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.
The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.
No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.
The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.
STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.
Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.
We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.
I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.
Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.
For decades, debates about gender and science have often assumed that women are more likely than men to “leak” from the science and engineering pipeline after entering college.
However, new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering. It also devalues students who want to use their technical training to make important societal contributions elsewhere.
How could the metaphor be so wrong? Wouldn’t factors such as cultural beliefs and gender bias cause women to leave science at higher rates?
My research, published last month in Frontiers in Psychology, shows this metaphor was at least partially accurate in the past. The bachelor’s-to-Ph.D. pipeline in science and engineering leaked more women than men among college graduates in the 1970's and 80's, but not recently.
Men still outnumber women among Ph.D. earners in fields like physical science and engineering. However, this representation gap stems from college major choices, not persistence after college.
Other research finds remaining persistence gaps after the Ph.D. in life science, but surprisingly not in physical science or engineering -- fields in which women are more underrepresented. Persistence gaps in college are also exaggerated.
Consequently, this commonly used metaphor is now fatally flawed. As blogger Biochembelle discussed, it can also unfairly burden women with guilt about following paths they want. “It’s almost as if we want women to feel guilty about leaving the academic track,” she said.
Some depictions of the metaphor even show individuals funneling into a drain, never to make important contributions elsewhere.
In reality, many students who leave the traditional boundaries of science and engineering use their technical training creatively in other fields such as health, journalism and politics.
As one recent commentary noted, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel were leaks in the science pipeline. I dare someone to claim that they funneled into a drain because they didn’t become tenured science professors. No takers? Didn’t think so.
Men also frequently leak from the traditional boundaries of science and engineering, as my research and other studies show. So why do we unfairly stigmatize women who make such transitions?
By some accounts, I’m a leak myself. I earned my bachelor’s degree in the “hard” science of physics before moving into psychology. Even though I’m male, I still encountered stigma when peers told me psychology was a “soft” science or not even science at all. I can only imagine the stigma that women might face when making similar transitions.
For this fellowship, I worked with two computer science graduate students and one bioengineering postdoc on a “big data” project for improving student success in high school. We partnered with Montgomery Public County Schools in Maryland to improve their early warning system. This system used warning signs such as declining grades to identify students who could benefit from additional supports.
This example shows why the leaky pipeline narrative is so absurd. Many leaks in the pipeline continue using their technical skills in important ways. For instance, my team’s data science skills helped improve our partner’s warning system, doubling performance in some cases.
Let’s abandon this inaccurate and pejorative metaphor. It unfairly stigmatizes women and perpetuates outdated assumptions.
Some have argued that my research indicates bad news because the gender gaps in persistence were closed by declines for men, not increases for women. However, others have noted how the findings could also be good news, given concerns about Ph.D. overproduction.
More importantly, this discussion of good news and bad news misses the point: the new data inform a new way forward.
By abandoning exclusive focus on the leaky pipeline metaphor, we can focus more effort on encouraging diverse students to join these fields in the first place. Helping lead the way forward, my alma mater -- Harvey Mudd College -- has had impressive success in encouraging women to pursue computer science.
Maria Klawe, Mudd’s first female president, led extensive efforts to make the introductory computer science courses more inviting to diverse students. For instance, course revisions emphasized how computational approaches can help solve pressing societal problems.
The results were impressive. Although women used to earn only 10 percent of Mudd’s computer science degrees, this number quadrupled over the years after Klawe became president. To help replicate these results more widely, we should abandon outdated assumptions and instead help students take diverse paths into science.
David Miller is an advanced doctoral student in psychology at Northwestern University. His current research aims to understand why some students move into and out of science and engineering fields.
His reputation will never recover from that unfortunate business in Salem, but Cotton Mather deserves some recognition for his place in American medical history. He was the anti-vaccination movement’s first target.
The scene was Boston in 1721. Beginning in April, a smallpox epidemic spread from a ship anchored in the harbor; over the course of a year, it killed more than 840 people. (Here I’m drawing on Kenneth Silverman’s excellent The Life and Times of Cotton Mather, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1985.) In the course of his pastoral duties, Mather preached the necessary funeral sermons, but he was also a corresponding member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. The Puritan cleric had been keenly interested in medical issues for many years before the epidemic hit. He knew of a treatment, discussed in the Society’s journal, in which a little of the juice from an infected person’s pustule was scratched into the skin of someone healthy. It warded off the disease itself, somehow. The patient might fall ill for a short while, but would be spared the more virulent sort of infection.
Two months into the epidemic, Mather prepared a memorandum on the technique to circulate among area doctors, one of whom decided to go ahead with a trial run on three human guinea pigs. All survived the experiment, and in a remarkable show of confidence Mather had his son Samuel inoculated. (Mather himself had contracted smallpox in 1678, so was already immune.)
News of the procedure and its success became public just as the epidemic was going from worrying to critical, but not many Bostonians found the developments encouraging. The whole idea seemed absurd and dangerous. One newspaper mocked the few supporters of inoculation for giving in to something “like the Infatuation Thirty Years ago, after several had fallen Victims to the mistaken notions of Dr. M____r and other clerics concerning Witchcraft.”
Still more unkind was the person or persons responsible for trying to bomb Mather’s house. It failed to go off, but the accompanying note made the motive clear: “You dog, damn you, I’ll inoculate you with this….”
The colonial era falls outside the purview of Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Vaccination (University of Chicago Press) by Elena Conis, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, who focuses mainly on the 20th century, especially its last four decades. The scene changed drastically since Mather's day. Knowledge lagged behind technique: pioneering though early vaccination advocates were, they had no sound basis for understanding how inoculation worked. And the “natural philosophy” of Mather’s era was nowhere near as institutionalized or authoritative as its successor, the sciences, grew in the 19th century.
