A letter by “10 prominent doctors” calling on Columbia University to remove physician-turned-TV-celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz from its medical faculty has garnered numerous headlines today.
“'A fake and a charlatan': Doctors call for Dr. Oz to be dismissed from Columbia surgery faculty over alleged quack science,” cries the New York Daily News. “Physicians urge Columbia University to cut its ties with Dr. Oz,” trumpets the Washington Post. “Group Of Doctors Want To See Dr. Oz Kicked Off Columbia Faculty,” declares CBS.
“I am writing to you on behalf of myself and the undersigned colleagues below, all of whom are distinguished physicians,” starts the email letter, which was authored by Dr. Henry I. Miller of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “We are surprised and dismayed that Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons would permit Dr. Mehmet Oz to occupy a faculty appointment, let alone a senior administrative position in the Department of Surgery,” Miller wrote.
The focus of most media stories is that the doctors’ letter springs from allegations that Oz’s advocacy for “questionable weight loss schemes” damages the reputation of the university’s medical school, where Oz, a cardio-thoracic surgeon, is vice-chairman of the surgery department.
Indeed, Oz has come under heavy scrutiny, in the popular media and on Capitol Hill, for his association with a so-called “miracle diet.” In June 2014, Oz was called before a Senate panel investigating false claims associated with weight-loss products. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, made a special point of blasting Oz’s endorsements.
But the dodgy diet plans are not actually the lead in the Miller letter.
“As described here and here, as well as in other publications, Dr. Oz has repeatedly shown disdain for science and for evidence-based medicine, as well as baseless and relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops,” reads the start of very next paragraph after the intro quoted above.
The “here and here” are links to two 2011 articles — one penned by Miller and one quoting him — both of which strongly question Dr. Oz’s warnings about the presence of arsenic in commercial apple juice. There is no link for the “other publications” mentioned.
The next sentence in the letter criticized Oz for his “egregious lack of integrity” and for “promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.” But the direct mention of the Columbia surgeon’s “relentless opposition to the genetic engineering of food crops” is neither academic nor accidental.
It is important for physicians who invoke their medical degrees while endorsing products to make their allegiances and financial ties very transparent — and Dr. Oz deserves to be held to this standard. But by that standard, Dr. Miller and other self-described “distinguished physicians” on this letter also have some explaining to do.
Miller, whose employer, the Hoover Institution, is often described as a “Republican-leaning” or “conservative” think tank, has interests of his own. A molecular biologist by training, Miller spent 15 years at the FDA before his fellowship at Hoover; throughout both jobs, he has been a consistent and ardent promoter of genetically engineered foods (or GMOs — the “O” standing for “organism”).
And in his advocacy, Miller is positively prolific. A quick web search reveals dozens upon dozens of articles and opinion columns touting the benefits of GMOs to consumers, developing economies and agribusiness — and a seemingly equal number attacking those that warn about the possible risks of what are sometimes called “Frankenfoods.”
Miller was a leading voice in opposition to California’s Prop. 37, the 2012 ballot initiative seeking clear labeling of products containing GMOs, and, in the 1990s, was an equally prominent voice in a tobacco industry-backed campaign to discredit the science linking cigarette use and cancer.
Miller also had a connection to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), whose acting president and executive director, Dr. Gilbert Ross, is also a signatory to the Oz complaint and is prominently quoted in some news accounts of the letter.
ACSH is billed in its own literature as an independent research organization out to debunk “junk science.” The group has publicly battled with health advocates and environmentalists on a host of subjects, with ACSH “wading into public health debates to defend fracking, to fight New York City's attempt to ban big sugary sodas, and to dismiss concerns about the potential harms of the chemical bisphenol-A (better known at BPA) and the pesticide atrazine,” according to Mother Jones.
And, as detailed in financial documents obtained by Mother Jones in 2013, the bulk of the Council’s funding comes from industries and private foundations with a direct interest in the positions ACSH advocates. Donors and backers include “a who's-who of energy, agriculture, cosmetics, food, soda, chemical, pharmaceutical, and tobacco corporations,” according to the magazine, but of special interest to the subject at hand, companies like Monsanto, DowAgro, and agribusiness giant Syngenta.
While the physicians’ email about Oz makes reference to “outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments [sic] about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments,” the letter neither specifically mentions any of the supposed conflicts by name nor does it disclose the possible, if not probable, conflicts of interest for some of the prominent signees.
And it is also important to note that the letter never specifically mentions any of the diet products that most news articles recount as the reason behind the protest. “Quack treatments” is about as close as the letter gets. However, as noted above, the missive directly complains about Oz’s opposition to GMOs.
Maybe Dr. Oz’s support for green coffee extract, raspberry ketones and garcnia cambogia does represent an “egregious lack of integrity” on his part, but spinning an attack on an opponent of genetically modified foods as a story about the doctor’s diet claims exhibits shaky ethics, itself.
And, on the part of many media outlets, shabby reporting.