Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are not experts in coronavirus. So why do they talk about it in the news?


Social media quickly erupted with fury and derision as viewers stressed the desperate nature of the apple-to-orange relationship: cars and tobacco are not exactly communicable diseases; and both, in fact, have inspired numerous government regulations to limit injury and death. (The shrinking of television has also been widely mocked for making a comparison with deaths in swimming pools using a false inflated statistic by a factor of almost 100.)

But the interview raised deeper concerns: why did Dr. Phil – not a doctor but a clinical psychologist without any particular knowledge of the politics, science or economics of the judgment – on a television channel a- did he talk about the subject in the first place?

Like Drs. Drew and Oz before him, Phil McGraw was on television, it seems, in large part because he is an articulate, charismatic and well-known television personality. But none of this constitutes expertise on this particular subject. In fact, in recent television appearances to discuss the pandemic, famous medical colleagues Drew Pinsky and Mehmet Oz made comments based on a vague or seemingly faltering understanding of the crisis – arguably doing more to undermine public understanding than to improve it.

The three have since gone back on their statements. Pinsky apologized last month for rejecting the coronavirus as no more serious than the flu; Oz said Thursday that he had “spoken badly” this week, when he urged the reopening of schools at “cost”. [of] 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality. And on Friday, McGraw admitted that he had used an inflated number of drowning deaths and that his comparisons with smoking and driving were not quite accurate either. “Yes, I know it is not contagious. So probably bad examples. ”

Television rewards the ability to speak in sound clips and to voice opinions confidently and comfortably in front of the camera, regardless of expertise. Even before television, the practice of elevating the famous alleged expert status was a long and eventful one; the ads have traded famous names for hundreds of years, whether or not the celebrity has any special knowledge or experience. More recently, cable television networks have employed experts, including journalists, with light references to give their opinion on the news of the day, usually on political subjects.

Celebrities who are invited to give their opinion on very distant subjects occur so often that there is now a shortcut on social networks: “Where is Ja Rule? This is a reminder from 2001 when the rapper was screened in front of the cameras and interviewed about the September 11 terrorist attacks, inspiring a joke from Dave Chappelle: “I don’t want to dance. I’m afraid of dying. I have questions that Ja Rule may not have answered. When CNN interviewed Stephen King last month about a new book, he explained how scary real life is just like his books and was then asked to comment on the government’s response to the pandemic and the thought of the Governor of Florida.

The question takes on a particular color when the subject under discussion is literally a question of life and death and speaking in depth can have serious consequences.

The pandemic has exacerbated a more general problem of confirmation bias, or finding evidence to validate a preconceived notion, on television, said Dr. Henry I. Miller, principal investigator at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and philosopher on science and technology. problems.

“The cable networks, in particular, troll for pseudo-experts – some accredited, others not – who express points of view which reflect the prejudices of the network and / or the interviewer” who reserved them, a he said in an email. Among the most egregious examples, according to Miller, are talking heads who have approved drugs such as hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19 in the absence of reliable clinical trials demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.

The problem, of course, is that there are not many experts on the new coronavirus – due to its very novelty. No one knows, for example, which drugs might be effective and safe to combat it; trials are still ongoing. No one knows the long-term effects of a coronavirus infection; it will take several months, if not years, of study. And no one knows if infected people who survive have immunity, can be reinfected, or can infect others; there is no solid science yet on this.

In some ways, this makes the coronavirus pandemic breaking news, albeit a slow one, in which authorities and journalists make their way through an event whose details are still unclear. Such circumstances leave journalists with an unsatisfactory option – saying that no one knows.

The most accredited coronavirus experts – Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx, for example – can only do a lot of TV shows before news and chat requests give way to less competent people.

Or not much expertise at all. CNN, for example, featured Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, during a “town hall” broadcast Thursday to answer questions from viewers about the virus. The Zuckerbergs spoke of Facebook and their charitable foundation’s efforts to respond to the pandemic, but they did not answer any questions, and otherwise it was unclear why they were interviewed.

A CNN representative did not respond to questions about the segment. Fox News spokesperson Carly Shanahan said Phil McGraw and Mehmet Oz were guests on Fox News and are not paid contributors. She declined to comment further. (Sources at Fox said, however, that McGraw had been booked to discuss mental health issues and that his controversial comments were unexpected).

However, Miller said that the professional credentials of television guests – usually shorthand for cable news tyrants – often suggest more expertise than there actually is. He mentioned television interviews over the past week with a former federally appointed person who predicted that a coronavirus vaccine would be available within 12 months. But the former official, said Miller, is a “non-scientist” who was not involved in the review of drug and vaccine requests.

All the networks employ doctors as medical correspondents, which provides additional in-depth knowledge of reporting. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, practicing obstetrician-gynecologist, is ABC’s chief medical correspondent and appears regularly on “Good Morning America” ​​and “World News Tonight”. Fox News employs five doctors as contributors. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon by training, is CNN’s chief medical correspondent; he frequently interviews other medical specialists to report on matters beyond his own expertise.

“I feel an obligation – with this story in particular,” Gupta told the Washington Post Magazine in a recent interview. “It will be one of the most important things that will happen, from a medical and health perspective, for most of us in our lifetime. I hope I have saved a lot of time gaining people’s trust through other reports and stories that I have done so that when I tell them something about it now, which is honest – full hopeful, but honest – let them listen.


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