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The Goop Lab Experiments With Viewers’ Credulity

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix show is a mixed bag of promising emerging science and complete quackery, of confidence-building exercises and utter lunacy. In erasing the distinction between good and bad, it turns everything to goop.

There is a lot of schadenfreude at the sight of Gwyneth Paltrow, high priestess of aspirational brand Goop, sadly eating a reconstituted soup that looks like it was partly digested and regurgitated by a mama bird. After years of Gwyneth encouraging women to torture their bodies in the name of the ever elusive (and delusional) detox, seeing her get a taste of her own pseudomedicine is joyful. The reason we get to see this is that Netflix, with a well-documented history of presenting health documentaries of dubious scientific accuracy, green-lit a six-episode miniseries entitled The goop lab dedicated to “exploring ideas that may seem out there or too scary,” Gwyneth’s right-hand woman tells us in the opening episode, “so that people can have access to the information and make up their own minds.” I watched the whole thing. You’re welcome, Internet.

It’s easy to dismiss Goop’s modern snake oil as obviously harebrained but there are reasons why its target demographic responds to it. Women have not been traditionally as well served as men by the healthcare system. The encroachment of the pharmaceutical industry into medical practices has also created a lot of distrust, some earned, some unduly exaggerated. While medicine at its best rests on an important therapeutic alliance between the doctor and the patient, the days of paternalistic medicine have cast a seemingly endless shadow. Medications have side effects. Appointments are rushed. A trip to the hospital involves glaring lights, peeling paint, cheap flower paintings on the walls, a receptionist who always somehow sounds very close to quitting, and a doctor who hasn’t had time for lunch and who spends most of the appointment staring at a computer screen. No wonder many people seek an alternative. The goop lab presents a grab-bag of “solutions”, cast in pastel colours, and while some of these quick fixes capitalize on self-love and team bonding, others require outright flights of fancy.

The core problem with the series, in my opinion, is its coronation of personal experience. The very fabric of the show—with its emotional testimonials and its Goop staffer workshops—is woven with this experiential thread. Laura Lynne Jackson, a psychic medium, says it best when she addresses a skeptical Goop staffer (yes, they apparently exist): “Don’t buy into it until you have had the experience and it becomes your truth and you need to own it.” And so we see staffers doing magic mushrooms in Jamaica, while some go on a three-week diet, and others jump into a very cold lake as part of an effort to push the limits of their endurance. This last episode is genuinely empowering… until we see a testimonial from a man diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, who was told he had a 50:50 chance of being paralyzed, and who claims he avoided paralysis by hyperventilating like the episode’s coach taught him. Anecdotes are dirty data: they are contaminated by a dozen variables we know and many more we can’t even imagine. This is why Goop’s emphasis on trying things out to see if they work is so problematic and potentially dangerous.

Gwyneth’s reconstituted soup, a greenish goop filled with unrecognizable chunks, is actually a good visual representation of another important vexation I have with the show and the brand as a whole: blurring the distinctions between science and pseudoscience. While there is no clear demarcation between the two, the gradient that exists is smudged by Gwyneth and her questionable experts until everything looks plausible and backed by some sort of evidence. The potential of psychedelics to help with trauma is given the same weight as a medium claiming she can feel the dead and so can we with a little training. This is a sledgehammer to scientific literacy and critical thinking. By equating all forms of evidence and cherry-picking what makes people feel good, the Goop crew propels the viewer beyond open-mindedness and straight into credulity. And this impressionable spectator might no longer bat an eye at the platforming of John Amaral, a body worker and chiropractor, who tells Gwyneth that he believes the 21st century will be the Age of Energy and who claims to change, through a series of thrusts and grunts, the frequency of the vibration of the body itself to change how cells regrow. His imprudent invocation of quantum physics to explain how consciousness can change reality and how his hands can modify energy fields will be old hat to skeptics.

