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An Open Apology to Ron Goetzel and Michael O’Donnell

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By Al

linus and snoopyMichael O’Donnell is devoting the entire editorial page in the March issue of his wellness promotion journal to a moving plea for me (and Vik) to stop bullying Ron Goetzel.  (Several people were thoughtful enough to send me an advance copy.)  It’s not fun to be bullied. I know how Mr. Goetzel feels because a number of Penn State’s employees told me how upsetting it was to be bullied into disclosing intimate details about their sex lives in order to avoid $1200 fines.  Oh, wait a second!  Hmm…that was a program conceived by Ron Goetzel (and his Highmark cabal).

Despite repeated requests from the targets of this anti-employee jihad, Mr. Goetzel never apologized for his role in the Penn State debacle.  In sharp contrast, I will be the first to apologize for the specific instances of bullying that I’ve done.  (See the “prequel” for how this all came to be.)   After all, two wrongs don’t make a right.   (As a brief aside, I’m not sure our interactions could be classified as “bullying.”  Victims of bullying are people who have repeatedly expressed a strong interest in being left alone, like the Penn State faculty did.  By contrast, if a boxer decides to step into the ring time and time again expecting not to be knocked out with one punch but keeps getting  knocked out with one punch, he can’t claim the other boxer bullied him.)

I apologize for questioning Mr. Goetzel’s ethics after he called his sponsor Health Fitness Corporation a “best practice” in wellness after HFC admitted lying about saving the lives of 514 alleged cancer victims who it turned out never had cancer in the first place.  (HFC also didn’t disclose their sponsorship of Mr. Goetzel’s award that they won.)

I apologize for asking him 11 questions about his own statements that would have been difficult to answer since they highlighted their inconsistencies.  As penance, I am perfectly happy to answer 11 questions that he might have about my statements to be published alongside of his answers to my questions.

I apologize for forcing him to admit that his client (the very same Koop Award sponsor, Health Fitness Corporation) had snookered him and his Koop Committee (including Michael O’Donnell) another time as well, with an outcomes claim that was obviously falsified but that somehow none of the self-proclaimed analytical experts on that Koop Award Committee noticed until the 4th time I pointed it out.

I apologize for pointing out that yet another Koop Award winner (and, of course, board member), Staywell, was also making up outcomes and also snookered his Committee.

I apologize that the business and lay media has treated his industry badly as a result of my and Vik (and others) bringing their misdeeds to their attention.  The LA Times was very mean in calling wellness a “scam.”  Shame on them!  And the Incidental Economist?  Really, I’d expect more civility from the New York Times’ economics blog.  Huffpost? All Things Considered?  Sheesh!  What do you expect from liberals!   NewsmaxThe Federalist?   Those right-wingers should be ashamed of themselves!   And Harvard Business Review?   RAND?  Seems like everyone in the media is bullying Mr. Goetzel’s wellness industry.  They should apologize too.

I apologize for observing that almost every award that his Koop Committee has given out in the last 5 years went to a company that was somehow connected to the Committee, either as a sponsor or through the Board of Directors, but didn’t disclose that connection in their award announcements.

I apologize for noting the sharply constrasting irony that Dr. C. Everett Koop himself was a man of great integrity.

I apologize for offering (scroll to final paragraph) Mr. O’Donnell, Mr. Goetzel, and all the other members of the Koop Committee  half-price for my course in Critical Outcomes Report Analysis, so that they could learn how to analyze outcomes, which given the number of times they’ve all been snookered and embarrassed, is training they apparently could really use.  I’m not saying it’s their fault they can’t do simple outcomes analysis.  It’s possible that their mothers simply didn’t listen to enough Mozart when the Committee members were in their respective wombs.

I apologize for taking exception to being compared to “a climate change denier” and a “tobacco executive lying to Congress” in Mr. Goetzel’s webinar in which my work was singled out for typically fallacious criticism.

I apologize for actually believing him when he said he wanted to “respect the dignity of employees,” and offering to co-author an open letter to the Business Roundtable and others saying exactly what Mr. Goetzel said–and he declined.  (Read that thread and you make the call.  I studied his essay and tried to capture it in this letter…and offered him the opportunity to edit it, rather than sign it as is.  I also apologize for not realizing why this offer was objectionable.)

