Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, University of Alberta, a Trudeau Fellow and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture And Science Clash (Penguin, 2015).
Gwyneth Paltrow and her online company, Goop, have become a punchline used to highlight the absurd state of the multibillion-dollar wellness industry. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert recently produced a mocking satire of Ms. Paltrow and her business. And her wacky Goop health summit, held in Los Angeles this past June, was called "the Woodstock of Pseudoscience." (Okay, that last one was from me.)
On Thursday, Ms. Paltrow and Goop struck back. Specifically, the Goop team went after Jennifer Gunter, a Canadian physician practising in San Francisco. Dr. Gunter writes a wonderful, funny, science-informed blog that touches on, among other things, women's health issues. She frequently critiques Goop advice, including a no-holds-barred takedown of Ms. Paltrow's vaginal jade eggs, which Ms. Gunter called the "biggest load of garbage I have read on your site since vaginal steaming."
In response, "Team Goop" wrote a post that attacked Dr. Gunter's science-informed criticisms – and, oddly, her not infrequent (and I would suggest, entirely justified) use of f-bombs – by claiming Goop is only trying to provide information to enhance women's autonomy.
This choice-enhancement shtick is a common tactic for those pushing unproven therapies and health products. But how does providing inaccurate and potentially harmful health advice enhance autonomy? On the contrary, misleading people about the facts reduces autonomy and erodes informed choice.
And who are we kidding? Goop isn't a benevolent aggregator of health information. It is a for-profit company seeking to move product. In fact, Ms. Paltrow admitted on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that she doesn't know "WTF" (throwing down her own f-bomb) they talk about on Goop. That hardly sounds like someone motivated by the provision of meaningful information for the enhancement of autonomy. (And damn if those $66 (U.S.) vagina rocks didn't originally sell out. Ms. Paltrow's noble crusade to enhance your autonomy is likely making her millions.)
The Goop post also used another common alternative-medicine spin tactic: the assertion that evidence-informed practitioners are wrong because stodgy ole science is often behind the health-innovation curve. Goop claimed, for example, that the medical establishment used to think eating a Mediterranean diet was a crazy idea. (No, Goop, science has never thought a healthy diet was a kooky wellness trend. You can't count healthy living, nutrition and preventative strategies as a win for Team New Age.) So, since science was wrong about that (again, science wasn't wrong about that), it must also be wrong about jade eggs. We must keep an open mind! Aside from the head-shaking twisted logic here (so, science doesn't work until it works for the stuff you agree with?), let's not forget Goop isn't exactly running a cutting-edge biomedical laboratory. Indeed, here is a quick inventory of some of the ahead-of-the-curve health practices advocated by the Goop gang:
- Crystal therapy: Goop claims crystals – preferably wielded by one of its “crystal shaman” – have the ability to transform our energy (whatever that means) in a manner essential for good health. This idea is so absurd; no scientific critique required.
- Colonics: The Goop team advocates for the idea that regular colonics – basically, an enema – are required to “eliminate the toxins of modern day life.” In fact, there is no evidence to support the practice and there are real risks, including bowel perforation. Don’t do this.
- Homeopathy: The idea that ultradiluted solutions (a.k.a. water) can affect our health is one of the most universally debunked alternative practices. But Goop suggests “homeopathics are the first line of defence against ailment.” Nope.
- Raw goat-milk cleanse: We don’t need to cleanse or detoxify – one of Goop’s favourite health claims – and especially not with raw milk. This is a seriously bad idea. A 2017 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that raw milk products cause 840 times more illnesses than pasteurized products. Again, don’t do this.
- Energy stickers: The Goop website once promoted a wearable sticker containing special NASA-developed material that will “rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies.” Not surprisingly, a NASA scientist said this was “a load of BS,” and reference to NASA has since been removed from the Goop website. Oops.
All of this baloney may seem like a fun distraction, but we shouldn't forget that, like it or not, celebrities can have a profound influence on how we think about our health and our bodies. Studies have consistently found, for example, that celebrities can have a measurable and less-than-ideal impact on everything from cancer screening to smoking to the food that we eat.
This stuff matters. We need less goopy nonsense and more fearless, blunt and science-informed debunkers such as Dr. Gunter. Go Jen! Go science!