Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop: Allergic to fact-checking

Regular readers know that I’m not a big fan of Gwyneth Paltrow or her “lifestyle” company Goop. The reasons, of course, are quite simple. Gwyneth Paltrow has created a very successful business based on selling expensive beauty and wellness products to women with, to borrow a phrase from Mitchell and Webb, more money than sense (something I have no problem with), a major part of her brand also involves the dark side of “wellness.” In other words, through Goop, Paltrow sells utter quackery, devoid of fact-checking, science, or reliable evidence. That quackery ranges from the silly and probably harmless (jade eggs or Body Vibes energy stickers, anyone?) to dangerous quackery like the stylings of a woman like Kelly Brogan, who claims to be able to treat depression “naturally” without drugs, but is also an antivaxer, HIV/AIDS denialist, and borderline—if not outright—germ theory denialist. (She was mentored by none other than Nicholas Gonzalez, the quack who claimed to be able to cure advanced pancreatic cancer with a regimen based on pancreatic enzyme supplements and coffee enemas. Her “In Goop Health” summits have also featured psychic mediums doing cold reading, Dr. Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who “died” and came back to life (and now says that spontaneous healing of cancer can occur with love), and Anita Moorjani, who claimed to have healed herself from lymphoma after death. (I’m not joking.) Let’s just put it this way. Having only relatively recently begun to pay attention to Gwyneth Paltrow, I’m nowhere near in Dr. Jen Gunter’s or Tim Caulfield’s league in countering her pseudoscience, but I do my part.

So it was with great interest that I saw a story about Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop on Wednesday in the New York Times. I’d have written about it for yesterday, but I saw it too late in the day and had already finished my post for yesterday. However, observations from the story are worth discussing, even if a day late. The story is by Taffy Brodesser-Akne and originally entitled The Big Business of Being Gwyneth Paltrow. However, I’ve noticed that, since yesterday, the title appears to have changed to How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million, which makes me wonder whether the old Gray Lady’s editors were interested in a more click-baity title. (Don’t believe me? Check out this Tweet.) Maybe by the time you see this post it will have yet another title.

Be that as it may, what Brodesser-Akne’s story reports is both revealing and depressing about how Paltrow’s Goop brand evolved from a humble newsletter in which Paltrow recommended things to her readers to the quarter billion dollar juggernaut that it is today. Even though the article is two long by a factor of two and way too precious in tone, full of stray observations that I don’t really give a rodent’s posterior about, such as Paltrow’s being able to smoke an occasional cigarette now and then without becoming addicted, it’s well worth reading, particularly for its insights into how resistant is Gwyneth Paltrow is to fact-checking Goop..

The article starts with Paltrow being a guest at a business and entertainment class at the Harvard Business School, in which her answers to students’ questions tell of the rise of Goop from humble beginnings (well, at least as humble as any beginning can be when a big star is behind something):

She talked about why she started the business, how she only ever wanted to be someone who recommended things. When she was in Italy, on the set of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” she’d ask someone on the crew about, say, where the best gelato was. When she was in London, on the set of “Shakespeare in Love,” she asked a crew member where to find the best coffee; in Paris, she asked an extra where to find the best bikini wax; in Berlin, the massage you can’t miss. She wasn’t just curious. She was planning this the whole time.

The first iteration of the company was only these lists — where to go and what to buy once you get there — via a newsletter she emailed out of her kitchen, the first one with recipes for turkey ragù and banana-nut muffins. One evening, at a party in London, one of the newsletter’s recipients, a venture capitalist named Juliet de Baubigny, told her, “I love what you’re doing with Goop.” G.P., as she is called by nearly everyone in her employ, didn’t even know what a venture capitalist was. She was using off-the-shelf newsletter software. But De Baubigny became a “godmother” to Paltrow, she said. She encouraged her vision and “gave permission” to start thinking about how to monetize it.

At first, Goop — so named not just for her initials and for, you know, goop, but because someone along the way told her that all the successful internet companies had double O’s — appealed to an audience that admired G.P.’s rarefied lifestyle. Martha Stewart (for example) was an aspirational lifestyle brand, true, but the lifestyle was so easily attainable once Stewart took her wares to Kmart and Macy’s.

This is where the difference between Goop and Martha Stewart came in:

G.P. didn’t want to go broad. She wanted you to have what she had: the $795 G. Label trench coat and the $1,505 Betony Vernon S&M chain set. Why mass-market a lifestyle that lives in definitional opposition to the mass market? Goop’s ethic was this: that having beautiful things sometimes costs money; finding beautiful things was sometimes a result of an immense privilege; but a lack of that privilege didn’t mean you shouldn’t have those things. Besides, just because some people cannot afford it doesn’t mean that no one can and that no one should want it. If this bothered anyone, well, the newsletter content was free, and so were the recipes for turkey ragù and banana-nut muffins.

