Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of The Dr. Oz Show, may no longer be a valid or trustworthy authority on health and wellness after getting grilled by the Senate for making false claims about his weight-loss products and other health issues. For example, CNN reported on Monday that Dr. Oz promoted Green Coffee Beans for weight loss despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued the company in May for “deceiving consumers through fake news sites and invented health claims.” The weight-loss claim stems from a small 2012 study published in Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy that helped 16 overweight adults to lose an average of 18 pounds in 22 weeks. A 2011 meta-analysis published in Gastroenterology Research and Practice, based on three short-term studies on weight loss, showed a five-pound average weight loss with the green coffee extract. Despite the weak scientific evidence, Dr. Oz claimed that the products work, and the public bought his idea, which represents a classic example of appeal to authority fallacy.
According to the philosophy website from Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, the appeal to authority fallacy, sometimes called argument from authority, refers to an authority’s appealing testimony outside the realm of his or her expertise. “Anyone can give opinions or advice; the fallacy only occurs when the reason for assenting to the conclusion is based on following the recommendation or advice of an improper authority. Sometimes it is called the ‘arguments from prestige,’ which is based on the belief that ‘prestigious people cannot be wrong.'” A typical appeal to authority follows this format: Authority A believes statement or claim B is true, and B is outside the scope of practice or relevant to the subject X. Therefore, B must be true. A classic example is in this 1986 Vicks commercial that portrayed actor Peter Bergman from All My Children as an authoritative “expert” just because he played a doctor on a popular TV show.
Another example: Because Dr. Mehmet Oz is a medical professional (a cardiac surgeon), has been on Larry King Live and is a friend with Oprah Winfrey, his positive statements and stance on XYZ weight-loss pill must be true, based on the appeal to authority fallacy. However, he is not a nutrition professional nor should he be giving weight loss advice unless he is a registered dietitian or a nutrition professional, such as a researcher in nutrition sciences. His advice on weight loss and alternative medicine is probably no more valid than Winfrey’s opinion.
People sometimes rely upon one or more expert opinions before making a decision or drawing conclusions about complex matters when they do not have the time or energy to do their own research. For those who want more information about a specific health topic, many refer to what they perceive as credible and authoritative sources, such as the “Dr. Oz Show” or a popular fitness magazine, or consult with a friend who may be a health expert. There is nothing wrong with consulting with a dentist, physician or a personal trainer. However, there are ways in which the appeal to authority can go wrong.
Philosophy professor Gary N. Curtis, Ph.D., who taught at Indiana University, stated on the Fallacy Files website that appeal to authority is “unnecessary.” “If a question can be answered by observation or calculation, an argument from authority is not needed,” he wrote. “Since arguments from authority are weaker than more direct evidence, go look or figure it out for yourself.”
Historically, the rebellion against the authority of the teachings of Aristotle and The Bible during the Renaissance played a vital role in driving forward the scientific revolution, Curtis added. “Aristotle was so respected in the Middle Ages that his word was taken on empirical issues which were easily decidable by observation.” Thus, the scientific revolution steered away from the appeal to authority to implementing observation and experiment. Even The Bible invoked “an authority on empirical or mathematical questions.” For example, the value of pi can be determined to be three based on certain passages in the Old Testament, Curtis wrote. However, the value of pi can be answered by calculation, and the appeal to authority is irrelevant.
Sometimes the authority can be biased and cherry-pick facts to suit his or her conclusions. For example, a recent study from the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center on diet soda claimed that it can help people lose weight, despite the questionable experimental setup and the previous evidence supporting that diet soda’s artificial sweeteners have hidden dangers. The Anschutz study was funded by the American Beverage Association, whose members include the Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling companies.
In the case of Dr. Mehmet Oz, his bias toward alternative medicine is clearly shown in this 2011 clip. He cuts off neuroscientist Steven Novella, who has an opposing view of alternative medicine, more than once while allowing the other cardiologist, who also practices alternative medicine, to speak.
The science and medical communities, however, are not totally immune from appeal to authority. “Taking health advice from a qualified health professional that is directly related to that professional’s field or expertise is perfectly acceptable,” Dr. Jonathan Fass, DPT, said in an online interview. Dr. Fass is a private physical therapist for the family of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “After all, that’s why we have professionals in the first place. They study and learn about specific areas of importance in order to function as topic and content experts.”
“What one should not do, however, is assume that any health care professional’s opinion is necessarily reflective of factual or incontrovertible truth,” Fass warned. “No matter who the expert is or what his or her qualifications may be, we are all human, and we are all subject to countless cognitive biases which can shape our thoughts and beliefs. These biases can influence the decisions that we make, even when we guard against such potentials. This does not mean that we should assume that every piece of information that we receive from an expert is false. On average, we should expect that within an expert’s field, his or her opinion will more likely be true relative to a non-expert.
Dr. Mehmet Oz may have lured millions of viewers into believing his overture with the appeal to authority as well as emotional appeal and confirmation bias; however, such examples of this fallacy can help both consumers and professionals make wiser decisions. “It is advisable to check the information that you obtain from any expert with a valid source, such as a research review. Don’t go on faith just because you see the word ‘Doctor’ in front of a name or assume anything that you hear must therefore be accurate by default,” Fass suggested.
Opinion by Nick Ng
Interview with Jonathan Fass, DPT
Diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome and Obesity: Targets and Therapy
Gastroenterology Research and Practice