What happens between him and his volunteers (including Gwyneth, a professional actress, and a woman who is a professional dancer) is a sort of improvised interpretive dance in which he clearly enunciates what he’s about to do and whistles while his hands move the air around the person lying on their stomach, who starts gyrating and stretching in response. A self-avowed skeptical Goop staffer tells the camera that he’s surprised he knew where Amaral’s hands were going to go. For anyone watching the footage, there is no surprise: Amaral is voicing his routine throughout. Some skepticism. While this play-acting may sound funny, there was nothing laughable about Amaral and a male integrative physician, eager to learn how to do this, hovering over a black woman lying face down and lightly touching her bum multiple times, saying they were feeling its “sponginess” and that there was so much energy “flowing through here”, with the integrative physician later reporting he had felt his entire hand go down into her body. Not physically, of course, but in his head. I predict John Amaral, who claimed this was the first time he was letting his work be filmed, will get a television series order soon.

It is difficult to mock a show in which a woman refuses filler in her face, wanting instead to try something a little more natural, and ends up with a hundred acupuncture needles in her cheeks. Even Gwyneth partakes in the absurdity of it all, receiving a vampire facial (the plasma from her own blood seeping into her microabraded forehead) and commenting without a hint of irony: “I do like that it’s my own material. It’s not a toxin, you know. People shoot a lot of weird shit into their face!” There was a docuseries on Netflix that confronted these interventions—detoxes, unorthodox skin care routines, cold therapies—while giving voice to actual scientific and medical experts. The show was called A User’s Guide to Cheating Death and was hosted by friend of the Office, Timothy Caulfield. Netflix stopped distributing the show last October and is now offering in its stead the Twilight Zone version of it, using the language of science and yet looking completely off and deformed. But there is a resemblance, especially in a moment from The goop lab’s episode on the health-span plan, and it’s the only exchange that stunned me. Caulfield is well known for telling us that the keys to wellness are obvious: sleep, exercise, eat well, protect yourself, don’t smoke. Everything else is noise. So it must have been some sort of quantum singularity that brought us this exchange in Gwyneth’s series:

Elise Loehnen, chief content officer for Goop: “It’s like you say,” she says, turning to Gwyneth. “The tenets of wellness are typically free.”

Gwyneth: “It’s true.”

One must imagine Gwyneth laughing all the way to the bank.

Stray observations:

  • The episode in which Goop staffers drink a psilocybin tea in Jamaica in order to search for meaning or heal some trauma was fairly science based and yet something rubbed me the wrong way. When I made a video about psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, I noted that multiple sober sessions are needed both before and after the “trip”, and that typically two sober psychotherapists need to assist the patient during the “trip” itself. What we see in the episode are three therapists for four participants: two therapists take a microdose of magic mushrooms and the third therapist takes the same dose as the participants. There are no strictly sober therapists to accompany the participants. As far as I can tell, this is not psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.
  • In the episode on energy, the chiropractor John Amaral says you can measure the energy field of a person four to six feet away from their body. Toward the end of the episode, his apprentice, the integrative physician, actually says, “That’s what I’m saying: you can’t measure this stuff.”
  • The psychic medium appears to know amazingly detailed information about the staffers she reads, but it bears mentioning that edited footage of a medium is essentially worthless. All the negative hits can be edited out. It’s a highlights reel. You can actually see the Goop medium engaging in cold reading by saying she can hear a sound like “E-L… L… it’s tied to your mom.” This allows the sitter to jump onto one of multiple guesses, which gets counted as a hit.
  • Julie Beischel, who does research on medium readings, tells Gwyneth that some people want her to release full transcripts of these readings but she won’t, claiming it’s private information in the context of a therapy session and that only the sitter can decide on its accuracy. Of course, what she doesn’t mention is that a full transcript would allow us to count the negative hits to see when the medium is only guessing.
  • Finally, the episode entitled “The Pleasure Is Ours” feels like it belongs to a different show, as it focuses quite lucidly on female anatomy and sexuality. It is revealed that Gwyneth herself did not know the difference between the vagina and the vulva. What’s good about The goop lab—an entire episode dedicated to empowering women through medical knowledge—is not unique to the show. Dr. Gunter’s book, The Vagina Bible, will give you the science without the woo.

@CrackedScience

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