The company began in 2008 and was incorporated in 2013. By the time Paltrow was holding court in that Harvard classroom last fall, Goop was worth $250 million. But how did Goop go from an aspirational brand recommending various clothes, foods, and recipes to selling out and out quackery? The infiltration and co-optation of the company by quacks seems to have begun after she meet Elise Loehnen, a former magazine editor who had been ghostwriting for Paltrow’s friend, personal trainer Tracy Anderson. As Anke puts it:

Loehnen wasn’t just interested in wellness; she was obsessed with it. Wellness, she argued, isn’t just about a spa you’re going to or a cleanse you’ve started or a diet you’re on. It’s how local your food is. It’s how the chickens you eat all went to the right schools. It’s the water you drink. It’s the cures you never thought possible. It’s the level of well-being you didn’t even know to ask for.

With Loehnen as editorial director, Goop’s quackery really took off. There were regular Q&A’s published with “healers” like Alejandro Junger, a cardiologist known for an “anti-inflammatory” regimen (sound familiar?) and has advocated frog venom as a psychedelic for healing. Then there was Steve Gundry, whom I’ve discussed before, who believes that lectins are the new gluten, basically the cause of many chronic conditions. In came the acupuncturists and psychics and Kelly Brogan. In came the bee-sting therapy, the “detox” regimens, the psychic vampire repellent, and the jade eggs. In came, in brief, the woo.

Perhaps the most telling part of the story comes just past its halfway point, where we learn about the introduction of the quarterly Goop magazine (which I’ve mocked, along with Stephen Colbert). The first two issues were a product of a partnership between Goop and Condé Nast, a collaboration in which the Goop content would be overseen by a Vogue editor. The collaboration rapidly fell apart, and the reason that it fell apart is the most telling part of the Goop story. Brodesser-Akne first points out that Condé Nast, like most major publishers of magazines in the US, has a lot of rules, and Goop’s ethos rapidly collided with the rule-bound ethos of Condé Nast. The first rule was about marketing:

The rules she’s referring to are the rules of traditional magazine making — all upheld strictly at an institution like Condé Nast. One of them is that they weren’t allowed to use the magazine as part of their “contextual commerce” strategy. They wanted to be able to sell Goop products (in addition to other products, just as they do on their site). But Condé Nast insisted that they have a more “agnostic” editorial approach. The company publishes magazines, not catalogs. But why? G.P. wanted to know. She wanted the Goop magazine to be a natural extension of the Goop website. She wanted the reader to be able to do things like text a code to purchase a product without even having to leave her inert reading position and wander over to her computer. A magazine customer is also a regular customer.

In other words, Condé Nast wanted to publish a magazine, but Paltrow wanted to publish an advertisement, a catalogue, that just happened to have some articles in it that looked like nothing more but articles but were really designed to move product. That conflict, however, wasn’t the most telling. This one was:

But the other rule is — well, the thing couldn’t be fact-checked. Goop wanted Goop magazine to be like the Goop website in another way: to allow the Goop family of doctors and healers to go unchallenged in their recommendations via the kinds of Q. and A.s published, and that just didn’t pass Condé Nast standards. Those standards require traditional backup for scientific claims, like double-blind, peer-reviewed studies. The stories Loehnen, now Goop’s chief content officer, wanted to publish had to be quickly replaced at the last minute by packages like the one on “clean” getaways.

G.P. didn’t understand the problem. “We’re never making statements,” she said. Meaning, they’re never asserting anything like a fact. They’re just asking unconventional sources some interesting questions. (Loehnen told me, “We’re just asking questions.”) But what is “making a statement”? Some would argue — her former partners at Condé Nast, for sure — that it is giving an unfiltered platform to quackery or witchery. O.K., O.K., but what is quackery? What is witchery? Is it claims that have been observed but not the subject of double-blind, peer-reviewed studies? Yes? Right. O.K., G.P. would say, then what is science, and is it all-encompassing and altruistic and without error and always acting in the interests of humanity?

I must admit here that, cynical old quackery investigator that I am, I was both pleasantly surprised and impressed that the management of Condé Nast cared enough about the traditional rules of publishing regarding fact-checking to endanger such a potentially lucrative new partnership. I honestly didn’t think that, outside of major newspapers, fact-checking was considered all that important anymore and was more than happy to be disabused of that notion. I also couldn’t help but laugh out loud reading the above passage. Of course, Goop wouldn’t want to be fact-checked, at least not by fact-checkers who aren’t under Paltrow’s control. Fact-checking is very inconvenient to a business that exists to sell an aspirational lifestyle cut adrift from anything resembling standards of facts, evidence, and science to back up claims and statements published.

Clive Thompson, a journalist for Wired and the NYT Magazine laid down a very illuminating Tweetstorm about just this point, how Paltrow did not want to subject Goop to fact checking:

The whole thread is worth reading in detail, but I do want to highlight specific Tweets, for instance:

Yes, Goop does very much use the same language of right-wing conspiracy theorists, because, right-wing or left-wing, conspiracy theorists operate and think in largely the same fashion. They want to blur the lines between fact and fiction, science and pseudoscience, medicine and quackery. Note Paltrow’s questions: What is science? Is it all encompassing and altruistic and without error and always acting in the interests of humanity? Well, no, no one ever said that science is all-encompassing and altruistic, and certainly no one has ever said that it is without error. However, the fact that science is as imperfect as the humans who do scientific investigation does not mean that mysticism, quackery, and pseudoscience should be given credence on par with that of science. That is the false dichotomy implied by promoters of quackery like Paltrow and promoters of conspiracy theories like Alex Jones. Just because science is imperfect doesn’t mean I have to take Gwyneth Paltrow’s bullshit seriously.

