Regular readers know that I’m not really a fan of Goop, actress turned “wellness” entrepreneur Gwyneth Paltrow’s “lifestyle” brand that specializes in selling pseudoscience and quackery to affluent women seeking a taste of that sweet, sweet Paltrow vibe and lifestyle and who, as that famous Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch about homeopathy famously said, have a vague sense of unease, or a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense. Of course, Goop doesn’t sell homeopathy so much as it sells jade eggs in the vagina, psychic vampire repellant, bee venom acupuncture, magic pieces of tape, and the now regular “In Goop Health” confabs where all manner of quacks peddle their wares using Paltrow’s star power, including antivaxxers, HIV/AIDS denialists, psychic mediums, and worse. Of course, every time skeptics criticize Goop, there’s always someone striking back, as Goop itself did against Dr. Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN who’s been a constant gadfly about Goop’s promotion of nonsense. This time, a week and a half after the pseudoscience laden “reality series” the goop lab debuted on Netflix, criticism of the series seems to have struck a nerve with Jennifer Block and Elisa Albert, who penned an op-ed in the New York Times Opinion section entitled Who’s Afraid of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop?: The long history of hating on ‘woo.’
You can tell right away from the headline where Block and Albert are coming from, and it’s not from a place of science. If you were unsure where these two were going to land, the first couple of paragraphs makes it very, very clear that Block and Albert support Paltrow and Goop:
When Netflix announced the trailer for Gwyneth Paltrow’s “The Goop Lab” in early January, the media and #medtwitter made dire predictions for both the streaming service and for humanity itself. The show would surely promote “dangerous pseudoscience,” peddle “snake oil,” and be “undeniably awful for society.” Longtime Paltrow critic and health law researcher Timothy Caulfield was among the many opiners who warned on Twitter of the “spread of health misinformation” and the “erosion of #criticalthinking.” Other relevant hashtags included #PostModernDarkAge and #saynotogoop.
Six episodes of the show finally dropped late last month, and so far civilization seems to be more or less intact.
To which I respond: Perhaps, but, if so, it’s in spite of this TV show, not because of it. Also, how do Block and Albert know? The show has only been out since January 24.
When I took note of this series’ impending release a month ago, I characterized it as selling quackery under the guise of “female empowerment.” (That’s a feature, not a bug, of Paltrow’s marketing of Goop, and Block and Albert go all in echoing that marketing strategy in their op-ed.) Since then I’ve dabbled in the show by perusing a couple of episodes, but, really, others have covered the nonsense in it better than I could have. Of course, at the risk of sounding as though I’m mansplaining, it’s not “empowerment” to sell snake oil to women. Fortunately, there’s Jen Gunter and a lot of other female skeptics saying the same thing. Be that as it may, unsurprisingly Block and Albert go the full “empowerment” route in defending the show:
The show explores cold therapy, energy healing, longevity diets, and therapeutic use of psychedelics, all of which may sound esoteric to the uninitiated, but none of which actually lack sound evidence of benefit. The episode on female pleasure, led by masturbation queen Betty Dodson, is downright radical, featuring a vulva montage, naked women of various shapes and ages talking openly about their bodies, and a woman bringing herself to orgasm so that other women might learn how. “We’re very dangerous when we’re knowledgeable” says Ms. Dodson. Ms. Paltrow nods: “Tell me about it.”
So what underlies all the overwhelming, predictable, repetitive critiques? What exactly is so awful about a bunch of consenting adults seeking self-knowledge, vitality, and emotional freedom?
“None of which lack actually lack sound evidence of benefit”? Methinks Block and Albert have been partaking of some of those psychedelics featured in one episode of Paltrow’s Netflix infomercial series for the Goop brand. Energy healing most certainly lacks sound evidence for any benefit, and it is massively implausible based on physics and biology—at least as implausible as homeopathy. Longevity diets, although somewhat plausible, also lack truly compelling evidence that they can do what proponents claim they can do, in humans at least. Ditto cold therapy. Also notice how Block and Albert very conspicuously don’t mention the episode on psychics in their entire op-ed. Addressing that Goop uncritically accepts and repeats claims that energy healing can enhance psychic abilities in its show would undermine their attempt to claim that Goop is not peddling potentially harmful pseudoscience.
