What keeps Americans from believing in evolution? In climate change?
But what about a much broader, more amorphous sort of anti-science? What about a strangely popular anti-science that isn’t part of any religious subculture, but is rather a mainstay of mainstream culture itself?
In a recent essay in The Verge, Matt Stroud discusses the implications of Oprah’s reign of error. In this piece, Stroud points out that the alt-science on offer by Oprah’s pet gurus has done more than just confuse schoolchildren. In the case of James Arthur Ray, Oprah’s scientific influence has actually killed people.
In 2009, according to Stroud, Ray led a group of believers into a sweat-lodge in Arizona. In the end, three of those scientific dissenters were dead and many more suffered injury.
Why would they subject themselves to this sort of physical peril?
Because Oprah told them to.
Stroud makes a strong case that Ray’s meteoric rise to celebrity depended on Oprah’s alt-science imprimatur. To be sure, Ray had been peddling his version of energy-science before Oprah discovered him. But when Oprah touted a 2006 film in which Ray discussed his alt-scientific ideas about “Harmonic Wealth,” Ray became a national and international figure.
Stroud demonstrated the link between Oprah’s support and Ray’s success. Soon after Oprah showcased the film and book in which Ray made his alt-science case, Ray was everywhere. As Stroud put it,
Ray soon appeared on Larry King Live to say, “Well, Larry, science tells us that every single thing that appears to be solid is actually energy. Your body is energy. Your car is energy, your house, everything, money, all of it is energy.” The Today Show, Fox Business News, and local network affiliates followed. He toured the country while guesting on smaller venues from Tom Green’s internet talk show to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. He even judged a Miss America pageant. “Whatever you fear or love will come into your life,” he’d repeat for his agreeable hosts.
Stroud doesn’t make the connection, but this sort of shoot-from-the-hip spiritual guruism can be far more influential, and far more dangerous, than the principled and storied religious dissent of creationists.
Let’s look at another example of the disparate influence of traditional science dissenters and that of Oprah. Perhaps Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis ministry can attract attention to the question of atheism with their series of billboards in Times Square and Fisherman’s Wharf. But Oprah can make a much more influential statement just by questioning one of her guests. Recently, Oprah told super-swimmer Diana Nyad that Nyad didn’t sound like a real atheist. More than any billboard, Oprah’s off-the-cuff theism provoked an outpouring of hand-wringing over questions of belief and unbelief.
The disturbing implication for those of us who hope to see better science education in schools is that the problem is not limited to principled religious dissent. Much more widespread and amorphous is the sort of alternative-science guruism on tap from media moguls like Oprah.
Oprah has made her billions by knowing what millions of Americans want to hear. Outside the traditional ranks of religious skeptics like the folks at Answers In Genesis, the market-driven dissent of Oprah’s pet gurus can cause much more confusion and consternation.