As Ben Goldacre once put it:

In the article, Paltrow invokes Ignaz Semmelweis, whose evidence that handwashing before delivering babies would prevent puerperal fever was rejected by doctors 160 years ago. that is indeed a shameful episode in medical history, but I can say one thing with great confidence. Gwyneth Paltrow is no Semmelweis, nor is any of her stable of quacks that she uses to generate medical content for Goop.

And as Clive Thompson put it:

Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t like fact checking and didn’t want Goop subject to it, and that alone should make you very suspicious of any claims published in Goop. In fact, it’s worse than that. Paltrow likes being criticized by skeptics like Jen Gunther and Tim Caulfield (and—who knows?—maybe even me) because Goop can make money off of that:

But something strange happened. Each of these pronouncements set off a series of blog posts and articles and tweets that linked directly to the site, driving up traffic. At Harvard, G.P. called these moments “cultural firestorms.” “I can monetize those eyeballs,” she told the students. Goop had learned to do a special kind of dark art: to corral the vitriol of the internet and the ever-present shall we call it cultural ambivalence about G.P. herself and turn them into cash. It’s never clickbait, she told the class. “It’s a cultural firestorm when it’s about a woman’s vagina.” The room was silent. She then cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled, “VAGINA! VAGINA! VAGINA!” as if she were yodeling.

No, it was clickbait. Indeed, the Goop counterattack against Jen Gunter last summer was clearly very calculated to gin up the controversy. As long as a year ago, some skeptics, myself included, were asking if Goop was winning.

That’s not to say that the constant barrage of criticism against Paltrow and Goop for its marketing of quackery hasn’t had an effect. Hilariously, Goop has concluded that it needs fact checkers:

After a few too many cultural firestorms, and with investors to think about, G.P. made some changes. Goop has hired a lawyer to vet all claims on the site. It hired an editor away from Condé Nast to run the magazine. It hired a man with a Ph.D. in nutritional science, and a director of science and research who is a former Stanford professor. And in September, Goop, sigh, is hiring a full-time fact-checker. G.P. chose to see it as “necessary growing pain.”

By this point, I was laughing uproariously. That’s because a month before I had read Dr. Gunter’s post in which she described Goop’s first steps in this direction. Basically, Goop is retroactively labeling “wellness” posts so that “women can figure out what was pure bullshit, what was just the hypothesis of a naturopath, and what might actually be factual.” These are the categories:

  • For Your Enjoyment: There probably aren’t going to be peer-reviewed studies about this concept, but it’s fun, and there’s real merit in that.
  • Ancient Modality: This practice is nearly as old as time — many find value in it, even if modern-day research hasn’t caught up yet (it’s possible the practice will never attract its attention).
  • Speculative but Promising: There’s momentum behind this concept, though it needs more research to elucidate exactly what’s at work.
  • Supported by Science: There’s sound science for the value of this concept and the promise of more evidence to come soon that may prove its impact.
  • Rigorously Tested: The validity of this concept is pretty much undisputed within the world of M.D.’s, D.O.’s, N.D.’s, and Ph.D.’s.

As Dr. Gunter notes, so many of Goop’s wellness posts were—surprise! surprise!—”just for fun.”

So does anyone want to guess how this new Goop “fact-checker” will operate? My guess is that this fact-checker (and Goop) will, to paraphrase the famous old adage about statistics, use facts as a drunkard uses a lamppost—for support, rather than illumination. After all, it’s not the facts themselves that are used to support an argument or assertion, but how those facts are used. Are they cherry picked? Is disconfirming evidence properly weighed against the evidence for the assertion being made? Are the scientific studies cited well-designed, well-executed, and properly analyzed? My guess is that any Goop fact-checker will simply check to see that any statements of fact can be backed up, but will pay precious little attention to whether the way those statements of fact are strung together to support a claim or the marketing of a product is supportable.

Indeed, one can’t help but agree:

However, Dr. Jen understands why Goop would never choose her:

Of course, Tim Caulfield would be a perfectly fine alternative, given that Dr. Gunter doesn’t appear to want the gig:

Somehow, though, I doubt that Caulfield would want the gig either.

I was half-tempted to end my post by humbly proposing myself as a third alternative if neither Dr. Gunter nor Mr. Caulfield want the gig, but I realize that being Goop’s fact-checker would be far too painful and limiting, and, as is the case for Dr. Gunter, Goop couldn’t afford me either.

Besides, we’ll all continue to fact-check Goop long after the fact-checker is hired, and I bet that we’ll still have plenty of work to do.