Dec 11 2017

Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters

Paltrow has defended her “lifestyle brand” by saying that they are just giving women choices, and being open. Nonsense – don’t be swayed by such distractions.

I unapologetically support reason and scholarship as critical values for human civilization. This is increasingly true as our world gets more complex, as the stakes get higher, the margins for error lower, and as our culture and economy are increasingly global.

We cannot get by just shooting from the hip. We need people with specific expertise who transparently follow a process that is logically valid and based on evidence. We need standards of scholarship and intellectual rigor that are up to the challenges we face. We also need to make this work within an open and democratic society, where public opinion matters.

What all this means is that it is more important than ever to have a well-educated public, and for our public discourse to respect standards of honesty and excellence. It matters if people understand and accept what experts have to say about vaccine safety and effectiveness, the evidence base for manmade climate change, the safety of GMOs, and the nature of health and disease.

But there is not just a quality control issue here. There are people and institutions who have vested interests in opposing transparent scholarship and standards. They may be motivated by ideology, tribalism, a misguided worldview, or simple greed. They may even think they are the good guys, and that the ends justify the means.

That is perhaps the most insidious belief infecting our culture today – that as long as your intentions are pure (or pure enough) then methods don’t matter. Your team are the good guys, and the other side are the bad guys, so do whatever it takes. In a recent speech President Trump made this attitude very clear:

“There are powerful forces in Washington trying to sabotage our movement. These are bad people, these are very, very bad and evil people. . . . But you know what, we’re stopping them. You’re seeing that right now.”

Getting back to Goop – this brand is the embodiment of abandoning standards, method, and evidence. There is nothing benign about this, and it should be viewed in the larger context of our society. Paltrow and her people have abandoned any pretense of science-based quality control in order to sell an image. In doing so, they make all of their customers victims.

They further attack their critics as biased, closed-minded attention whores. They are essentially selling a narrative – one of empowerment. Don’t worry about the scientific details or such trivialities as evidence – their products will make you feel empowered.

As evidence for where the forgoing standards leads, at the upcoming Goop conference one keynote speaker will be Kelly Brogan, who is an HIV denier. As Orac reports:

In her post, Brogan approvingly cites HIV/AIDS denialist Celia Farber’s claims about HIV/AIDS:

This fact would be less concerning if this trial was not the foundation of empirical treatment of pregnant women around the world with a medication so toxic, it kills mother and their unborn. She raises questions about assumptions we have come to believe are truths –

That HIV is a meaningful diagnosis (she references the false positive testing likelihood in pregnancy, the unstandardized lab standards from country to country, and the abandonment of even those criteria in Africa where an HIV diagnosis can be conferred based on symptoms like malaise and diarrhea alone).

That HIV causes AIDS (a syndrome of 25 illnesses that does not satisfy Koch’s postulates of infectious disease).

That drug toxicity associated with AIDS treatment may very well be what accounts for the majority of deaths.

Farber also references the role of vitamin A in reducing HIV transmission, if we are to accept the clinical relevance of this concern, and how unacknowledged the role of nutrition is in infectious disease – stating that before the discovery of niacin and vitamin C, pellagra and scurvy were thought to be contagious.

Brogan is also anti-vaccine. From Brogan’s website, and article on vaccines states:

Will you grant government bureaucrats carte blanche to define and ultimately direct the education and welfare of your children across a broad spectrum of issues, and to allow your children to be taken away if you do not comply?

Yes, that’s exactly what this is about.

This is precisely the point. If we don’t treat this critically important decision as the intensely private affair that it is, then we co-create a culture in which it’s legitimate, then appropriate, and ultimately imperative for others — bureaucrats, doctors, schools, employers, reporters, neighbors — to ask and then tell us what we must think and do.

The message is clear – don’t trust experts, everything is a personal choice, the most important thing is to empower yourself and answer to no one.

Paltrow may think she is harnessing this attitude just to sell jade eggs women can put up their vagina, or magic stickers that will give you good vibrations, but she is also reinforcing and promoting a pernicious anti-intellectualism that is eroding our society.

Unlike Trump, I don’t think this is a struggle largely between good people and “bad evil” people. I think this is largely a struggle among various narratives, where most people think they are on the good side (which is whatever narrative they have bought into). There are also some bad people out there exploiting the whole situation and making it worse (there always is), but that is not the core phenomenon.

Humans are tribal by nature. We also tend to organize our understanding of the world around stories and narratives. This naturally leads to a situation in which everyone picks a side, buys into that narrative, and then sees the world through that filter. It is now easier than ever to ensconce ourselves in echochambers that reinforce our tribal narratives, and disparage everyone else as “fake,” as “trolls,” and as “very bad and evil people.”

The way to rise above our tribal nature is through objective facts, legitimate scholarship, and valid logic. In other words – there needs to be some objective external standard against which ideas are tested, and conflicts resolved. Without this we will devolve into our warring factions, with no mechanism for common ground.

So yes, the fact that Goop sells magic stickers does matter. Of course they are not responsible for the woes of our society, they are just one tiny manifestation of it. But as I think we have learned recently, tolerating nonsense, anti-science, and sloppy thinking tends to normalize those very things. Then it becomes easier to accept them in more important and bigger contexts. The little lies set you up to accept the bigger lies.

This is similar to the process of falling into an abusive relationship. Looked at from the outside you might be tempted to think – how can anyone let someone else treat them that way? But the victims in those relationships felt the same way. At first they accepted small abuses, they excused them, and normalized them. The abuses then became larger and larger, and the excuses grew with them. Eventually the victims get into a situation they never would have accepted previously.

