Michelle Obama, Anderson Cooper, and the lending of credibility to bullshitters
Disclaimer: I really don’t watch TV. We have a television, but not cable. An antenna serves us nicely to watch the local PBS affiliate (OETA) and see any appearances of myself or my students on the local news. If we do watch something, it is almost exclusively via Netflix or other interwubs-based methods. So, I don’t get references to commercials, or know much about current programming. Mostly things that anger me in some way come to my attention, usually brought to it via students, family, and friends.
Case in point: My lovely wife, home ill and trapped on the couch, informed me that Mrs. Obama was a guest on a repeat of the Dr. Oz show this week, while Anderson Cooper welcomed John Edward back for a return visit.
Now why would this sort of thing cause my autonomic nervous system to activate, and me to interpret it as anger rather than any other emotion? After all, Michelle is on television shows all the time, and Edward has his own show. Why is this different? Two words: lending credibility.
I have enormous respect for the First Lady. She is an accomplished speaker, has had a distinguished career, and her work on issues such as childhood obesity and healthy eating should be applauded. Likewise, Cooper is an award winning journalist who has done some great work. He also seems like a principled individual. Both have very high profiles and are well liked and respected by millions of people. In other words, they have credibility.
John Edward is a so-called “psychic medium” who claims he can receive messages from people who are dead. This is primarily done via “readings” where he has a large number of people in the audience and he will throw out vague statements that could apply to almost anyone until someone takes the bait. This is a technique called cold reading, and it most certainly has nothing to do with supernatural skills. Hell, I’m pretty good at it, and I guarantee I don’t have any magical abilities.
Dr. Mehmet Oz is probably most well-known for his television program and work with Oprah Winfrey. He is an accomplished surgeon and professor, and one would hope this would translate into having a scientific mindset. Not the case, unfortunately. Instead, he uses his national platform to promote homeopathy, reiki, and other non-proven (or actively disproven) alternative therapies to treat a variety of ailments. He has even endorsed John Edward publicly, having on his show and calling him “authentic.” Oz supports so much pseudoscience, in fact, that among his awards on Wikipedia, this is listed:
2011 – James Randi Educational Foundation Media Pigasus Award, which the foundation states is for promoting “nonsense.” The foundation complained about Oz’s support of energy medicine, faith healing and psychic mediums, among other controversial practices. Oz is the first person to receive a Pigasus Award two years in a row.
So, you have two people – Obama and Cooper – who seem, in my opinion, to be good folks who seem pretty reasonable. Not people known (as far as I am aware, but please correct me in the comments if I am wrong) for their promotion of nonsense (depending on your political leanings you may think otherwise, but I’m talking about pseudoscience and the like). But, they either appear on the show of someone known to give highly questionable health advice or bring someone on their show who is preying on grief and tragedy. For many people, this will give the perception that Cooper is endorsing Edward, regardless of any expressed “skepticism” on his part. It will also lend credence to all of the work that Oz is doing, given that the wife of the POTUS is going on his show.
Now, I’m not implying that Obama or Cooper are expressly saying things like “John talked to my dead uncle!” or “Energy healing cured my wife’s friend’s cousin’s former roommate of cancer!” In fact, the information Obama is spreading as part of her crusade to reduce childhood obesity is really great and does not include nonsense like quack diets. Anderson, meanwhile, actively worked to debunk Todd Akin’s insane information about rape. Again, they seem like reasonable people.
That is why their association with purveyors of woo frustrates me, because they could use their platforms to promote science and reason. Cooper could have a show dedicated to exposing the tricks and techniques “psychics” use, rather than providing airtime to a huckster. Obama could go on other shows and talk about her initiatives, or challenge Oz on his advice that runs contrary to all available evidence.
Instead, this is how Cooper’s website advertised Edward’s second appearance:
Then, thousands of fans across the country jam convention centers for a chance to see him. Today, psychic medium JOHN EDWARD is reading our audience and helping them connect with lost loved ones. Learn how John interprets messages from those who have crossed over!
Not even a “supposed” or “alleged” in there? That doesn’t seem like very hard hitting, investigative journalism to me, Anderson. And Mrs. Obama, I know he’s got a large audience and you want to get the word about how to help children increase their health, but I think you can get a slot on pretty much any show your want.
Remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Use yours wisely.