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A message from the vice chairman of surgery at Columbia University: “Garcinia Camboja. It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

Should Columbia University fire this guy just cos he says things like this:

“You may think magic is make believe but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type—it’s green coffee extract.”

“I’ve got the No. 1 miracle in a bottle to burn your fat. It’s raspberry ketones.”

“Garcinia Camboja. It may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

Probably not. Exaggerating or even lying, trading off your university affiliation, I don’t think that’s a firing offense. Even the possibly “outrageous conflicts of interest,” maybe there’s no hard evidence there. And it might be that in the classes he sticks to the more standard material, or labels his speculations as such.

Or maybe they should just reduce his salary and give him a very tiny office in a faraway building, and schedule his classes for Sundays at 3 in the morning? I have no idea.

Having this sort of joker on the faculty is embarrassing for Columbia, sure, but firing or even reprimanding him could be even worse. After all, where do you draw the line? Should faculty be canned for plagiarizing, or for making up interviews in ethnographic studies, or for expressing noxious political or legal opinions, or for refusing to retract or correct the errors in their published work?

Probably Columbia has to just take the reputational hit, which means they have to continue seeing this sort of thing in the press:

Astoundingly, Dr. Oz is the vice chairman and professor of surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Astoundingly, indeed.

Just like Cornell with Daryl Bem: it’s all an embarrassment, but Bem’s Cornell affiliation is a currency of diminishing value. When his study first got publicity, Bem benefited from the Ivy League affiliation, but now his work is evaluated on its own terms.

Dr. Oz is different, maybe, because he remains in the news. If Columbia does decide they want to get rid of the guy, I don’t think they’d fire him. They’d just make his working conditions worse and worse until he quits of his own accord.

Or maybe Columbia will go on the offensive and fight for the Vice-Chairman’s right to party—ketones style!

But not just any ketones. It’s gotta be raspberry ketones.

Hey, I eat celery almost every day but I don’t go all TV about it.

P.S. I’m thinking we should add Oz to the scripts for “Second Chance U” and “The New Dirty Dozen”. And, hey, graphics designers: I’d still like some movie posters for these!

36 Comments

  1. zbicyclist says:

    Is vice-chairman the type of thing they elect you to if you go to the bathroom at the wrong time during a meeting — and simply means you have to make sure the donuts and coffee are made — or is it a position of real respect? I don’t know. Sounds impressive, though. Sounds like either your peers or the administration think you deserve an extra special title.

    Vice-chairman also wouldn’t be a tenured or even permanent position, so stripping him of that wouldn’t seem that hard.

  2. Rahul says:

    Andrew, in your book what exactly are firing offenses for Columbia? I cannot think of any good reason why Columbia should *not* fire Oz. He seems a total fraud. And the potential for harm is immense.

    OTOH I think comparing Oz to Daryl Bem is quite unfair to Bem.

    PS. Was the entire post sarcasm?

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      No, the post is serious. I have no idea what is a firing offense. It just seems much more common for embarrassing faculty to get forced out (for example, I don’t think Mark Hauser was officially fired from Harvard), or to fade into retirement (Ed Wegman) or to just hang in there (Matthew Whitaker, Laurence Tribe, John Yoo, etc etc etc).

      I agree that Oz is worse than Bem in his actions (at least, that’s my impression from what I’ve heard about in the news, not having any particular knowledge of either of them). I brought up Bem not because I think he’s as bad as Oz, but because he brings some embarrassment to his host institution.

      Nothing Bem did is even close to a firing offense. It’s not at all cool that he claimed that various experiments were exact replication when they weren’t, and I to think Bem’s behavior shades into the unethical, but it’s certainly well within the spectrum of how scientists behave when promoting their own work.

      • Elin says:

        Andrew is right in that it is far more common for people to be pushed out than fired. That’s why I don’t understand why he is still Vice Chair of Surgery. Even having no idea how that position is given, it is the nature of all those processes that there is a way to take it away directly or by making it not pleasant. It is much easier to make someone unhappy enough that the disaffiliate than to go through the process of firing.
        I’m wondering too whether he’s buying out all his time and if so why is he allowed that title which implies that he is actually doing some administrative work. Or did they give him that title to get him out of other responsibilities so that he could go on tv?

        I’ve also heard of people getting sanctioned internally for using their affiliations improperly to imply endorsement by the institution. Does he have a disclaimer on his show or anything like that? I’m really shocked that Columbia would allow that.

        • Rahul says:

          University administrations are weird places. They allow a rouge doc to use their affiliation freely on an iffy TV show.

