COMMENTARY | Dr. Mehmet Oz recently came under fire for suggesting apple juice may hold unsafe levels of arsenic; tests done by his show indicate that "arsenic levels need to be lower," according to The Associated Press. The FDA says the testing methods used were incorrect. Even Oz says he would continue to give his children apple juice.
So what was the point of doing the segment?
A few days ago, we were learning that a mere nine minutes of watching the exciting "SpongeBob SquarePants" ruins children's attention spans. The claim defies logic, and yet since the study was adorned with the shiny badge of science, it made people stop and wonder if a little yellow sponge and his starfish friend could be harming their kids.
And then there was Tea Party sweetheart Michele Bachmann, who, after the recent GOP Tea Party debate, claimed that a woman "came up to her" and told her that the HPV vaccine caused her daughter's mental retardation, according to Mediaite. The anecdote was meant to dig at Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who tried to require HPV vaccinations for all girls in his state (that Perry allegedly had ties to vaccine manufacturer Merck is among the controversies involved in the failed legislation). Two bioethicists have now offered $10,000 to the family of this supposed woman for the opportunity to go through the child's medical records to verify the claim.
Meanwhile, parents consider this possibly fictional information when making the complicated decision of whether to vaccinate their girls against one of the leading causes of cervical cancer.
Dr. Richard Besser, former acting head of the Centers for Disease Control, said to Oz on a "Good Morning America" segment that he's "told parents they are poisoning their children" and said Oz's claim was like shouting "Fire!" in a theater. That is exactly the point of "attention-getting" science: to yell above the noise of our endless information and get eyes focused on you. That it carries the authoritative and often mysterious stamp of science makes it all the more difficult to ignore.
But this attention-getting science is more insidious than just bellowing over the constant news cycle. It preys on the fear that it seems all parents have, that somehow they are doing something wrong.
"You are!" It screams at them, "look! You thought apple juice/SpongeBob was good for your kids, but it's destroying them and you gave it to them. It's your fault!" Or even worse, with something like the HPV vaccine, "you did it for you child's health but you ruined her instead!"
It is opportunistic; an abuse of the scientific method; and, worse, such claims make it less likely that when real science, supported by well-done research, indicates problems people will pay attention. At least now, though, we are seeing groups like the FDA and those bioethicists willing to fight pseudo-science with science.