In retrospect, I find it rather odd that I never paid much attention to Goop. Goop (or is it goop?), as you might recall, is Gwyneth Paltrow’s beauty/health/wellness website (and, of course, online store) that’s been in the news a fair amount over the last several months. The reason is that Paltrow combines celebrity, beauty, and “wellness” with pure quackery, and every so often Goop publishes something advocating pseudoscience so outrageous that it attracts the attention of not just skeptics, but of the mainstream press and even late night comedians like Stephen Colbert. What I didn’t realize is just how broad the quackery is, and, more importantly, how it is facilitated by actual physicians working with Goop. Before I get to that, though, let’s take a brief trip down memory lane, where I’ll explain how I became aware of just how much a wretched hive of scum and quackery Goop has become.
Goop versus skeptics and the press
I first remember taking note of Goop when there were stories about Paltrow recommending that women steam their vaginas to “balance their hormone levels,” whatever that means. I had first learned of this bizarre phenomenon nearly seven years ago, but it was brought back on my radar screen via Dr. Jen Gunter’s blog, where she noted that Paltrow is wrong about just about everything she says about medicine and explained why it’s not a good idea for women to steam their vaginas.Then, earlier this year, I learned that Goop was selling “jade eggs” for women to put into their vaginas for the low, low price of $66 apiece. The claims made for this bit of nonsense were predictably full of mystical, magical nonsense, and Dr. Gunter once again explained why leaving a polished piece of green rock in one’s nether regions is not a good idea. Multiple times, while noting Goop’s hilarious rejoinder that selling the product doesn’t mean Goop endorses them, and that Goop just wanted to “highlight alternative studies and induce conversation.”
Yes, Goop’s excuse for recommending that women put expensive jade eggs into their vaginas one of the more annoying excuses quacks use, namely that it was “just starting a conversation.” Of course, Goop hoped that conversation would lead to moving a whole bunch of $66 jade eggs, which means that what in reality Goop was doing was advertising, not starting a conversation.
The next time Goop was on my radar was last month, right before NECSS, when I learned that NASA had actually slapped Goop down for claiming that its magical energy healing stickers (which it sold for as high as $120 for a pack of 24) were made with the “same conductive carbon material NASA uses to line space suits so they can monitor an astronaut’s vitals during wear.” Stephen Colbert even did a hilarious segment on the stickers:
It was actually the second segment Colbert has done mocking Paltrow. An earlier segment was just as funny:
This sketch made fun of the first inaugural Goop Summit, which garnered extensive news coverage, some good to neutral, some mocking, but, as they say, any publicity is good publicity. One thing the publicity did reveal is just how much about the money Paltrow is:
This is Paltrow’s peculiar gift — or grift — and it was on full display at “In Goop Health,” her day-long event meant to bring her website’s “most requested and shared wellness content to life.” By last week, all 500 tickets, ranging from $500 to $1,500, had sold out; another event is planned for New York City in January.
Attendees were told via email to arrive at 9 a.m. The summit wouldn’t actually begin for another hour, which allowed enough time to shop inside a cavernous industrial space for Goop-branded products such as water bottles ($35), hoodies ($100) and a “G.”-branded flight pack consisting of four thin nesting canvas bags containing some magnesium packets, a sleep mask, earbuds and moisturizer ($198).
It was the physical manifestation of the day to come: For those willing to spend so much on so little, Paltrow will happily take your money.
This is, of course, what Goop is about far more than anything else, which Colbert’s skewering mocked so well. And there is a lot of quackery, pseudoscience and nonsense. It ranges from “leech facials” (whatever that is—wait, I don’t want to know) to aura photography (basically Kirlian photography, showing that no pseudoscience or mysticism ever completely disappears) to IV drips to earthing to crystal therapy (of course!) to the lectin avoidance diet. (More on this last one later; it suffices for now to say that lectin is the new gluten.) Indeed, the Goop brand was best described as “pure, unadulterated, blood-diamond free, organic-certified, biodynamic, moon-dusted bullshit.”