I apologize for asking the organizations Mr. Goetzel is affiliated with (as noted in Mr. O’Donnell’s plaintive plea, I did indeed ask them — that email is available on request) whether and how they wanted their names used in conjunction with my reporting on the Nebraska state wellness program hijinks, rather than go ahead and use the names without their permission.  (They wanted nothing to do with the Nebraska ethical scandal, by the way.)

Finally, I apologize for what Mr. O’Donnell calls “slander” (since I put everything on the public written record to avoid misunderstandings, I suspect he means “libel” but doesn’t understand the distinction between the two words) against Mr. Goetzel, and would once again urge Mr. Goetzel to tell me – publicly, right here on this site — exactly what I’ve said that is false so that I can take anything off this site that isn’t true.  He hasn’t done this despite two $1000 offers.  Yes, we did offer him $1000 twice:  the self-imposed penalty in the rules of our site means that perpetrators get one week to answer our questions or tell us why we are wrong to ask them.  If they do so, they get $1000.  (Not sure how many other bullies offer to pay their “victims” $1000 not to be bullied.  One would expect it to be the other way around.)

I apologize for not already offering Mr. Goetzel the opportuntiy to bully me.  I’d love for him to challenge my outcomes, invent a clever nickname for me that describes how I might react if my statements are ever proven to be made up, ask me questions, debate me.  Exactly the type of “bullying” I do to him I’d ask him to do to me.  Please, Ron, don’t make me beg!


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Further, I am happy to apologize for anything else, too.  Just ask me.  While we are on the subject of apologies, Mr. O’Donnell deserves one too.  I apologize for pointing out that the meta-analysis of wellness programs published in his own journal says that randomized controlled trials of wellness programs show negative ROIs.  Obviously it was an oversight by Mr. O’Donnell that any statement admitting wellness doesn’t work would be allowed into his journal.  Shame on Vik and me for pointing out that his key article actually acknowledged a fact!

Postscript:  Michael O’Donnell said that he wasn’t going name me (and Vik) so he wouldn’t embarrass us.  We wrote a comment and said, thank you for your graciousness but we are thrilled to be “embarrassed” by being named.  My suspicion is that he didn’t name me and won’t print the comment for a different reason altogether:  It might encourage people to come to this site and actually think for themselves, which is the Wellness Ignorati’s second-worst nightmare (next to facts).  We’ll see.

Postscript 2:  As predicted, Michael O’Donnell did not publish the comment.  While it’s his publication and he is allowed to censor it, this is typical of the ignorati.  My comment was only to waive my right not to be embarrassed and name myself, but we were right:  publishing that would have sent a few people to this site, and they may have learned to think for themselves.


  1. George C says:

    What a couple of crybabies. They can’t answer the questions so they beg the people asking them to stop


  2. Chris Fey says:

    Al: just a thought. What you are doing with the Intel-GE Care Innovations Institute and the Validation Certification of companies making claims about results should stop the discussion…if you are valid in your claims…prove it. Leave the past behind us…and let’s move on. All companies should put their claims to independent validation…and see where the results stand. Am I correct in this assumption?


    • Al Lewis says:

      Of course. The Intel-GE Validation institute is quite independent of me and (especially) of this site, and vice-versa, but if you look at the rules of this site, you’ll see that if a company is able to get validated, they get removed from this site. Several companies “profiled” on TSW have said they are going to get validated and (while I am not an employee of the V-I so I can’t say for certain that they are not in process now), they have not yet appeared on the Validation Institute site.


  3. An apology full of buts is not an apology. Sounds like more bullying to me.


  4. Steve Buchanan says:

    I can’t imagine what was going through their heads when they decided to write this editorial. Did you pay them to post this?


  5. Kathy says:

    I have debated with myself whether to weigh in, having read some of the articles about wellness by what I call the “conventional” camp and the “iconoclast” camp. I’ve decided to share my perspective – once.

    I am a big proponent of thinking outside the box, shifting paradigms, questioning conventional wisdom, etc. On that score I value the contributions of the iconoclasts. However, as an educated professional I value a reasoned, respectful discourse. On that score I cannot support the writings of Al Lewis. His tone is disrespectful and unprofessional I feel that professional disagreements can and should be handled with a greater degree of dignity. Snark and “gotchas” only lead to each side digging in their heels and refusing to give credence to to arguments from the other side that should be heard and considered.

    Let’s face it – we should ALL be talking about what’s not working in wellness and how to make it work. We should ALL be discussing how to evolve the paradigm of wellness, workplace culture, and our health in general. But the divisive tone of the debate makes that very difficult.


