On June 22, 2011, James Arthur Ray was found guilty of negligent homicide after three attendees of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat died. That only three died — 18 others were injured — is nothing short of a miracle: In what Ray called a traditional Native American sweat-lodge ceremony, participants were first subjected to 36 hours of fasting in the Arizona desert, with nothing but a sleeping bag for company, and then required to participate in a ritual inside a 200-degree lodge. Ray called this a “heat endurance” exercise, but a better description would be a $10,000 life-threatening scam.
Twice in 2006, Ray was a guest of the Oprah Winfrey show. Twice, she endorsed his outré New Age thinking. In an interview with The Verge, the mother of retreat victim Kirby Brown revealed that Ray’s appearance on Oprah helped quell concerns her daughter felt about becoming a follower of Ray’s methods. If Oprah endorsed it, her daughter assumed, it must be safe. Alas, it seems the opposite is true. If Oprah endorses it, odds are it’s pseudoscience.
Hers is a strange, unethical, and bizarre system, but it’s a commercially beneficial one. From Oprah, the champions of a yet-to-be-proven, seems-too-good-to-be-true practice receive validity. From her guests, Oprah receives trend points. The only victims are . . . well, everybody else, including people such as Kirby Brown, for whom a high-profile endorsement doubles as a reassurance.
A particularly alarming example of the “Oprah effect” is the widespread skepticism about vaccines. On a 2007 episode, Oprah left unchallenged Playboy model Jenny McCarthy’s theory that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was responsible for her child’s autism. No scientific experts appeared on the show, and the only pushback Oprah offered was a brief statement she read from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which explained that no scientific connection between the two has yet been observed. McCarthy concluded the segment with this response: “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”
That’s Oprah’s science, too — the science of spiritual connection and of “your truth.” How was McCarthy so sure of the connection between the vaccine and her son’s autism? Well, she said, the nurse administered the shot, “and not soon thereafter . . . boom, soul gone from his eyes.” Hers is a science unconcerned with those pesky hurdles of experimentation, peer review, and observed results — a science that is focused instead on connections between the spirit and the mind or the soul and the body. While most people would rely on Christianity or Islam or Judaism to help enhance their spirituality, Oprah offers an easier path, complete with a daily 45-minute Mass.
The religion of Oprah has its saints, too. Take, for example, the Brazilian healer John of God, who has been largely discredited by the mainstream medical community for performing such disturbing “spiritual surgeries” as inserting scissors deep into a patient’s nose or scraping a patient’s eye with a knife. John exemplifies the Oprah guarantee: Having been “abandoned” by traditional medicine, the sick and injured find comfort in his spiritual healing. In 2010, an O Magazine reporter visited Brazil and explained why John of God was a successful healer: “Brazil has deep roots in the traditions of shamanism and spiritism,” the report submitted, “both of which feature the notion that individuals can — and do — cross the boundaries between this worldly existence and the afterlife.”
John of God went largely unchallenged by the reporter — or by Oprah — during segments aired on him in both 2010 and 2013. On both occasions, Oprah failed to mention that John’s guarantee comes with a few caveats that could be best described as cop-outs. Those whom John “heals” are told to continue taking their doctor-prescribed medication, and reminded that John doesn’t promise success in every case. According to a 60 Minutes Australia estimation, John earned over $10 million in 2014.
A key theme of Oprah’s science is instant gratification. If you have the money and the means, she asks, why take the time? In 2004, Oprah advertised the “thread lift,” which guest dermatologist Karyn Grossman called “the closest you can get to a face-lift without actually cutting.” The procedure involved Grossman poking holes in the skin, pulling thin threads through them, and lifting the tissue up. Despite doctors who warned, in a 2005 report for Plastic Surgery Practice, that the threads might cause irreversible damage to facial tissue, surface migration (the right and left sides of the face looking different), and other concerning side effects, Oprah offered no follow-up warning or retraction.
That same year, Oprah promoted the Thermage, a $30,000 machine that promised to smooth wrinkles using radio waves. Again, she neglected to warn viewers of potential downsides, which included burns, scars, and agonizing pain. Thermage CEO Stephen Fanning told Newsweek five years later that while he believes in the product, he was uncomfortable with how Oprah marketed it. “Any time you’re dealing with a cosmetic device,” Fanning said, “you always have to present a balanced approach. Oprah didn’t.”
When promoting her pseudoscientific practices, Oprah followed a pattern similar to that of a snake-oil salesman in the Wild West: She promises an effect that seems too good to be true, brings out an “expert” to confirm the effect’s “scientific” possibility; and then sometimes, for extra oomph, rolls out a real-life Viewer Like You who claims to feel rejuvenated, 40 years younger, or whatever the product claims to cause. She did so while promoting the thread lift, with a woman whose transformation per the before-and-after pictures looked like more like Hollywood magic (copious amounts of makeup) than actual change. During her extensive shilling for the self-help book The Secret, Oprah offered several real-life testimonials of the book’s validity. One example is Karen, who explained how the book helped her avoid a heart attack: All she did was repeat mantras such as “I feel safe” and “it smooth[ed her] mind so the universe can work out the answer.” Then there was 13-year-old Cassie, who revealed in a 2008 segment that gastric banding, a radical weight-loss surgery involving a band strapped around the top of the stomach, helped her shed 80 pounds. It could work for your 13-year-old, too, though you’d have to go to Mexico, as Cassie’s mother did, to find a doctor who would perform it.
As we’re caught up in the dizzying whirlwind of a potential Oprah 2020 presidential bid (remember, Democrats, Oprah was Trump’s VP pick in 1999), we must be careful not to forget her fetish for the fantastical. Will her candidacy and presidency be underpinned by sound political and economic theory? Or, more likely, will it be another smoke-and-mirrors show, complete with get-healed-quick promises that are not only too good to be true but downright dangerous? The widespread and instant support for a presidential run seems to follow the same logic that cost Kirby Brown’s mother her daughter: Oprah would be a great nominee, the voters reason, because she’s Oprah. If they paid attention to her track record, though, they would see that history has a different lesson: It’s best to avoid much of what Oprah endorses. Could she, too, be too good to be true?