Now, a shruggie might say that this is all harmless nonsense. Beauty products have always featured a healthy helping of woo, after all. But that’s not all Goop promotes. It also promotes The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy, plus other quackery like detox cleanses, naturopathy, colon cleanses, functional medicine, and a whole lot of dubious fad diets. This dubious medical advice is then coupled with fear mongering about “mold toxicity,” the Epstein-Barr Virus as the root of all chronic illness, and the long-debunked claim that bras predispose to breast cancer. So, yes, it might be amusing that Paltrow has claimed that there are all sorts of “toxins” in shampoo (which is, of course, why she says you should buy her shampoos) or that goat’s milk is the cure for what ails you, but she’s fused the usually relatively minor woo associated with beauty and “wellness” with some serious quackery. She’s basically taken beauty woo and weaponized it into something that is no longer just a relatively harmless bit of nonsense for customers with, as comedians Mitchell and Webb once put it, a “vague sense of unease, a touch of the nerves, or even just more money than sense.” It’s gotten serious.
Thus far, we see that criticism of Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop has been building all year, to the point where Goop is now the butt of jokes of more than one late night comedian, led by Stephen Colbert. They say that all publicity is good publicity, but I’d question that adage a little bit when a brand becomes a punchline. So the question wasn’t when Paltrow and Goop would strike back, but when. It finally happened about a week and a half ago, when an article by two of Goop’s doctors was published on the Goop website. The title? “Uncensored: A Word from our Doctors.” The two doctors in question were Dr. Steven Gundry, who is doing his best to turn lectins into the new gluten, and Dr. Aviva Romm, who claims that EBV is the cause of thyroiditis, which is the cause of…well, basically almost all chronic diseases. It was basically a hit piece on Dr. Gunter, who is one of the most persistent and widely quoted bloggers criticizing Goop. It was announced by Paltrow herself, who descended from her organic, energetically positive throne, to announce it herself on what Charles Pierce likes to call the electric Twitter machine:
— Gwyneth Paltrow (@GwynethPaltrow) July 13, 2017
I had a hearty belly laugh at this statement, given that it came from a woman who not too long ago responded to critics thusly (WARNING: use of the f-bomb):
“I’m interested in criticism based on fact, not on projections,” says Paltrow, in other words, “If you want to fuck with me, bring your A game.” (She’s so enamored of the phrase, a friend had it put on matchbooks and cocktail napkins for her as a gift.)
“Go high.” You keep using that term, Ms. Paltrow. I do not think it means what you think it means. Also rankly disingenuous was Dr. Gundry’s complaint about Dr. Gunter’s use of the F-bomb:
First, Dr. Gunter, I have been in academic medicine for forty years and up until your posting, have never seen a medical discussion start or end with the “F-bomb,” yet yours did. A very wise Professor of Surgery at the University of Michigan once instructed me to never write anything that my mother or child wouldn’t be proud to read. I hope, for the sake of your mother and child, that a re-reading of your article fails his test, and following his sage advice, that you will remove it.
Dr. Gundry should really have a word with his boss, business partner, or whatever Ms. Paltrow is, then, given that Dr. Gunter first dropped the F-bomb in response to Ms. Paltrow’s use of it. Basically, Dr. Gundry’s complaint boils down to: “Dr. Gunter used the F-bomb. She’s mean and nasty; so she must be wrong.” In any case, I went to the University of Michigan Medical School too. People—some faculty—cussed from time to time. Also, never have I seen such a passive-aggressive, self-righteous combination of tone trolling and mansplaining in a single article. His is merely a somewhat more subtle form of ad hominem attack. One also has to wonder why Goop decided to attack Dr. Gunter specifically and not, say, Prof. Tim Caulfield, who actually wrote a book entitled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty & Happiness. Could it be because the editors of Goop thought it would be easier to paint a woman as unreasonable and—dare I say it?—hysterical? Perish the thought! Or why didn’t Goop attack Stephen Colbert? It couldn’t be because he’s the host of a popular late night that might one day be needed to help promote one of Paltrow’s movies someday, not to mention that Colbert could very easily punch back with devastating effect, could it? Perish the thought!