By the point at which Vaccine Nation picks up the story -- with John F. Kennedy announcing what would become the Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962 – both the nation-state and the field of biomedical research were enormous and powerful, and linked up in ways that Conis charts in detail. “If the stories herein reveal just one thing,” she writes, “it is that we have never vaccinated for strictly medical reasons. Vaccination was, and is, thoroughly infused with our politics, our social values, and our cultural norms.”
Be that as it may, the strictly medical reasons were compelling enough. The Act of 1962 was a push to make the Salk vaccine -- which between 1955 and 1961 had reduced the number of new polio cases from 30,000 to under 900 – available to all children. This seems like progress of a straightforward and verifiable sort, with the legislation being simply the next step toward eradicating the disease entirely. (As, indeed, it effectively did.)
But in Conis’s account, the fact that JFK announced his support for a vaccination program on the anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death was more than a savvy bit of framing. The reference to FDR, “the nation’s most famous polio victim and survivor,” also “invoked the kind of bold, progressive Democrat [JFK] intended to be.” It positioned his administration as sharing something with “the nation’s impressive biomedical enterprise and its recent victory against a disease that had gripped Americans with fear in the 1940s and 1950s.”
It was technocratic liberalism at its most confident -- a peak moment for the belief that scientific expertise might be combined with far-sighted government to generate change for the common good. And it’s all pretty much downhill from there: Vaccine Nation is, in large part, the story of an unraveling idea of progress. True, scientists developed new vaccines against measles, diphtheria, rubella, and other diseases. But at the same time, the role of federal power in generating “public awareness and acknowledgement of a set of health threats worth avoiding” came into question. So did public trust in the authority of medical science and practice.
The erosion was, in either case, a drawn-out process. A couple of instances from Conis’s narrative will have to suffice as examples. One was the campaign against mumps. The military lost billions of man-hours to the highly contagious disease in the course of the two world wars. But a vaccine against mumps developed in the 1940s was left on the shelf when peace came. Mumps went back to being treated as a childhood ailment, rather than a disease with an associated cost.
But the postwar baby boom created a new market of parents susceptible to warnings about the possible (if very rare) long-term side-effects of getting mumps in childhood. Messages about the responsibility to immunize the kids were targeted at mothers in particular, stressing that the possible danger from contracting mumps made prevention more urgent than statistics could ever measure.
The logic of that appeal – “Why risk a danger that you can actively avoid?" – applied in principle to any disease for which a vaccine could be manufactured, and by the 1970s, early childhood meant having a cocktail of them shot into the arm on a regular basis. Then came the great swine flu scare of ’76. The government warned of an impending crisis, stockpiled a vaccine for it, and began immunizing people – especially the elderly, who faced the greatest risk.
The epidemic never hit, but the vaccine itself proved fatal to a number of people and may have been the cause of serious medical problems for many more. All of this occurred during the last months of Gerald Ford’s administration, though it has somehow become associated with the Carter years. There is no historical basis for the link, but it has the ring of truthiness. The whole debacle seemed to refute JFK’s vision of science and the state leading the march to a safer and healthier future.
The largely unquestioned confidence in vaccination was perhaps a victim of its own success. Insofar as nearly everyone was immunized against several diseases, any number of people suffering from a medical problem could well believe that the shots had somehow caused it or made them susceptible. And in some cases there were grounds for the suspicion. There were also cases of inoculation inducing the disease it was supposed to prevent, as well as allergic reactions to substances in the vaccine.
But Colis sees the rise of an anti-vaccination mood less as direct response to specific problems than as a byproduct of countercultural movements. Feminists challenged the medical profession’s unilateral claim of authority, and some women took the injunction to protect children by immunizing them and turned it on its head. If they were responsible for avoiding the risk, however slight, of preventable childhood illnesses, then they were equally responsible for avoiding the dangers, however unlikely, posed by vaccines.
Another strain of anti-vaccinationist thinking was an offshoot of environmental awareness. While industrial society polluted the air and water, heedless of the effects, medicine was pumping chemicals and biological agents into the smaller ecosystem of the human body.
Similar concerns had been expressed by opponents of vaccination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- though without much long-term effect, particularly given the effectiveness of immunization in preventing (even obliterating) once-terrifying diseases. Conis depicts anti-vaccinationists of more recent times as more effective and better-established.
Besides the feminist and ecological critiques, there is the confluence of anti-government politics and new media. Supporters of vaccination once downplayed the issue of side effects, but it’s an area that demands – and is receiving – serious medical investigation.
In places, Vaccine Nation suggests that the critics and opponents have made points worthy of debate, or at least raised serious concerns. And that may be true. It would almost have to be, the real question being one of degree.
But even with that conceded, many of the arguments the author cites are … well, to be nice about it, unpersuasive. “DISEASE IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE CURED,” says one vintage anti-vaccinationist tract revived in the 1980s. “IT IS A CURE.” The cause for illness? “Excess poisons, waste matters, and incompatible food” – but not, most emphatically, germs.
“Did you know,” asks another figure Conis quotes, “that when immunity to disease is acquired naturally, the possibility of reinfection is only 3.2 percent? If the immunity comes from a vaccination, the chance of reinfection is 80 percent.” In a footnote, Conis indicates that the source of these fascinating statistics “is unclear.” That much, I bet, is true.
Poor old Cotton Mather’s thinking combined superstition and enlightened reason. They can and do mix. But not in a statement such as “DISEASE IS NOT SOMETHING TO BE CURED. IT IS A CURE." The good reverend would dismiss that as little more than ignorance and magical thinking -- and rightly so.