Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and vice chair of the Department of Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center has attracted some attention recently because he has a TV show, The Dr. Oz Show, on which he spouts some incredibly stupid ideas about phony weight-loss cures and how psychics make you feel better.
But the recent debate about Oz centers on a question of academic freedom, after a group of 10 physicians wrote to Columbia University calling for him to be dismissed from his faculty position unless he stopped his dubious televised pronouncements.
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.
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. Worst of all, he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.
Thus, Dr. Oz is guilty of either outrageous conflicts of interest or flawed judgments about what constitutes appropriate medical treatments, or both. Whatever the nature of his pathology, members of the public are being misled and endangered, which makes Dr. Oz’s presence on the faculty of a prestigious medical institution unacceptable.
One of the 10 letter writers, Gilbert Ross of the American Council on Science and Health, described Oz as “a true asset to Columbia -- as a surgeon” and called for him to “return to the operating theater, where he can do much real good.” This makes it clear that the opposition to Oz being on Columbia’s faculty has nothing to do with his professional abilities. Instead, these writers want to punish Oz for his extramural utterances, because they fear that Oz’s position at Columbia adds credibility to the dubious medical claims on his show.
It’s doubtful that many of Oz’s viewers know anything about his job at Columbia or would care if they did know. They find him credible because of his personality and because he has “Doctor” in front of his name, not because he works at Columbia.
So the real reason these writers are seeking to fire Oz from Columbia is as a form of public shaming. The numerous condemnations of Oz’s show haven’t changed his behavior, and they want to turn up the heat. But they are wrong: academic positions should never be threatened as a tool to argue with people who are in error.
Michael Specter wrote in The New Yorker, “Free speech must be defended vigorously. But to invoke those principles in order to protect the right of one of America’s most powerful doctors to mislead millions of people seems a bit excessive.”
There’s nothing excessive about academic freedom or free speech, even when you apply those principles to famous and powerful people. The point of academic freedom isn’t just to protect the little guy. It’s to protect everyone, celebrity academics included. When Bertrand Russell was banned from teaching at City College of New York in 1940 for not being sufficiently homophobic in the eyes of a New York judge, he was one of the most famous academics in the world. But his banishment was both a violation of Russell’s individual academic freedom and a threat to everyone else less prominent than Russell, since attacks on academic freedom create a chilling effect on everyone.
Oz might not “need” academic freedom to remain America’s most famous doctor, but what about all the other academics who make controversial statements? The letter demanding Oz’s firing linked to a Salonarticle about Oz’s support for labeling genetically modified organisms (GMO) in foods, even though there’s no scientific evidence that GMO products are harmful to consume. But it’s also true that there’s no scientific proof of GMO safety required before a new product is introduced, and that GMOs may contribute to negative consequences for the environment and for human health, such as possible increases in certain kinds of pesticide use and the overuse of antibiotics in cows given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). And truthful labeling is required for food products even when those ingredients are safe.
If Oz can be fired, in part, because of his views on GMOs, what might happen to the scientists who find evidence about GMOs harmful to the bottom lines of powerful corporations, or who dare to join the overwhelming majority of Americans in expressing support for labeling?
Columbia University responded to the controversy with a simple statement: “As I am sure you understand and appreciate, Columbia is committed to the principle of academic freedom and to upholding faculty members’ freedom of expression for statements they make in public discussion.”
A group of medical faculty peers at Columbia wrote an article criticizing the information on Oz’s show, but noted, “Unless these foibles can be shown to render Dr. Oz inadequate or ineffective at Columbia, there is no justification for forcing him to resign from a well-earned position in academic medicine.”
Jennifer Gunter, a physician, argued, “The uproar from health professionals about Dr. Oz is has nothing to do with academic freedom -- it’s about false claims, bad information, ethics and conflicts of interest. Academic freedom is meant to support thoughtful ideas and research, not charlatans and liver cleanses.”
But academic freedom protects thoughtful ideas and research by limiting the reach of punishment for bad ideas -- especially when those bad ideas take place in a realm outside of one’s professional work. The fact that Oz talks about medical issues on his show makes him no different from Steven Salaita, whose tweets (which led him to lose a job at the University of Illinois) were extramural utterances even though the subject matter had some connection to his academic work on Israel.
An extramural utterance is defined by whether or not a university is paying a professor to speak, as they do with teaching and research. But if we say that extramural utterances should be judged by academic criteria, then we will chill the speech of academics in precisely the areas where they can benefit the public most with their knowledge. It’s tempting to imagine that we can force Oz to bring sound medical advice to daytime television by threatening his job. What will happen instead is that academic experts will keep silent on public controversies lest they endanger their academic positions, and we will be left with more charlatans to guide important debates.
The best response to Oz’s errors is counterspeech, not the removal of his academic freedom and dismissal from his academic position. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Oz for having a show that dispenses dubious and often scientifically wrong advice to a gullible public, or even encouraging him to resign. But when people call for those who views they dislike to be fired even when they are fully qualified academically, it undermines academic freedom.
The University of Illinois initially responded to the Salaita controversy with the same principled defense of academic freedom that Columbia University invoked for Oz, before changing positions. But Columbia’s principles are sound: a true university should have academics judged by other academics based on their academic work, and should give them the freedom to speak -- on Twitter, in public speeches and letters, and on television -- without fear of censorship. We cannot count on the truth prevailing on daytime television, but we should not be afraid to allow an open debate of ideas in the public sphere.
John K. Wilson is the coeditor of AcademeBlog.org and the author of seven books, including Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.