          OTOH, I remember our University Admin dept. take the hard-line when we were building a computing cluster & got a manufacturer of low latency Ethernet cards to give us their cutting edge cards for cheap in return for some bench-marking / test results. And all they wanted was a Whitepaper that mentioned the Universities Name & Logo.

    • I still remember being read my rights at Carnegie Mellon, the firing of a tenure professor at which required (at least) one of the following, only two of which were under my direct control:

      * moral turpitude,

      * gross negligence, or

      * financial crisis of the university only resolvable by laying off faculty.

      While “moral turpitude” was rather vague, I liked the scalar implicature of requiring gross negligence — it seemed to be condoning petit negligence.

  3. Chris G says:

    “You may think magic is make believe but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight loss cure for every body type—it’s [a street-legal amphetamine].”

    “I’ve got the No. 1 miracle in a bottle to burn your fat. It’s [a street-legal amphetamine].”

    “[Street-legal amphetamines]. [They] may be the simple solution you’ve been looking for to bust your body fat for good.”

  4. RW says:

    Where does Sudhir Vekatesh fit on your Oz — Bem malfeasance scale? Seriously.

  5. Brad Stiritz says:

    >Seriously, RW, this is an improper question.

    Am I right in guessing that RW’s question is deemed inappropriate because —

    (a) this blog post is about overblown, unsubstantiated scientific claims, and
    (b) Sudhir Vekatesh was investigated for financial malfeasance (see below), not scientific

    –?

    From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudhir_Venkatesh :

    In 2009 Venkatesh became director of Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, or ISERP. In 2011 Venkatesh was the subject of an investigation on spending at ISERP. In 2012 Venkatesh revealed to The New York Times that he had reimbursed Columbia University for approximately $13,000 for funds that were misallocated during his tenure as director of ISERP.[5]

  6. I think that part of the reason that people feel compelled to soft-pedal on some cases and not others is that it cuts too close to the bone—what if something analogous happened to me? I certainly judge people less harshly when I realize that I could be in the same position. That, or one feels collegial loyalty.

    In Germany, plagiarism in their dissertations cost at least two politicians their jobs as ministers: Annette Schavan and Guttenberg. I must say they did amazingly well after the resigned: Schavan is working with the Holy See and Guttenberg is or was a “Distinguished Statesman” in some organization in DC. The Schavan “plagiarism” didn’t really rise to the level of Guttenberg, who (it seemed to me) read his dissertation for the first time when the plagiarism accusations came up. It appears he had the thing ghost-written (or maybe copied from his employees’ work, or some combination of the two).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annette_Schavan#Plagiarism

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl-Theodor_zu_Guttenberg

    I think I would find it much easier to condemn these guys than if it were someone who was my friend and colleague. That fact makes me very uncomfortable, because it reflects a double-standard and may (note the modal—this is me we are talking about) in itself be unethical.

    • Rahul says:

      Would you ditch your dentist because you found out that he had lied on his tax returns? Or stop frequenting a bar because the bartender got a speeding ticket? Or burn your favorite author’s books if you come to know that he had cheated on his wife?

      That these politicians found good employment post their plagiarism scandals does not surprise me so much.

  7. An interesting test case will be Jens Foerster, who (possibly temporarily) lost his Humboldt professorship (some 5 million Euros?) due to a data manipulation accusation. The decision will be made this month by the Humboldt Foundation whether to reinstate him.

    • Rahul says:

      Is it my bias or are a disproportionately high number of these cases from Psych. Departments?

      • I suspect that they are the ones that get caught in the act more often. Many psych and psycholinguistics papers don’t even bother to hide their p-hacking, probably they don’t even realize that selective and post-hoc examination of the data can yield lots of patterns that have a nice explanation once you know the result. In one case, the journal editor asked us to rewrite our post-hoc theorizing as a theory that we set out to test at the outset.

        The few articles I have read in medicine suggest the problem there is as bad, but people aren’t actually losing their jobs over their abuse of p-values etc (although Wakefield did, I guess). If Foester doesn’t get the Humboldt, then that has interesting implications for all the action going down in science in general. My prediction, based on a rigorous Bayesian analysis with highly informative priors, is that he will be reinstated. Of course, I might be wrong.

        • Viktor Leis says:

          Apparently he “voluntarily” gave up the Humboldt professorship (though he’s still a normal professor). German source: http://www.spiegel.de/unispiegel/studium/jens-foerster-verzichtet-auf-renommierten-forscherpreis-a-1030054.html

          What I find remarkable is a quote of his from that article which translates to “I can still continue to publish tons of papers [even without the extra money]”. Maybe that is the fundamental issue here, that success is defined as publishing lots of papers, regardless of their truth value?