Basically, Goop’s editors and Ms. Paltrow appear to have quite consciously chosen to “punch down,” picking what they viewed as the easiest target. There were also some especially hilarious incongruities in the article, too. For instance, whoever wrote the introduction to the sections by Dr. Gundry and Dr. Romm complained:
Some of the coverage that Goop receives suggests that women are lemmings, ready to jump off a cliff whenever one of our doctors discusses checking for EBV, or Candida, or low levels of vitamin D—or, heaven forbid, take a walk barefoot. As women, we chafe at the idea that we are not intelligent enough to read something and take what serves us, and leave what does not. We simply want information; we want autonomy over our health. That’s why we do unfiltered Q&As, so you can hear directly from doctors; we see no reason to interpret or influence what they’re saying, to tell you what to think.
The “walk barefoot” reference made me burst out chuckling. It’s a reference to an interview with Clint Ober. Those of you familiar with various forms of the most ridiculous quackery out there will recall that Ober, who’s been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, is probably the most famous advocate of “earthing,” the idea that by being directly connected to the earth through bare skin you’ll be “energetically connecting with Mother Earth” through its “infinite supply of electrons” and reaping all sorts of health benefits. A corollary of this view is that wearing shoes is bad because it blocks that mystical, magical “connection.” Basically, Goop is being incredibly disingenuous here. It’s making it sound as though skeptics were criticizing it for nothing worse than advocating walking barefoot, ignoring that the criticisms were not over just walking barefoot and were in fact about all the earthing pseudoscience.
That Goop would defend itself by referencing quackery just as ridiculous as earthing and homeopathy bespeaks a lack of self-awareness beyond black hole-level dense. Ditto for referencing an article on chronic Candida infection, a common quack diagnosis in which Candida is blamed for all manner of vague symptoms. It is a fake illness—or, more accurately, a fake diagnosis. No one denies that people diagnosed with “chronic Candida” infection are suffering from something. It’s just not Candida. EBV does not cause every disease under the sun. Basically, Goop defended its doctors by crying, “We’re not quacks!” while at the same time referring to excellent examples of articles from its website suggesting that they very well might be or that, at the very least, they like to mimic the sound of ducks. He even has a quack Miranda warning on his website, “The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Romm invoked a veritable crank bingo of tropes, such as the “science was wrong before” trope (also invoked by Dr. Gundry), before going all “just starting a conversation” on us:
In a time when women are desperately hungry for safe alternatives to mainstream practices that too often fall short of helpful for chronic symptoms, and in the setting of a medical system that is continually falling short of providing lasting solutions to the chronic disease problems we’re facing: I prefer, rather than ridiculing vehicles that are actually highly effective at reaching large numbers of women who want to be well, to seek to understand what women are looking for, what the maintstream isn’t providing; and how we can work together to support those vehicles in elevating their content so that women are receiving the meaningful, and evidence-based answers, they want and deserve, whenever possible.
TRANSLATION: Don’t mock us, even though we peddle absolute nonsense sold with bafflegab. We’re highly effective at reaching large numbers of women who want to be well. Then we well them expensive nonsense. But don’t mock us for that or for posting stuff like this on our Facebook pages:
Or invoking an appearance on The Dr. Oz Show as evidence of his medical authority, as Dr. Gundry did in his section.
Goop doctors: Enabling Goop’s sale of quackery
It was more of surprise than it should have been to me that there are actual physicians working with Goop to enable its business model. There are more than just Drs. Gundry and Romm. In fact, there are actually four. The four Goop doctors are:
- Dr. Aviva Romm, a midwife and herbalist who went to medical school and was, unfortunately, not changed much by it in terms of respect for science and evidence. She authored The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution: A Proven 4-Week Program to Rescue Your Metabolism, Hormones, Mind & Mood, as well as a number of other books. She also sells a lot of supplements through her website, a recurring theme among Goop doctors.
- Dr. Steven Gundry, a cardiothoracic surgeon very much like Dr. Mehmet Oz who, as he took incredible pains to lecture Dr. Gunter in his section of Goop’s hit piece on her, who once was a very respectable academic surgeon and, even better than Dr. Oz, served as Chairman of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Loma Linda University for a number of years, before leaving academia to undertake his private practice. (No wonder he and Dr. Oz seem to have an affinity for each other!) These days, he devotes his time to his practice, writing books, giving talks, and selling expensive supplements like Vital Reds (a bargain at $69.95 for per jar, discounted to $377.73 if you buy six jars) and Lectin Shield (a slightly more expensive bargain at $79.95 a jar, $419.70 for six), while bragging (as he did in his response to Dr. Gunter) about how so very, very hard he works and even—gasp!—accepts Medicare and Medicaid patients. His most recent book is The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy Foods” That Cause Disease and Weight Gain. (Spoiler: That “hidden danger” is lectins.)