    • Vik Khanna says:

      We apologize for our tendency to venerate honesty, transparency, integrity, logic, data, and responsibility. When people who are demonstrably wrong on the merits persist in pusillanimous lamentations that only serve to reinforce their lack of credibility, all they do is bring to mind Churchill’s timeless quote: A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Of course, that’s not our cup of tea. If it’s yours, to each his or her own.


    • Al Lewis says:

      Kathy, there is a bit of a “back story” you would need to know. First, if you look in my first book, Why Nobody Believes the Numbers, you’ll see that I originally had great respect for Mr. Goetzel and gave him a great shout-out, that he copied into his own presentation until my publisher started asking for a licensing fee. But that’s when I thought the truth mattered. When I started finding copious mistakes and poined them out privately to him and his little committee, nothing happened, time and time again. That’s why we had to blow the whistle. Also, we do offer the perps $1000 (see “about” on this site) to explain their positions. I’m not sure what more we can do.


  6. I have appreciated the icononoclasizm (is that a word?) of Al and Vic. I think that someday someone will come up with a way to show that some form of wellness program will actually yield positive economic (or at least marginal gains in epidemiology); until that happens…I hope that Al and Vic NEVER have to apologize to me! 🙂


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      The very fact that you would post this comment means you’d be very unlikely to do anything that would cause you to end up on the “wrong” side of one of our apologies…:) As for your “someday someone” sentence, try clicking through on one of the Q’s. You’ll find we may already be there. How does 100% fee guaranteed for engagement, “low value” interventions (meaning things that shouldn’t be done), USPSTF compliane, wellness-sensitive medical events and overall cost savings sound?


  7. Ken W. says:

    He should really answer those 11 questions. They are totally reasonable and he looks bad if he can’t explain the apparent contradictions. I don’t think it’s bullying to ask people questions.


  8. Leo Tolstoy says:

    Al – maybe I can help explain what I think Kathy was attempting to express with her comment. Note that this comes from someone who was ready to lose hope for all of humanity before finding “Why Nobody Believes the Numbers” about a year ago. You, Vik, Jon, Rosie, Tom, et al have actually been the only source of hope for some of us. The problem is that it isn’t enough for us to be “right” about workplace wellness. We must disseminate our knowledge and ideas in the most persuasive, influential manner possible if we do indeed have the best interests of the greater community in mind.

    You are in a position to not only tear down the old paradigm but to help usher in the new one, and I fear that your influence has been severely limited by the fact that people can hide, with at least some justification, behind the idea that you’re a jerk or a bully. I don’t see you that way but it’s easy for me to understand why others do. Any real diplomacy you’ve done behind the scenes is overshadowed by your larger public persona and reputation for calling people out and “keeping it real”. You’ve played a role in the creation of that persona — it’s part of your shtick and it has no doubt entertained many of us. And while I wouldn’t suggest that you have a responsibility to apologize or change your approach to influencing change, I know you could be a lot more effective if you did. You have tremendous power but you’re not leveraging all of it. Not even close.

    I’m hoping you might recall the scene in The Big Lebowski where Walter and The Dude are arguing over the appropriateness of Walter’s behavior in the bowling alley. “Am I wrong?!” Walter asks. “No, you’re not wrong” replies The Dude. “AM I WRONG?! Walter asks even more forcefully. “You’re not wrong Walter….you’re just an ___hole.”

    Thanks for all you’ve done to expose the emperor’s nakedness. Please help us rebuild the empire.


    • Leo Tolstoy says:

      I should add to this that until today I was not aware of Quizzify, but this is exactly what I hoped you might do. You and select others have established the right way to think and now it’s time to show the right way to act. Best of luck to you with this venture.


      • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

        Thank you very much! Yes, Quizzify isn’t quite ready for prime time yet, so we’re doing a “soft release” with these Q’s, but we’re getting very close. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked: “So what would you do instead?” Well…

        On your other points, we tried working within the system but as we mentioned, that was about as successful as if Rachel Carson had asked Monsanto to stop selling DDT. And we’ve trying offering honoraria (it’s a rare “bully” who bullies the other kids into taking lunch money from him). That didn’t work. So maybe we aren’t very polite now. Here are two people with impeccable manners: Snidely Whiplash and Hannibal Lector.


