Mirjam Guesgen

Freelance Science Writer

I am a freelance science writer currently based in Toronto, Canada, with a particular interest in animal welfare.

I love communicating complex, scientific ideas in an engaging, balanced, thought-out and informative way.

A short note on Dr Oz and science communication

This week we saw Dr Mehmet Oz being grilled by the senate over claims that he "peddled" weight-loss supplements to his viewers, with him being likened to a "snake-oil salesman". But was this an over-reaction? What was Dr Oz actually trying to do?

I have to admit, when I first watched a segment of Dr Oz, it didn't appeal to me. Having said that, I'm definitely not the target audience for the show (middle-aged women). The aim is "not to take you to medical school... [but] to harvest the collective IQ of America". 

However, his enthusiasm for lesser-known products (such as raspberry ketones or Garcinia Cambogia) has been mis-interpreted as a sales tactic. This has largely been spurred by the language used by Dr Oz but also by those producing the show (having banners in the background saying "no exercise" when the Dr is actually saying "not needing to exercise five days a week" is misleading). In addition, scammers have used his image to promote products online.

 Some of the scam advertisements based on information presented in the Dr Oz show.

Some of the scam advertisements based on information presented in the Dr Oz show.

But I want to acknowledge the important role that figures like Dr Oz have in science communication. Dr Oz does what he intends: he communicates new research, promotes health, and excites people about their health. He also does so in a way that appeals to those who wouldn't have access to the latest research or scientific knowledge. Most importantly, he does so passionately. For someone like myself, who must be sceptical of her own, and others', work it's easy to decipher the language of the show and think about what that means in terms of actual findings. For example, "inhibiting the production of fat" doesn't necessarily mean fat loss if you're not also exercising.

The way forward here is two-fold. Dr Oz has already responded to the hearing by saying "I am accountable for my role in the proliferation of these scams and I recognize that my enthusiastic language has made the problem worse at times". But I also challenge viewers to be more critical about the information they read or hear. Do some research! Read the instructions for use on these products! There will never be one "miracle" product.

My hope, is that this doesn't discourage other scientists from speaking out about their findings for fear of mis-interpretation. Make it hard to misinterpret! Be passionate, but also be clear.