But also note the clever play, how Block and Albert zero in on the one episode out of the whole bunch that is arguably about female empowerment, the episode on orgasms. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in all the reviews of the goop lab, it’s that the orgasm episode is the one that skeptics have the fewest problems with. Heck, even Goop über-critic and arch-nemesis Dr. Gunter didn’t have a problem with that episode. She actually wrote:
The episode on vulvas and sex, “The Pleasure Is Ours,” is the only one I can recommend. It was informative because Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross did most of the talking and education. Vulvar anatomy was discussed, and I’m always pleased when a model of the clitoris is on display. We get a guided tour of the vulva with a real model (Ms. Ross I presume) and photos of others to show variation. Ross also masturbated on screen, although little is shown. This is all useful, both the images of the vulva and the orgasm, especially the latter, as many women believe false scripts of female orgasm that involve vocalizations and contortions — orgasms that look like Sally Albright’s fakery in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.”
That hardly sounds as though Dr. Gunter was hostile to that particular episode. However, conceding that pretty much every skeptic and Goop critic who watched and reviewed the series had little, if anything, bad to say about that particular episode on female anatomy and orgasms would undermine Block and Albert’s message, in which prominently mentioning the episode about female sexuality and orgasm is used to frame their main attack against Goop critics:
The tsunami of Goop hatred is best understood within a context that is much older and runs much deeper than Twitter, streaming platforms, consumerism or capitalism.
Throughout history, women in particular have been mocked, reviled, and murdered for maintaining knowledge and practices that frightened, confused, and confounded “the authorities.” (Namely the church, and later, medicine). Criticism of Goop is founded, at least in part, upon deeply ingrained reserves of fear, loathing, and ignorance about things we cannot see, touch, authenticate, prove, own, or quantify. It is emblematic of a cultural insistence that we quash intuitive measures and “other” ways of knowing — the sort handed down via oral tradition, which, for most women throughout history, was the only way of knowing. In other words, it’s classic patriarchal devaluation.
Misogyny and patriarchy. I knew that would be that defense of Goop as soon as I saw how much Block and Albert touted the orgasm episode and blithely skated past all the pseudoscience. It’s also the same damned defense that The Gwyneth and her minions themselves have been using.Again, presenting Goop as pushback against misogyny and patriarchy is a feature, not a bug, of Goop marketing, and Albert and Block are all about amplifying Goop marketing. (It’s really a shame that the NYT gave them such a huge platform to do so.)
Of course, having of late become more interested in the history of medicine, particularly with regard to how it has viewed and treated populations that were not white males in the past, I can’t deny that there’s been sexism and misogyny in medicine, nor can I deny the longstanding outright racism in medicine that led to atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. This latent racism still exists as implicit bias prevalent among physicians that leads to a whole host of disparities in how people of color are treated by the medical system. I get it, I think, at least as much as a straight white middle aged dude rapidly approaching retirement age can (which means I’ve never personally been at the receiving end). I understand, at least somewhat, why people of color are suspicious of the medical system and why women feel disrespected by it. It’s part of the cleverness of Paltrow’s marketing strategy, echoed credulously by Block and Albert, to tap into those feelings in women about conventional medicine and its history, still not completely corrected, of discounting women’s concerns and not listening to women.
Indeed, Block and Albert lay on the misogyny angle really thick:
When 19th-century medicine men were organizing and legitimizing their brand-new profession, they claimed the mantle of “science” even though there was no such thing as evidence-based medicine at the time. In order to dominate the market, they slandered all other modalities as “quackery,” including midwifery, which we know achieved safer birth outcomes back then, as it still does today. Pejoratives like “woo” or “pseudo-science” are still often applied to anything that falls outside of the mainstream medical establishment. (Think about this the next time you hear something harmless or odd or common-sensical dismissed as an “old wives’ tale.”)
I can’t fail to admit that the references linked to by Block and Albert included a press release about a rather unconvincing study that ignored a rather obvious confounder to produce correlations between midwife numbers in states and birth and neonatal outcomes, a study from 2007 from British Columbia that didn’t actually show improved outcomes, and a NYT editorial. Now, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, as they say, and have nothing against well-trained midwives, but if you were going to convince me of the value of midwives compared to, obstetricians those three references would not be the sort of evidence that would do it. The evidence cited by Block and Albert is thin gruel indeed.
As for calling things “woo” or “pseudoscience,” I make no apologies when it is woo, pseudoscience, and/or quackery. It has nothing to do if it’s a practice embraced by women compared to men. It has everything to do with science and evidence. (And does anyone actually use the term “old wives’ tale” any more? I can’t recall having heard it in a very, very long time before reading this op-ed.)
