I’m not sure if the New York Times‘s penchant for woo has always been the case, or whether it’s new—and, additionally, whether it has something to do with the paper’s increasingly woke slant. (As we know, wokeness prizes ideology and narrative over truth.) Both Greg and I, for instance, have written about the paper’s recent and repeated approbation for astrology (see here, here, and here), and now there’s an op-ed that touts not only Gwyneth Paltrow’s new “Goop Lab” show on Netflix, but also engages in some science-dissing and promotion of “other ways of knowing.” (Click on the screenshot below.)
To be sure, this isn’t the paper’s official stand, but it’s a very strange and dire piece of “journalism” by two women. The bios of the authors, as given in the article, are not propitious:
Elisa Albert is a writer working on a new novel and a “wellness” polemic. Jennifer Block is the author of “Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution.”
Wellness polemic? True women have often been treated thoughtlessly or badly by the medical establishment, and there’s nothing wrong with women helping other women realize their sexuality. But does Gwynnie really have to stand in front of a giant flowered vagina?
But I digress. I’ve read quite a few reviews of the show, and some of them mention that there are good bits, like the emphasis on healthy female sexuality and how to acquire a working knowledge of your nether parts and how to achieve orgasm. But nearly all of them decry the show’s emphasis on untested “cures”. While one person on social media told me to chill about Paltrow, as her kind of stuff isn’t harmful, it certainly is: it can make people waste money on stuff that isn’t useful, and even get sicker if they could have resorted to science-based medicine instead of woo. And what isn’t harmful about taking money under false pretenses. Even if the rich can afford jade vagina eggs, it fosters a climate of credulity as well as cynicism.
For a summary of the criticisms of Goop Lab, just go to the section “Series Reception” on the Goop Lab Wikipedia page. These are media reviews of the entire six-episode series, and they’re not pretty. In fact, not one of them is generally positive. (Gwynnie, of course, won’t care: she’s crying all the way to the bank.) For one example, here’s the New Yorker‘s new review of the series; the words “magical thinking” and “pseudoscience” often appear in these reviews (click on screenshot for free access):
(If you want to know what “sponcon” means, it’s not a French word but slang: go here.)
A brief excerpt:
Like other celebrity vanity projects—Beyoncé’s “Life Is But a Dream” comes to mind—“The Goop Lab” is a documentary in name only. Executive-produced by Paltrow, it is propaganda for the Goop company and for its ideas of magical thinking.
. . .“The Goop Lab,” lowbrow TV with high production values, is the most unsettling kind of sponcon—the soulful kind. Wim Hof, a popular healer who, following the death of his wife, came to believe in the salutary benefits of breathing exercises and immersion in freezing water, teaches a group of Goopers “snowga.” A bodywork expert asks several employees to lie down on massage tables, and then, like a puppeteer, pulls at the air above them as they writhe, moan, and weep. In every episode, the skeptics are converted, and the believers are reaffirmed.
If “intuiting” and “energy fields” are not your bag, you were never going to be swayed by “The Goop Lab”—although I confess that, after watching, I did take one, brief, ice-cold shower. True believers in alternative therapies might be put off by the show’s efficient portrayals of “healing”—breathing exercises on the grass, for instance, that lead to instantaneous catharsis. The show’s queasiest, most Oprah-y moments involve the testimonies of regular people, meaning people who would likely never read or buy anything from Goop. They are filmed, styled and dressed like Goopers, sitting alone, on designer chairs, with the white lab in the background. An Iraq War veteran who for years suffered from P.T.S.D. reports that MDMA therapy eliminated his suicidal ideation. A man diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome claims that the cold-water therapy restored his full range of movement; he can now do a split.
I have to add that I haven’t watched it, but I know a bit about the show from reading many reviews, and I’m familiar with Paltrow’s incessant hawking of woo, which has made her a very rich woman.
It doesn’t help that what’s seen as America’s best newspaper has published what looks like an endorsement of the Goop Lab philosophy and a critique of mainstream medicine, all of which boils down to “don’t trust Western medicine; it’s sometimes been wrong.” The authors repeatedly diss science and scientific medicine, imputing it in in fact to the Patriarchy. Indeed, they see the Goop Lab as empowered women taking back their right to practice “other ways of knowing.” Some excerpts from the NYT travesty:
So what underlies all the overwhelming, predictable, repetitive critiques? What exactly is so awful about a bunch of consenting adults seeking self-knowledge, vitality and emotional freedom?
The authors might consider that the repetitiveness of the critiques, as well as their pervasiveness and “predictability”, might say something about the kind of therapy pushed by Paltrow and her minions. But no, what it says to Albert and Block is that THE PATRIARCHY has repressed women’s “other ways of knowing”—ways handed down by oral tradition and never tested scientifically. But that doesn’t matter, because, after all, there are other ways of knowing!
My emphasis here:
Throughout history, women in particular have been mocked, reviled, and murdered for maintaining knowledge and practices that frightened, confused and confounded “the authorities.” (Namely the church, and later, medicine.) Criticism of Goop is founded, at least in part, upon deeply ingrained reserves of fear, loathing, and ignorance about things we cannot see, touch, authenticate, prove, own or quantify. It is emblematic of a cultural insistence that we quash intuitive measures and “other” ways of knowing — the sort handed down via oral tradition, which, for most women throughout history, was the only way of knowing. In other words, it’s classic patriarchal devaluation.