        • It seems we will never know what would have happened to Foerster, he himself rejected the Humboldt professorship on the 20th of this month, according to the website of the Foundation (it’s in German so I don’t link to it, but look under Humboldt Foundation’s Nachrichten–news). Although an earlier post from March says that they will decide 7th May on him (I guess that’s irrelevant now).

        • Rahul says:

          This wasn’t p-hacking or post-hoc theorizing was it? He seems accused of fudging data?

          If someone actually got fired for p-hacking, that’d be novel.

          • I don’t know the full details, I guess one would have to study the data oneself to really understand what happened. The general problem seems to be demonstrating whether the misconduct or questionable practice is “beyond reasonable doubt”. Stapel’s case was clear enough. I couldn’t figure out how bad it really was with Foerster, and how it would compared with “unprosecuted” cases. And what about cases where the misconduct happens through genuine ignorance? Should one punish that person, or their advisor or teacher, who misled them? Just yesterday I saw someone on R-bloggers plugging their book and talking about how great CIs are because they give you a bound on the parameter’s true value.

            It seems all these other things (p-hacking, post-hoc stuff, fudging data in different ways) all seem to be in orthogonal or at least non-comparable dimensions, and it’s hard to draw a line, so we back off to how much Schadenfreude we feel like emitting on any given day, and what’s in it for us personally.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Andrew I realize a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek and usually I agree with you, but I find it hard to understand how you’re going out of your way to let this guy off the hook when you come down so hard on fraudsters with far less impact than Oz.

    • Andrew says:

      Anon:

      I’m not trying to let anyone off the hook. All I know of Oz is what I’ve read in the press but, given that, I don’t like that he’s associated with the university where I work.

      In my post I’m just trying to be realistic about what might happen with him. My guess is that (a) there are people at Columbia talking about this, and (b) they’re hoping that this will all blow over and that Oz can quietly resign his position when the publicity dies down. I say this not out of any special knowledge of Columbia University, it just seems that’s how institutions like to deal with this sort of problem.

  9. Ulf says:

    Regarding Dr. Oz, you may want to have a look at the great treatment of the topic by John Oliver….very funny!

    Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Dr. Oz and Nutritional Supplements

    Link goes to youtube

    • Wow. Has anyone done research on the emergence (primarily in the US, it seems to me) of media-hungry academics, hungry for attention from the press and aspiring to become “public intellectuals”?

      I see more and more academics putting up “Media” or “Press coverage” links on their home pages, listing all their own(!) TV appearances etc. Such self-aggrandization degrades academia as a profession but seems to be becoming mainstream and completely acceptable.

      I am seeing some professors making this their main mission in life; Dr. Oz seems to be a very good example, but there are many others. This seems to be primarily a US phenomenon—I don’t watch TV in Germany but I am not aware of any celebrity university professors, and I hope there aren’t any. I guess France has an excessive number of mumbo-jumbo spouting philosophers who are media stars (one of whom caused a major disruption of interesting discussion on this blog recently). But in French everything sounds good, so it’s OK in way; in the English-speaking world we don’t even have that excuse.

      This seems to me to be part of the reason why Columbia says it’s going to do nothing, and why so few people are willing to put themselves out there and condemn this guy outright (is it right that only some 10 medical doctors condemned Dr. Oz?). It’s totally acceptable and even desirable to be a media star. it’s a plus, not a minus.

  10. Mitchell Laks MD PhD says:

    Andrew,
    Dr. Oz has been a surgeon at Columbia for many years, and his professorship reflects his medical practice.
    In 1999 when he was an active cardiac surgeon, he took care of my Aunt. Other surgeons at well known cardiac surgical centers on Long Island refused to operate on her and insisted upon vetting her by reviewing her angiograms before considering any transfer and then rejected her as a patient (“too sick to travel” they said – and meant we don’t want to risk our outcomes statistics.
    When I offered to bring Dr. Oz her angiogram first, he told me “just bring her here and I will take care of her”. Thats the kind of person and surgeon he was. Aunt Sylvia lived 12 years longer after he took care of her.
    So he is not a professor of public health, He is a surgeon and can be judged as a surgeon. He was (at least that time) one of the best.

    Nowadays my Mom likes watching him on TV, so he makes the women happy on TV as well.:)
    Mitchell

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