We can’t allow the small anti-intellectual abuses to normalize anti-intellectualism. Yes, it matters when people believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because in order to maintain that belief they have to abuse scientific thinking and philosophy. It matters if they buy what Goop is selling, which is not really stickers or jade eggs but an anti-intellectual narrative that pretends to be about freedom.

It is not by accident that the Goop conference is hosting someone who is anti-vaccine and an HIV denier. When you suspend intellectual rigor in order to sell magic stickers that is where you inevitably lead.

9 responses so far

9 thoughts on “Goop Nonsense – Yes It Matters”

  1. arnie says:

    “Yes, it matters when people believe in ghosts or Bigfoot because in order to maintain that belief they have to abuse scientific thinking and philosophy. It matters if they buy what Goop is selling, which is not really stickers or jade eggs but an anti-intellectual narrative that pretends to be about freedom.”

    Steve, I agree fully with you on that. Could it not also be just as correct to say: It matters when people believe in supernatural gods, devils, angels, heavens, hells, etc., because in order to maintain that belief they have to abuse scientific thinking and philosophy. It matters if they buy what religion is selling, which is not really salvation from death or a life of eternal bliss (or some variation thereof) but an anti-intellectual narrative that pretends to be about freedom from the their dreaded end of existence.

    In both examples the promise is not based in evidence grounded reality or truth.

  2. bend says:

    I’ve always thought that HIV denial was less common and more fringe than anti-vaccine sentiment, thought this is based solely on my own experience of personally knowing quite a few anti-vaxxers and few if any HIV deniers. I’m curious to see what happens if (when?) an effective HIV vaccine is introduced. Will the anti-vaccine community claim that AIDs was never really a problem (a mild childhood illness) or that it was eradicated by water sanitation? Maybe they’ll claim that autism is worse than AIDs? Of course I hope for an HIV vaccine for the sake of those whose lives will be saved. I do, however, think that it could trigger an interesting and discouraging evolution of anti-vax community.

  3. expblast says:

    The problem is that science and medicine have engineered our way out of making decisions that benefit us at the basic level. When knowledge meant life or death, there was a consequence on an evolutionary scale based on those decisions. The bottom has been brought up to an inconsequential level, and the population is so dense that small groups making errant decisions and sometime having ill effects, do not really have an effect on the entire group (except in vaccination rates). The very science that has improved our lives to the place where we can pontificate about Goop and any other CAM or “alternative” treatments has in itself allowed these people to flourish. Now they can use these bogus treatments, and when there are negative consequences, they will go to the emergency room and get treated with real medicine. In turn, when life or death is not an issue, companies are allowed to sell unwitting people any brand of snake oil they deem profitable without repercussions. Its a costs benefit analysis of profits vs. lives lost, i.e. ephedra etc. I agree that the level of scientific understanding by the public needs to be elevated. But that starts with bringing the basic level of education up to match the current scientific understanding. However, there will always be those that choose to be willfully ignorant, incapable of comprehension, or uneducated. And mind you, all of this conversation is based upon Western civilization. Poor Africans and Indians are not buying Goop when they are just trying to get enough food to survive. Too bad we don’t have any crops that were genetically modified that would prevent them from starving!

  4. MaryM says:

    I was just reading today about the increase in HIV/AIDS in Russia, partly due to the spreading of nonsense.

    FakeScience has real consequences to real people who will die. And now that SXSW has picked Brogan too (I wonder if that’s in part to Paltrow elevating her) this toxic misinformation spreads further.

    It’s just so awful to watch.

  5. Noob says:

    In 2005, Gwenyth Paltrow starred in the film Proof, adapted from a play by David Auburn. In one scene, Paltrow’s character, a mathematician named Catherine, has the following exchange with her sister Claire:

    “Claire: Did you use that conditioner I brought you?

    Catherine: No. Sh*t. I forgot.

    Claire: Well, it’s my favorite. You’ll love it, Katie. I want you to try it.

    Catherine: I’ll try it next time.

    Claire: You’ll like it. It has jojoba.

    Catherine: What is jojoba?

    Claire: It’s something they put in for healthy hair.

    Catherine: Hair is dead.

    Claire: What?

    Catherine: It’s… It’s dead tissue. You can’t make it healthy.

    Claire: Whatever. It’s good for your hair.

    Catherine: Like what? A chemical?

    Claire: No. It’s organic.

    Catherine: It can be organic and still be a chemical.

    Claire: I don’t know what it is.

    Catherine: Haven’t you ever heard of organic chemistry?

    Claire: It makes my hair look, smell and feel good, and that is the extent of my information about it. You might like it if you decide to use it.”


    I’ve always enjoyed that scene.

  6. pandadeath says:

    What’s personally infuriating about goop is how it’s nearly exclusively marketed to women. Goop isn’t alone here, it’s part of a bigger culture of marketing “non mainstream” (translation: BS) treatments or practices to women. In all the talk of why there are fewer women in STEM, no one seems to mention that women are actively marketed pseudo science and flat out anti -science.

  7. sarah_theviper says:

    The local paper where I live, in their health section, listed Goop products for gifting to the health minded this holiday season.

  8. neogarden says:

    Dr . Novella,

    In light of Kelly Brogan, Daniel Amen, Bernard Beitman, etc.. I have recently wondered: is there any listing of MD-licensed woo practitioners by specialty, and if so.. is any one specialty more prone to woo than others?

    It seems a simple question, but I’m having a great deal of trouble finding resources to answer it.

    Thanks for your time.. and as always, bravo to your efforts.

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