  9. Leo Tolstoy says:

    Appreciate your response to my comment. As a token of gratitude, I’ll offer what is perhaps the most eloquent description of the “true believers” I’ve ever encountered, penned in 1897 by the real Tolstoy:

    “I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

    Nailed it.


  10. As someone who has been challenging the status quo for decades on many of these issues – I would just say that, regardless of how you feel about how Al approaches these issues – I am completely sure the industry would be questioning itself far less if he had not done so in the snarky, hard-hitting humorous way that he has. And that would be a really bad thing for all of us because if we cannot change our course, and quickly, I believe we will shortly be an industry of the past.
    I would add that Al’s comment about there being “back stories” to all of this is a monumental understatement – In fact, if all the back stories were known many people would be surprised to learn who the real bullies are –
    I won’t go into detail on this because Rosie and I are focused now on the solutions to the industry’s issues – Which is why we wrote our book which lays out a detailed, comprehensive, step-by step plan for helping organizations develop thriving workplace cultures with a focus on a true fusion of organizational and employee well-being.
    For all those really interested in bringing what we do into the 21st century – I invite you to join us – Jon


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      And remember to read the prequel post. I tried “polite” first. Just look at the screenshots from my book in the prequel. You can’t get more polite than that! Polite got me about as far as if Rachel Carsoh had politely asked Monsanto to stop telling DDT. And remember George H.W. Bush politely asked Saddam Hussein many times to withdraw from Kuwait. When you are dealing with certain types of people, polite doesn’t do the trick.


    • Leo Tolstoy says:

      As an outsider with limited perspective it means a lot that you and Rosie stand in solidarity with Al. You have always been a little closer to Ghandi than Guevara and I at least want to believe that the peaceful revolution is possible. By the way, my employer will soon be purchasing several copies of your book for my colleagues, at my request. I might have lived 1000 lifetimes without expecting to see a book that synthesizes quantum mechanics and workplace wellness. I’m eager to see how the content impacts people who from my estimation are intelligent and open minded but who lack familiarity with the new sciences. As I know you’re aware, some of these paradigms (ie behaviorism, newtonianism, reductionism) are so deeply embedded that even I still succumb to their influence regularly. This is so much deeper than the workplace — one must recognize that nearly our entire civilization is built upon these same flawed premises. We’ll read your book but remain immersed in structures that powerfully reinforce the old, flawed way of perceiving reality. The enormity and urgency of this challenge is immeasurable, but I think that’s also what makes me excited to be a part of it. If we can create the ideal workplaces we envision, it suggests there may be hope for broader society.


  11. mprager says:

    The thing is, Al, in my opinion you do bully them, even if the facts also bear you out. One can be right, and not be mean.

    I read this whole thing, even after I realized that it wasn’t really an “open apology,” and it didn’t make me think better of you, even though I find what you say to be credible, a very high degree of the time. Is that your goal, to be right but not nice?

    ~ Michael


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      They are welcome to complain to me directly about anything that isn’t accurate. I will change it accordingly. I do have a whole bunch of comments from them constituting ad homimen attacks, that I am collecting for a future post. Still, I guess Michael O’Donnell did write that I am “not an idiot,” which was nice of him. So I will return the favor. Michael O’Donnell is not an idiot, nor is Ron Goetzel.


  12. Robert Stone says:

    “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
    President James A. Garfield

    And the truth is that the population health industry has only itself to blame for the bad actors. Why we tolerate the absence of an industry standard outcomes methodology is beyond comprehension. Why we allow our critics to homogenize all programs is just stupid. We we continue to want to live in an environment where any failure is definitive and any success, even repeated success, is anecdotal, is insane.

    Unfortunately, the call from industry leaders — starting with Al and ending with Fred (and, modestly, including me) — fell on deaf ears. Feel free to make up your own reasons why that was so. You’ll probably be right.

    There’s no reason for Al or anyone else to apologize for calling out thebad actors. We all, however, should apologize for not making it impossible for them to exist


    • whynobodybelievesthenumbers says:

      There are certainly plenty of models for doing this well. Blue Zones, for example. (And, modestly, including Quizzify.) But the that 30% withhold thing is what makes wellness attractive to many companies, not the wellness itself. Otherwise they would insist on screening according to guidelines. The 30% to 50% withhold is why the Business Roundtable is so into this — it’s a way of sneaking pre-existing condition penalties back into ACA.


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