Oprah – Sneaky Misinformation

Often I’ll be speaking about obvious hucksters such as Kevin Trudeau, Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and the like. But today I’d like to speak about someone much more insidious, someone under the radar. You might not have seen this one coming.

You may have heard of a nice lady named Oprah Winfrey. She has a modestly popular -ahem, foooooor the last 20 years – show on the TV box and a self-titled magazine (well, self-initialed anyway). She is a generous philanthropist, often giving away gifts on her show, sometimes worth thousands of dollars. She opened a school for girls recently in Africa – which incidentally came under fire recently for abuse, but that was dealt with swiftly by Big O herself.

So, my issue is not with her character per se. She’s quite obviously a very caring, generous lady. Even though the tax breaks are almost certainly very good, I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. My issue (finally the rub) is with her perceived authority and what she does with this responsibility.

Let’s face it, this woman has been on the air for years. Because of her generosity and well-known visage, people trust her. This makes it really easy to believe anything she says, because why would she lie? And I’m not calling her a liar here, but I feel it’s important to point out one thing.

Oprah is not an expert on anything.

Oprah is a TV personality. She is the host of a long-running talk show. This does not, by any standard, make her the defining authority on any topic. This is why she is so dangerous. The show will have topics about autism conspiracies, “alternative” medicine (read: “not really” medicine), acupuncture, angels, “The Secret”*, etc. without a shred of skepticism or irony. Oh sure, sometimes they’ll have the obligatory “let’s hear from this scientician” moment, but that is often lacking and only appears if we’re lucky. Or sometimes they’ll invite the token skeptic on just to ambush them as happened to James Randi and, in a separate incident, Laura McMahon (full story on both of these events found at http://www.randi.org/jr/2007-03/030207harpo.html#i1).

These topics of course will be saddled in between less controversial fair such as various celebrity guests and how to make your hair look nice. Also between extremely controversial shows dealing with rape, assault, murderers, etc. Altogether these intellectually irresponsible shows tend to slip in unnoticed and seem like another day in the world of trusting Oprah informing the public of what matters or what’s fun. So, these topics run largely unopposed for the duration of the hour and who knows how many people walk away thinking “huh, you learn something new every day”.

These people aren’t stupid, by the way. They’re like the rest of us. A trusted authority figure has given out information for our benefit (or at least that’s how it’s promoted), who are we to judge the veracity of it? We’re not experts, after all. But what people have to realize is this: Oprah is not an expert on anything! Her show is for entertainment. It is not a substitution for watching the news (arguably useless as well these days, but at least a rung above) or looking something up for yourself.

Oprah, I implore you, please for the love of sanity stop promoting the book “The Secret”*, stop passively allowing the promotion of the idea that vaccines cause autism (to be completely fair it was Jenny McCarthy doing most of the talking here, but I still hold Oprah responsible as it is her show), stop passively allowing unopposed diatribes on the benefits of “alternative” medicine, stop promoting alleged psychics, stop insulting women’s intelligence by having shows about astrology and how it affects their love life and success. Just stop. Stick to what you know – celebrities, hair, victims of various atrocities.

And to everyone out there: OPRAH IS NOT AN EXPERT ON ANYTHING. Please, if you hear something on her show, take a quick sec on Google or look it up on Wikipedia – anything – to verify the info. Maybe she was right, and that’s great, but more importantly she might be wrong and that’s something that needs to be straightened out. Wouldn’t it feel much better to look something up, learn something, and then realize “I’m smarter than Oprah!” than to believe everything she says without question? I know I’m smarter than Oprah, and it feels awesome.

*This will be a topic in an upcoming post.

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