Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

No doubt you have heard about the physicians who wrote to Columbia University's  dean of the medical faculty demanding that the school fire Mehmet Oz. The university responded with some banalities about academic freedom.

The physicians who wrote the letter seem a bit dodgy; some of them have ties to the GMO industry and the letter seemed to focus inordinately on that subject. But that's neither here nor there. The question is, should Columbia remove Oz from the faculty.

Honestly, I'm of two minds about this. It is generally against my religion to see professors fired because of controversial public statements. Free inquiry is the raison d'etre of the university and our bedrock value is that the cure for error is open investigation and debate. That said, there is a respectable argument that the Oz affair is not about academic freedom.

Oz does not do research on the fraudulent products and useless practices he promotes on his television show. He does not debate them at conferences or in the pages of medical journals. And there often no scientific or ethical controversy, as in this case or numerous others. I mean come on, a "psychic" who communicates with the dead?

No, what Oz does is lie to people, for money. I'm not saying he is paid by the hucksters and charlatans whose products he pushes, but he is paid to host his TV show and he evidently figures that this trash is what attracts viewers. He abuses the prestige of his medical degree and the Columbia faculty in order to make money by lying to people, potentially causing them substantial harm. That's contrary to his oath as a physician and yes, you can fire people from the faculty for egregiously unethical behavior.

Still, there is a real problem of slippery slopes and drawing lines and hard cases making bad law. There are some defensible claims that nevertheless deeply offend many physicians, whose own reputations and livelihoods depend on practices that are attacked by people out of the mainstream. For example, Robert Whitaker claims that there has been a massive epidemic of mental illness caused by psychiatric medications. He's not in academia, but suppose he had a supporter who was on a medical faculty and had a radio show promoting Whitaker's ideas? Could the school fire the the supporter? They might make the same accusations against him or her that I make against Oz, but I don't think the situations are comparable. Whitaker might not be right about everything, but he's not a nut. He does have some points worth pondering, and the challenge he presents to psychiatric practice deserves consideration and can potentially improve it.

So Columbia doesn't want to open a can of worms. I can understand that. But they should at least disassociate the school from Oz's worst frauds.


C. Corax said...

If he's not publishing, how can he maintain a position on the faculty?

(Just passing by; life has intervened so I don't get to read this blog very often anymore. I hope you are well, Cervantes.)

Cervantes said...

How yuh been?

Many medical professors don't publish, they are what are called clinical professors and they just train medical students, residents and fellows. I'm not sure about Oz, I believe he has published in the past and may have tenure.