Be that as it may, Block and Albert are long on the misdirecting arguments and short on actual evidence. First, they indulge in the classic diversion beloved of quacks and cranks the world over, the “science doesn’t know everything” argument:
Our society likes to conjoin the concepts of science and health, but the two do not always overlap. Peer-reviewed, lab-generated, randomized, controlled, double-blinded evidence will always be the gold standard, but such studies aren’t always fundable, or ethical. We kiss our children’s boo-boos even though there’s no gold standard evidence that it will make them feel better. We just know that it does. Which in turn makes us feel better. That’s “wellness.”
If Block and Albert can find a skeptic, any where, any time, who’s ever ranted against kissing our children’s boo-boos when they hurt because there’s no randomized controlled trial showing that it works to relieve their pain, please, show me. This is a huge straw man argument.
Moreover, skeptics know that many studies can’t be done because they would not be ethical. We point this out to antivaxxers on a daily basis when they demand randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials of the vaccination schedule, informing them that it is unethical to leave the control group unprotected against vaccine-preventable diseases, making such a study design inherently unethical because it lacks clinical equipoise. That’s why we use epidemiology to study differences in health outcomes between unvaccinated and vaccinated children rather than randomized clinical trials (RCTs). Indeed, this whole argument is attacking a straw man. Proponents of science-based medicine understand that we use the best science available and, just as importantly, propose the most rigorous studies that are feasible based on resources and ethics. Obviously, we prefer the most rigorous RCTs, but in the case where an RCT is unethical we do what we can with the most rigorous alternate study designs that are ethical that we can produce.
The next paragraph gets the mega-facepalm for its combination of whataboutism, false equivalence, and its defense of—wait for it—reiki:
We understand the concern that a person with cancer might choose to forgo chemo in favor of Ayurveda. But just as there are wannabe gurus selling snake oil, there are irresponsible, unethical physicians, as well as physicians with a shameful incapacity for nuance or empathy. Reiki is not proven to shrink tumors in any double-blind trials, but it, along with yoga and mindfulness and acupuncture, is being used in integrative cancer therapy at major institutions all over the world, because there is evidence that it has benefits, and no adverse side effects.
Reiki? Seriously? That’s the hill Block and Albert want to die on defending Goop? How many times do I have to point out that reiki is nothing more than faith healing that substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for the usual Christian beliefs that underlie most faith healing in the US? Substitute the words “God” or “Jesus” for the “universal source” in reiki that is said to be the source of the “healing energy” that reiki masters channel through themselves to the recipient, and the near-exact similarity between reiki and faith healing becomes apparent.
There is also whataboutism at its most blatant:
To return to the yoni egg: Witness the public outcry over therapeutic use of polished gemstones to tone the pelvic floor, as compared with relative silence about the documented harms of GYN devices like Essure and pelvic mesh. (To say nothing of what underlies our high rates of hysterectomy, cesarean section and untreated endometriosis.)
Whataboutism is a long-used propaganda technique in which criticism is deflected by pointing out something supposedly worse believed or done by the people making the criticism. It’s misdirection, pure and simple. Whenever someone like Block and Albert invokes problems in modern science-based medicine to deflect criticism of the pseudoscience and quackery they’re defending, I like to quote Ben Goldacre:
Or, as he put it in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients, “Problems in medicine do not mean that homeopathic sugar pills work; just because there are problems with aircraft design, that doesn’t mean that magic carpets really fly.” As I like to put it, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, criticizing the sort of quackery that Goop sells and criticizing areas where medicine falls short in the scientific evidence department. Ben Goldacre does just that. So do I, although less so about pharma than Dr. Goldacre.
This longer quote from Goldacre’s book seems very appropriate right here:
At this time we should take a brief moment to mention quacks: alternative therapists who sell vitamins and homeopathy sugar pills [the latter of which, by definition, contain no active ingredients], which perform no better than placebo in fair tests, and who use even cruder marketing tricks than the ones described in this book. In these people profit at all from the justified anger that people feel towards the pharmaceutical industry, then it comes at the expense of genuinely constructive activity. Selling ineffective sugar pills is not a meaningful policy response to the regulatory failure we have seen in this book.
