The reaction to Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix series has been swift and furious: As soon as promotion for The Goop Lab, which premieres January 24, began this month, health critics took to Twitter and blogs to mock the actress-turned-wellness guru and warn of the danger of her pseudoscientific approach.
One of Paltrow’s nemeses, the OB-GYN doctor and women’s health commentator Jen Gunter, reminded Twitter that medical ideas should “be studied before [being]… offered to people as an option,” alluding to the energy healing and cold therapy featured in the show’s trailer.
Jill Promoli, a mom and photographer, pointed out, “The more we encourage this nonsense, the greater the distrust in our experts,” and in actual life-saving interventions, like vaccines. Tim Caulfield, author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, chastised Netflix for spreading health misinformation: “In addition to promoting unproven ideas & products, it contributes to erosion of #criticalthinking.”
Given the success of the Goop lifestyle website to date, it’s no surprise The Goop Lab is taking unproven health trends into the realm of global streaming. And once again, Paltrow appears to be trolling her naysayers. In fact, she seemed to be inviting the furor, feeding the long-running outrage cycle in health woo. This raises a question: Do the critics egg on Goop? Would the public be better served if we all just ignored Goop and Paltrow’s health shenanigans?
Paltrow is trolling her critics
Paltrow has been repeatedly accused of misusing science and misleading the public. And now, she’s set up her own “lab” on Netflix. The trailer for the six-episode series, set to launch on January 24, teases the “dangerous” and “unregulated” wellness topics Paltrow will explore on the show.
The Goop Lab promo poster shows Paltrow emerging from a background akin to the pink folds of a vagina, undoubtedly a nod to the vaginal jade eggs the Goop website, in 2017, suggested could do everything from fix a woman’s hormone levels to help with bladder control. (The eggs went viral — and got Goop sued by government lawyers for making “unsubstantiated claims.”)
But even before the show’s troll-ish trailer, Goop was actively courting outrage from the evidence-based camp. There’s even signs that it’s been healthy for business.
In a 2018 New York Times Magazine profile of Paltrow, journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner reported that the “cultural firestorms” from dubious vaginal maintenance routines or detox therapies drew traffic to the site. “I can monetize those eyeballs,” Paltrow told a Harvard business class, according to Brodesser-Akner. Her wellness empire thrives in part on controversy, even if it means misleading the public on health in the process.
And, Gunter told Vox, “How do you believe anything from a company that has claimed bras cause breast cancer and jade eggs can be recharged by the energy of the moon?”
Paltrow hasn’t been held accountable for making misleading claims — nor have representatives at the companies that enable her — beyond a $145,000 fine in California over the jade eggs. Instead, they’ve been rewarded with business opportunities and lucrative partnerships.
Over the past few years, the company has launched health summits and a quarterly magazine. More recently, Goop announced a partnership with Celebrity Cruises for “Goop at Sea,” delivering a “tangible, high-touch experience,” according to a company press release. The brand also partnered with the makeup giant Sephora to sell its products in stores across North America. And, of course, Goop will appear on the streaming giant Netflix. So in 2020, Goop will reach reach new and broader audiences than ever before.
According to the New York Times, the company was worth $250 million in 2018. Two years later, with these new deals, it’s possible it’s now worth more — though since it’s not a publicly traded company, it’s impossible to know for sure.
But here’s what we do know: Paltrow’s audience is doing more than hate-watching, hate-buying, and hate-reading her wellness claptrap. She has a cadre of devoted fans — and a celebrity megaphone through which to reach them, one that’s been allowed to grow despite the public criticism.
Should Goop critics stay silent?
I first wrote about Paltrow’s health bullshit, and her “cleanse specialist” Alejandro Junger, in 2013. Two years later, the Alberta professor Tim Caulfield published his book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, about the dangerous influence celebrities have on our decision-making. All the while, Jen Gunter has spilled so much digital ink on Paltrow’s health shenanigans that she got Goop to issue its first direct response to critics last summer.
But has the debunking helped?
“There’s data out there that if you debunk something you can enable it,” Caulfield said. Indeed, as University of Exeter political science professor Jason Reifler told Vox’s Brian Resnick and I. “In some cases, fact-checking can backfire, particularly with people who are resistant to the information in the first place.”
But, Reifler added, the jury’s not out. Other research shows “the public does benefit from fact-checking.” Caulfield, too, pointed out there’s good evidence to support correcting the scientific record — and he’s experienced this first-hand.
“When I started writing about her, I got more resistance — people saying why are you picking on Gwyneth Paltrow.” Now, “I don’t hear that anymore. Paltrow has become a punchline for most people. Goop is a punchline. There’s a growing recognition about the harm misinformation can do.”
He continued: “In the short term, it can be frustrating because it does seem to highlight the bunk. But long term, I think we have to set the scientific record straight.”
So maybe the efforts of critics have informed people and changed the narrative around Paltrow, even if it seems she has a Teflon-like quality where none of the criticism sticks.
I’d also argue for another way forward: We should focus on preventing bogus health claims from taking off, by teaching people how to think critically about the information they receive from an early age.
Researchers from Europe and Africa recently worked to develop curricula — a cartoon-filled textbook, lessons plans — on critical thinking skills aimed at schoolchildren. In 2016, they tested the materials in a big trial involving 15,000 schoolchildren from Uganda’s central region. The results of the trial were published in Lancet in May 2017, and showed a remarkable rate of success: Kids who were taught basic concepts of how to think critically about health claims greatly outperformed children in a control group.
In a recent follow-up study, tracking the kids one year after they were taught critical thinking, researchers found the effects seemed to stick — at least for the duration of the study period.
This work, from a group of evidence-minded people, is the closest thing we have to a recipe book for how to keep health bunk from spreading: Instead of trying to change people’s beliefs after the fact with debunking, let’s teach them to spot pseudoscientific drivel in the first place.