One of my friends went to Harvard’s graduation ceremony last Thursday, and I asked him who the main speaker was (the speaker at my own ceremony, when I got my Ph.D. there, was Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn). When my friend replied, “Oprah Winfrey,” I about fell over. Oprah Winfrey? That peddler of woo, lachrymose feel-good guru, promoter of questionable science—she got an honorary doctorate of laws and gave the main speech?
I am appalled. Of all the substantive and non-wooish people Harvard could have lured with an honorary degree, they chose Oprah? Yes, I admire her work ethic and the determination that helped her attain superstardom by overcoming a horribly hard childhood and early life, but she’s still a symbol of attitudes that contravene the dictates of reason.
According to several accounts, her talk was just a string of platitudes—but of course nearly all graduation speeches are. The Reuters link above says this, for instance (but judge for yourself, as I’ve put the video below):
In a commencement address at the Ivy League school outside Boston, Winfrey told the graduates that they were bound to stumble no matter how high they might rise, but that “there is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
No it isn’t, because “life” is not trying to do anything to us.
Lord! Ceiling Cat!
At any rate, at least one major news outlet saw this degree for what it is: a tacit endorsement of woo and antiscientific attitudes. At the Time Magazine “Ideas” site, rika Christakis and Nicholas A. Christakis note excoriate Winfrey and Harvard in a piece called “Oprah as Harvard’s commencement speaker is an endorsement of phony science”:
But Oprah’s particular brand of celebrity is not a good fit for the values of a university whose motto, Veritas, means truth. Oprah’s passionate advocacy extends, unfortunately, to a hearty embrace of phony science. Critics have taken Oprah to task for years for her energetic shilling on behalf of peddlers of quack medicine. Most notoriously, Oprah’s validation of Jenny McCarthy’s discredited claim that vaccines cause autism has no doubt contributed to much harm through the foolish avoidance of vaccines.
. . .But this vote of confidence in Oprah sends a troubling message at precisely the time when American universities need to do more, not less, to advance the cause of reason. As former Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, pointedly noted in a blog post about his objections, “It seems very odd for Harvard to honor such a high profile popularizer of the irrational. I can’t square this in my mind, at a time when political and religious nonsense so imperil the rule of reason in this allegedly enlightened democracy and around the world.”
Indeed! What were the folks at Harvard thinking when they extended this invitation?
I am heartened, though, that the writers of the Time piece are both at Harvard, and were bold enough to speak out:
Erika Christakis, M.P.H, M.Ed., is an early childhood educator and Harvard College administrator. Nicholas A. Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of medicine and sociology at Harvard University. The views expressed are solely their own.
Well, my Ph.D. isn’t worth a plugged nickel now. What if Chicago revokes my professorship?
If you want to see her Harvard speech, here it is. I can’t bear to watch.