Goldacre was very much writing about snake oil “wellness” salespeople like Paltrow in the above passage. Her selling jade eggs, vaginal steaming, acupuncture, psychic vampire repellent, “vampire facials,” and all manner of “wellness” woo (yes, I’m going to keep using that word) is not a meaningful response to help correct problems of profit-driven pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers using insufficiently rigorous science or a patriarchal medical system that devalued women’s concerns for so long. The answers to these problems are the more rigorous application of science and education and policy changes designed to reverse the history of dismissing the concerns of women, LGBTQ people, and persons of color. We can certainly argue about how these changes can be accomplished, as it is not simple matter to determine how to achieve these ends. One thing is certain, though. Selling woo to affluent women does nothing to address these concerns or achieve these ends. All it achieves is to line the pockets of rich entrepreneurs like Gwyneth Paltrow, while her apologists (like Block and Albert) defend her scams as “empowering” women and sticking it to the patriarchy.
Oops, they did it again with the “empowerment” in the final passage of their op-ed:
The word “science” has morphed into a virtue signal, but science is simply a tool, and it can be used for both good and ill. “Science” was used during the first half of the 20th century to stop women from breastfeeding, encouraging them to turn to highly profitable, shelf-stable formula and jars of baby food instead.
Traditionally, “woo” modalities have been practiced and taught in relative secret, which protected practitioners but limited their reach. When we become empowered to learn more about our bodies, our instincts, our emotional landscapes and the connections therein, maybe we’ll begin to demand that our complex and (still!) mysterious physiologies are treated with respect, dignity, and humility in the realms of medicine and science. Until then, we’ll take the curiosity and experimentation of a celebrity luxury capitalist whose good fortune it is not to have to worry about actual burning at an actual stake.
I really, really, really hate the term “virtue signaling.” For one thing, it’s hypocritical as hell, because the only reason to accuse someone of “virtue signaling” is—you guessed it—to virtue signal yourself as being somehow morally superior by imputing disingenuousness to the person making the argument you’re attacking. In other words, accusing someone of virtue signaling is in itself an act of virtue signaling. That’s why I now never use the term, other than ironically or to mock someone else’s use of it (as I’m now mocking Block and Albert’s use of it). If I see someone else using it unironically I think less of that person, particularly when it’s used along with the dubious “science was wrong before” canard so beloved of cranks, as Block and Albert do. It’s a term that has totally passed its sell-by date and has devolved into just another insult term.
As for the rest, note the false dichotomy. Block and Albert are basically saying that if you don’t lay off the pseudoscience promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, you’re treating women and their concerns about their bodies, emotional landscapes, and physiology with disrespect and a lack of humility. Sorry, I don’t buy that. In fact, I view things a lot differently. Think about it. Block and Albert are painting a portrait of men as dismissive of emotion and worshiping science and rationality and of women as far more emotional beings, which is actually exactly the stereotype that the patriarchy has promulgated since time imemmorial: Man, rational; woman, very emotional and not rational. They’re even using this stereotype to defend Gwyneth Paltrow’s exploitation of their concerns about their health and bodies to make herself fabulously wealthy.
I also can’t help but note that appealing to female empowerment against misogyny and patriarchy is a favorite tactic of the antivaccine movement these days, going back to at least 2007, when Jenny McCarthy was promoting “mother warriors.” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was also playing the white knight defending women’s honor, but accusing critics of the antivaccine movement of misogyny and condescension towards mothers of autistic children. (Sadly, I’ve seen way more misogyny from the antivaccine movement than from anyone defending vaccines against pseudoscience.)
I’ll conclude by noting that this is not the first time that Jennifer Block has defended Goop. Last November, she published an article for the Scientific American blog, Doctors Are Not Gods (another title that tells you exactly where the article would be going). It was basically a hit piece on Dr. Gunter that took her quotes out of context, made multiple errors of fact, cited a truly crappy study, and failed to adequately disclose a conflict of interest. The uproar on social media was such that the blog post was actually retracted. (The original text can still be found at Archive.org.) It also hit the whataboutism about pelvic mesh used in the NYT op-ed.
The themes are were the same, so much so that I think she just repurposed her arguments, leaving out the parts of her SciAm article that were so easily slapped down and reframing her criticism more explicitly as the patriarchy taking its revenge on an upstart like Gwyneth Paltrow because she had the temerity to use her celebrity to “empower” women. (Too bad that selling snake oil to women using misinformation, bad science, and pseudoscience is the opposite of empowering them.) Unfortunately, the NYT foolishly took that SciAm reject and let Block and Albert with it.