When 19th-century medicine men were organizing and legitimizing their brand-new profession, they claimed the mantle of “science” even though there was no such thing as evidence-based medicine at the time. In order to dominate the market, they slandered all other modalities as “quackery,” including midwifery, which we know achieved safer birth outcomes back then, as it still does today. Pejoratives like “woo” or “pseudoscience” are still often applied to anything that falls outside of the mainstream medical establishment. (Think about this the next time you hear something harmless or odd or common-sensical dismissed as an “old wives’ tale.”)
Yes, of course science has been misused as an excuse to sell snake oil, and midwifery, so far as I know, did draw on women’s experience to improve safety during birth. But what happened in the Bad Old Days of the 1800s is irrelevant to what happens when someone seeks modern scientific treatment. And the authors fail to mention that a lot of the criticism of Goop and its woo comes not from men, but from women (check out the list of critics in the Wikipedia article). Dr. Jen Gunther comes to mind, and the New Yorker piece above was written by Doreen St. Felix, a black woman. I guess all these folks are “sister punishers” who bought into the Patriarchy!
What bothers me most about this article is its explicit dissing of science in favor of intuition and experience. Here’s one example from Albert and Block’s piece:
Our society likes to conjoin the concepts of science and health, but the two do not always overlap. Peer-reviewed, lab-generated, randomized, controlled, double-blinded evidence will always be the gold standard, but such studies aren’t always fundable, or ethical. We kiss our children’s boo-boos even though there’s no gold standard evidence that it will make them feel better. We just know that it does. Which in turn makes us feel better. That’s “wellness.”
This is prime “whataboutery”. Because there are unethical or unempathic physicians, that somehow vindicates the empathic, unethical, and useless woo peddled by Paltrow.
And as for reiki, check out the link they give for the efficacy of this “energy-based healing”, a method assuming the existence of “energy channels” in the body that don’t seem to exist. (Much of the therapy involves not even touching the patient, but waving hands over the body. The one meta-analysis above suggesting that it has benefits over placebo can be countered by any number of analyses that show that the method is no better than placebos (see discussions here, here, here and here).
A major objection to reiki is that it is a metaphysical treatment, based on assumptions about the body that simply aren’t true. If it makes you feel better, then fine: the only harm done is to your pocketbook, but note that other “integrative” therapies, like acupuncture, have not been demonstrated to be effective on their own–or even better than placebos. (By writing this, I’m guaranteed to get a ton of email from pseudoscience advocates.)
As for Paltrow’s “yoni egg”, much decried by Dr. Jen Gunther, the authors note that well, there aren’t any cases showing that it’s harmful, and real medical devices like transvaginal pelvic mesh have harmed patients. True! But that is just more whataboutery, and can’t justify quackery like yoni eggs. Just because science and scientific medicine can make mistakes, that doesn’t justify pseudoscientific nostrums where we have a prior evidence, like for jade vagina eggs, that they can be harmful, and no evidence that they can be helpful.
In the end, the authors decry Western medicine, implicitly touting the Goop Lab approach, because it gives women “agency over their own bodies”, enabling them to connect with those Other Ways of Knowing:
To be clear, we aren’t looking to Goop for scientific rigor (or political consciousness, for that matter). But it’s condescending to suggest that if we are interested in having agency over our bodies, if we are open to experiencing heightened states of awareness and emotion, if we are amazed by and eager to learn more about the possibilities of touch and intention and energy, and if we’d like to do everything within our power to stay out of doctors’ offices, we are somehow privileged morons who deserve an intellectual (read: patriarchal) beat-down. Openness to intuitive measures that might help us avoid or ameliorate chronic despair and disease does not make us flat-earthers.
First, a scientific beatdown, which is what Paltrow deserves and is getting, is not a patriarchical beat-down, as evidenced by women like Jen Gunther who regularly take apart the kind of nonsense purveyed by Goop Lab. What we see on the part of Albert and Block is an almost Trumpian assertion that Paltrow is good because the elite are going after her. It’s medical populism, and, like Trumpism, asserts that the claims of empirical medicine are “false facts”. They even call science a virtue signal!
The word “science” has morphed into a virtue signal, but science is simply a tool, and it can be used for both good and ill. “Science” was used during the first half of the 20th century to stop women from breastfeeding, encouraging them to turn to highly profitable, shelf-stable formula and jars of baby food instead.
No, science is not a virtue signal: it is a method of finding out the truth about the world. Yes, it’s a too, but it is the ONLY tool—the sole “way of knowing”—that can demonstrate whether a therapy works beyond its placebo effects. Saying that science has done bad stuff, and therefore shouldn’t be fully trusted, is like saying that chemistry brought us Zyklon B, and therefore can’t be trusted. (Nor can architecture, which, after all, was involved in building gas chambers). It’s amazing that the New York Times would publish an article that extols pseudoscience. This is not opinion, after all, but a matter that can be adjuciated empirically. But they’ve done the same thing with astrology, which has failed scientific tests of its value.