Television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is running for Pennsylvania's open Senate seat in 2022, promising that as "a world-class surgeon, fighter, and health care advocate," he's "stepping forward to cure our country's ills." And though he's unlikely to win, Oz's candidacy is a reminder of the underrated danger of woo woo ideology.
What do I mean by woo? One way to start defining it is to examine the long career of Oprah Winfrey. Granted, Oprah is more woo-adjacent than a full-blown adherent, perhaps because she's too business-savvy to go totally nuts, at least in public. But, as Kurt Anderson writes at Slate, she's done more than any other American to popularize this doofy nonsense.
She's almost singlehandedly responsible for the public prominence not only of Oz — a genuine doctor who became rich flogging medical misinformation — but also of anti-vaccine maniac Jenny McCarthy, the healthy living crank Suzanne Somers, the wacky New Age writer Rhonda Byrne (author of The Secret, which Oprah turned into a mega-hit), the dippy meditation guru Deepak Chopra, and many others of their ilk.
Looking beyond these key figures, woo is typically characterized by a belief in a woolly mysticism or spirituality, often a garbled version of Buddhism or Hinduism, though versions of Christianity fit the bill as well. It is hostile to "Western" medicine — meaning anything associated with big corporations or the scientific establishment — and favors "alternative" or "natural" or "Eastern" medicine, especially if it has some halfway plausible connection to ancient Chinese or Indian traditions (though more recent pseudoscience trash like homeopathy is also welcome). Woo gurus are often fixated on cleanliness or removing "toxins" from the body through cleanses or other sham treatments.
Perhaps the key feature of the woo mindset is that it is entirely about vibes. It's about "wellness" and "mindset" and "natural remedies" and "energy." Rigorous thought and logical argument are totally absent. "Thinking has become a disease," writes New Ager Ekhart Tolle, also an Oprah protege. It's all about how you're feeling, man, not double-blind, randomly controlled studies so you can see if the "herbal" supplements you're taking actually do anything (they likely don't, and indeed may not even contain the advertised ingredients) or if vaccines actually caused your kid's autism (they didn't).
The problems with woo start, ironically, with health. The toxin fixation, for instance, has led to numerous illnesses and injuries. Taking powerful laxatives or enemas to clean out imaginary "toxic poop" risks disrupting the microbial balance in the digestive tract and causing abscesses or infections. Coffee enemas have even killed a few people. People who take chelating agents (which bind to metals in the body) improperly have similarly made themselves sick or dead — turns out you need trace amounts of stuff like selenium to survive.
Second, woo woo communities are pitch-perfect targets for charlatans and snake oil salesmen of every stripe. A bunch of people taught to believe logic and science are good for nothing but harshing your mellow are easy pickings for fast-talking swindlers like Oprah's rogue's gallery above — especially if they've money behind them. Indeed, like so many movements that purport to criticize corporate capitalism, woo itself is largely a product of cutting-edge advertising techniques, the profit motive, and capitalist ideology. Stripped of its gauzy rhetoric, The Secret is just another neoliberal paean to greed and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
Finally, the woo mindset is quite easily adapted to conservative or even far-right politics. Now, in its original form, woo leaned left. It emerged in part from hippie communities and muddle-headed 1960s radicals who thought a groovy lifestyle was more important than politics or the union movement. Oprah is obviously a liberal.
But an obsession with cleanliness and hygiene, conspiracist irrationality, and a fondness for quack miracle cures fits perfectly on the right. One of the major engines of conservative media, and right-wing politics generally, is scummy grifters whipping up lunatic paranoia among the conservative base so as to sell them fake cures. Right-wing personalities from Alex Jones to Ben Shapiro have their own branded supplements or brain pills (typically ordinary vitamins or minerals that are heavily marked up).
Over the last few years, right-wing conspiracy theories have torn through yoga, wellness, and mom's groups online. "The beliefs central to QAnon, such as a distrust of the establishment and alternative ideas around health care, are particularly attractive to members of the yoga and spirituality communities, who often have countercultural views," writes E.J. Dickson at Rolling Stone. One woo woo mom went from selling homemade yogurt to storming the Capitol on January 6 in less than a year.
It's not a coincidence that Oz is running as a Republican rather than challenging John Fetterman for the Democratic nomination. Like any good grifter, he can see where the really juicy marks are, even if his attempt to swindle them is probably ill-judged this time.
All this comes together with vaccines. McCarthy was one of the most prominent anti-vaxxers for many years, once again largely thanks to Oprah's indulgence. Woo provided a ready-made script for conservatives, crypto-conservatives, and plain old idiots to attack COVID-19 vaccines. The writer Naomi Wolf has remained woo-ed to the gills while moving from somewhat dippy feminist to hard-right anti-vaccine activist.
None of this is to say all herbal medicines don't work (many do!), or that vegetarianism or granola are bad, or that pharmaceutical companies do not deserve quite a lot of skepticism. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with spirituality, meditation, yoga, or mysticism, in their proper place. The problem with woo is the mindset: a credulous, mush-brained approach to subjects that require study, hard thinking, and real evidence.
Commune with the nature gods all you want, just not in Phase III vaccine trials.