- Dr. Alejandro Junger, described in his Twitter bio as, “Open Minded Doctor. Passionate about detox and cleansing. Author of Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself.” Yes, he’s very, very much into “detox” pseudoscience in the form of his 21 day Clean Program, which is on sale now marked down to $425 from $475 and is described as the “result of years of research by Dr. Junger in his medical practice.” Dr. Junger is also very much into “functional medicine,” a medical “specialty,” that I like to describe as the “ultimate misnomer,” combining, as it does, the worst aspects of conventional medicine (overtesting, overtreating, and overdiagnosing) with outright quackery taken from alternative medicine.
- Dr. Habib Sadeghi, who has been called Gwyneth Paltrow’s “quack in chief.” He’s apparently very much into “conscious uncoupling,” quantum quackery à la Deepak Chopra, and, for those of you who remember, Dr. Masuro Emoto’s water woo, in which, through quantum handwaving “stuff,” it is supposedly possible to imbed one’s “intent” into water by concentrating on it (and sometimes speaking to it), “intent” that can be physically manifest as different forms of ice crystals. Dr. Emoto even claims to have demonstrated it in a series of experiments in the 1990s! Of note, Dr. Sadeghi’s practice, Be Hive of Healing (what a clever pun…not) offers what I consider to be a veritable cornucopia of quackery, including integrative colon hydrotherapy, heavy metal detoxification, acupuncture, anthroposophic medicine (Dr. Sedeghi is a member of the Physician’s Association for Anthroposophic Medicine and International Post-Graduate Medical Training for Anthroposophic Medicine), traditional Chinese medicine, and many more. His most recent book was coauthored with Gwyneth Paltrow, Within: A Spiritual Awakening to Love & Weight Loss.
You get the idea.
There’s too much pseudoscience and blending of pseudoscience with actual science among these four physicians than can be adequately tackled in one post, even at the word counts I often approach. Now that I’m aware of Goop and its Four Horsemen of the Woo-pocalypse (with apologies to Dr. Romm, for not saying “Horsepeople” because it just didn’t flow as well and would have ruined the joke), I do plan on looking into the sorts of advice they give and the treatments they sell on Goop, in their books, and on their websites, in more detail. I probably won’t do it all here, given that I don’t want to spend at least the next four weeks (one week for each doctor) covering Goop and its physician enablers, but if I do post something at my not-so-super-secret other blog, I promise to crosspost a version here a few days later as well.
Unfortunately, through their connection with Paltrow, the Four Horsemen of the Woo-pocalypse get far more respect than they deserve. For instance, Dr. Sedeghi touts how he was “one of the first two osteopathic physicians ever to be included as a medical expert in the nationally televised cancer research fundraising telethon, Stand Up to Cancer (SU2C).” Guess who was the executive producer for SU2C? If you guessed Gwyneth Paltrow, you’re right. Of course, that was way, way too easy. Never mind that he’s the one who resurrected on Goop the bogus claim that wearing bras is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer even though there is no association and no evidence that bras cause breast cancer. There is no way that someone like Dr. Sedeghi should be in any way associated with an endeavor like SU2C.
Is Gwyneth Paltrow’s pseudoscience winning?
So the first clash of what will undoubtedly be a long battle is joined. Have we accomplished anything? Julie Belluz asked that very same question last week:
As the Goop website has emerged as a reliably laughable source of pseudoscience, a small army of journalists (myself included), doctors, researchers, and bloggers has evolved to pounce on Goop’s claptrap as soon as it’s out. We explain why jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex “dust,” and body stickers that “promote healing” are misleading drivel. In the best cases, we use Goop’s bunk to teach people about how actual science works. It’s practically a parasitic relationship.
Recently, though, I’ve been asking myself what impact all this debunking is having.
