by the supplements industry have helped with this for years.
In the early 1990s, there was a federal effort to enact stronger regulations following the death of at least 37 people who took L-tryptophan supplements. This led to huge pushback from the industry, which ran ads implying that Congress wanted to take away peoples’ vitamins.
The campaign worked.
As science and medical writer Dan Hurley, the author of “Natural Causes: Death, Lies and Politics in America’s Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry” noted in a 1993 news interview, “More people wrote to Congress about the supplement bill than wrote about the Vietnam War.”
There’s also the factor of celebrity appeal. Calling Dr. Oz “dangerously likeable,” Oliver demonstrated this with a clip about the McCaskill hearings from the “Morning Joe” program … in which hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski close the report by noting how much they like Dr. Oz and would love some “magic beans.”
“You just showed a report that implied they didn’t work,” Oliver says in exasperation. “You basically just did an emperor’s new clothes piece and then ended it by saying, ‘By the way, the emperor’s tailor was incredible. That guy can stitch.’ ”
Money. Personal biases. Desires. It’s hard to fight those with the facts … but we need to keep trying.