On Monday, Harvard announced that Oprah Winfrey will deliver this year’s commencement address. That same day, a prominent Harvard professor argued that inviting Winfrey to address graduates flies in the face of the university’s most basic values.
Harry Lewis is a professor of computer science and served as Dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003. On Monday, he wrote on his blog that Oprah is a “major purveyor of pseudoscience” and therefore an inappropriate commencement speaker at a university dedicated to pursuing truth through evidence and reason.
Oprah has long been criticized for the unscientific health remedies she promoted on her talk show. She has been a leading popularizer of the spurious anti-vaccine movement, and she’s used her influence to promote everything from acupuncture to celebrity diets to vitamin megadosing—all of which lack any scientific evidence supporting their efficacy.
In an email to the Globe, Lewis (who was quoted in a Globe story on the selection that ran yesterday) explained why he thinks Harvard is making a mistake by giving a big stage to a celebrity so strongly associated with what he termed, “medical quackery”:
The notion that there is a parallel universe denied by science where wonderful things happen is fundamentally at odds with the university's fundamental commitment to the rule of evidence and reason as opposed to superstition and ignorance…The honor being given her legitimates the nonsense on which she has so successfully built her career and made her fortune.
Lewis is also concerned that Winfrey’s selection sends the wrong message to Harvard students in the wake of a major undergraduate cheating scandal:
Ultimately it's the dissonant message about the values of the university that is so troubling. There has been a lot of talk about academic integrity at Harvard this year, and a lot of students were given a year off to think about academic values and what it means to pursue and report the truth in an honest way…Students witnessing all this can only think that the university itself thinks that the worldly standards Winfrey has promoted are a legitimate alternative to the rules of what must be an academic game.
Commencement speakers are often a lightning rod for controversy. Lewis speculated that by choosing the wildly popular Winfrey, Harvard may have been looking for an inoffensive figure who would “excite no protests.” And while Winfrey's selection has gone over well with students, it seems that there may be at least one person picketing on graduation day.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.