As have we all. As do all of us periodically who engage in science education and the deconstruction of pseudoscience. Belluz makes a good point. When I noted that the article by Dr. Steve Gundry and Dr. Aviva Romm was represented as being the first in a series of articles responding to Goop critics, my first reaction was, “Bring it!” It still is. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be tentatively planning to take a look at each of Paltrow’s physician-enablers. However, my first enthusiastic reaction is now tempered by this realization:
Harvard Business School brand analyst Jill Avery told me this response may have been a calculated move to strengthen their brand and draw their customers closer. “The segment of consumers who engage with Goop are interested in alternative, homeopathic remedies,” Avery said. “So, when Dr. Gunter challenges Goop, she challenges the ideological foundation of its consumers as well.”
What’s more, Avery said, the Goop response evokes “themes from feminism, Eastern medicines and philosophies, and anti-establishment politics to incite [Paltrow’s] consumers to action: to make them feel as if they are under attack, to reassure them that their ideology will be supported by Goop, and to arm them with arguments to help them defend themselves.”
Still, wouldn’t the negative press surrounding Goop’s health claims have made some dent in their business? Avery doesn’t think so. “The old adage ‘no news is bad news’ comes to mind here,” she said.
I also posed this question to Larry Light, author of Six Rules for Brand Revitalization and the chief executive of the brand consulting company Arcature. “You can’t attack a belief with facts,” he said. He agreed the Goop debunking would only galvanize its fans and thought that Paltrow’s new summits and magazine would further expand the Goop cult and deepen its members’ beliefs.
This is, of course, always the danger whenever skeptics go after a cult-like group like Goop acolytes. (Should I be calling them Goopies?) I also suspect that all the negative press last month mocking the Goop Wellness Summit, topped off by Stephen Colbert’s late night comedy routine, struck a nerve, leading to this counterattack. Given the timing (not long after a whole lot of negative press about credulous, wealthy women spending ridiculous sums of money to imbibe the quackery being promoted by Goop and buy lots of Goop product), it’s also quite possible, likely even, that this attack on Dr. Gunter was an intentional business strategy to do exactly what is described above: Rally Goop’s fans and provide them with enemies who can be caricatured and attacked.
So does this mean that skeptics are wasting their time deconstructing Goop’s quackery? It’s not as though the website slowed down after this little dustup. It’s still peddling homeopathy and writing about how to “detoxify” yourself. There’s little reason to suspect that Goop will stop. Like many quacks, it’s basically immune to criticism. Think of Oprah’s embrace of the New Age mysticism of The Secret a decade ago. It didn’t hurt her brand. In fact, it probably enhanced it, and she ultimately ended up retiring on top as one of the most popular and long-running daytime TV show hosts of all time.
So is all the debunking worthwhile, or is it a fool’s errand? Belluz rightly points out that we “need to think about how to “prevent Goopshit” from taking off.” I agree. We definitely do. She points out that we need to teach people how to think critically from a very early age. I would add, however, that’s not to say that “debunking” is worthless. If I thought that, I wouldn’t do it.
Think of it this way; liken it to the antivaccine movement. Goop basically peddles misinformation and nonsense on par with the pseudoscience and misinformation peddled by antivaxers. When I debunk antivaxers, I realize that I’m not going to change the minds of hardcore antivaxers. They’re too far down the rabbithole, and it’s incredibly hard to change the mind of a person like that. In fact, it’s damned near impossible. They have to be predisposed by other things in their life to change their mind before deconstructions of their beliefs might have an effect. No, I aim my efforts at those who might be on the fence, who might be susceptible to the pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement but are reachable in such a way that good information, entertainingly (I hope) presented, has a chance of beating back the bad.
It’s the same with Goop. I don’t expect to change a Goop editor’s mind. I don’t expect to change Gwyneth Paltrow’s mind in the unlikely event she were ever to read one of my posts. I don’t expect to change Dr. Gundry’s or Dr. Romm’s mind. I especially don’t expect to change Dr. Sadeghi’s mind. Nor do expect to change the mind of someone buried deep into the Goop lifestyle. However, there are a lot of women who might see the rhetoric of female “empowerment,” coupled with the star power of Paltrow and her minions, and not have the background knowledge to know why what she’s peddling is utter pseudoscience and nonsense. Skeptics can provide the knowledge, facts, and science to help them evaluate the products Goop sells. There’s value to that. There’s power to that. In fact, that’s real empowerment. I compare that to the fake empowerment through snake oil peddled by Gwyneth Paltrow and her like, and I know that’s what I want to encourage, even if it’s a very uphill battle.