In my article for last year’s Skepticism Month on AIPT, I mischievously conflated Gwyneth Paltrow with her Avengers character Pepper Potts, and her company Goop with Stark Industries. I reported sadly that the streaming giant Netflix had just signed a deal to produce a documentary series promoting Goop, one of the most successful snake-oil sellers of all time.
Well, despite harsh criticism from evidence-based critics then, and even harsher criticism when the trailer reinforced our fears, Netflix was not dissuaded, and The Goop Lab was unleashed upon humanity on January 24. As their promotional poster promises, they have indeed reached new depths.
If you’re unfamiliar with the scientific/medical world’s issues with Goop, I suggest reading the Wikipedia articles of the company here and the show here. Both are full of well-deserved criticism. Each episode of The Goop Lab begins with a disclaimer that’s on the screen for all of seven seconds, which I’m sure will make all the difference to people watching.
First up is The Healing Trip, an episode about using psychedelic drugs to improve mental health, including “psychedelic psychotherapy” as a replacement for traditional therapy. It features Mark Haden, the Executive Director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which runs clinical trials of psychotherapy under the influence of psychedelics such as MDMA (ecstasy). Also featured was psychiatrist Will Siu, who thinks “emotions and memory are stored in our body,” disparaging pharmaceuticals currently used to treat psychiatric patients.
Interviews with Haden and Siu are interspersed throughout the episode, along with personal testimonials and scenes of the Goops staff’s Jamaica trip to get high on magic mushrooms. For their emotional issues. The MAPS personnel in Jamaica make some curious claims, such as “our illness is that we do not have a connection with anything other than ourselves and the material world.”
The Healing Trip also covers micro-dosing, when a woman who’s been taking small amounts of mushrooms for a long time says it helped with her psychological problems. Of course, this is anecdotal self-reporting, and any positive results experienced are prone to all sorts of personal biases. But on The Goop Lab, this counts as evidence.
Episode 2, Cold Comfort, is all about promoting the supposed medical benefits of extreme cold exposure. The episode features “Iceman” Wim Hof, creator of the “Wim Hof Method,” which is a combination of techniques—controlled breathing, cold exposure, and proper mindset—that Hof says will allow you to become “an alchemist to life itself.” Hof claims there are evidence-based studies showing that the autonomic nervous system can be influenced by the mind, and says he’s helped millions of people who have problems such as psychosis or depression.
The episode is filled with testimonials from people who say they’ve been cured of all kinds of problems by the Wim Hof Method. We also get to watch Paltrow’s staff exercising barefoot in bathing suits in the snow, and plunging into a lake barely above freezing.
Episode 3, The Pleasure Is Ours, explores female sexuality. The expert introduced on this one is Betty Dodson, a 90-year-old sex educator, accompanied by Carlin Ross, the CEO of her sex-ed foundation. To avoid the appearance of mansplaining, I’ll just say I found this episode had the least outrageous claims. But from here, the series goes downhill at a rapid pace.
Episode 4, The Health-Span Plan, concerns attempts to thwart the aging process. It highlights Valter Longo, who says that calorie restriction leads to longevity and better health. Notably, the only information presented on this topic were experiments on mice. Also featured is Morgan Levine, developer of a blood test she says can determine your “biological age” (vs. calendar age). Levine says this is important because, “We’re finding that your biological age is more predictive of your mortality risk, your risk of developing cancer, heart disease, diabetes, than your chronological age.”
Three Goopers suffer through a special calorie-restricted diet, claimed to reduce one’s biological age, to “prove” the test works. Paltrow herself and two staffers try different versions, and the results are mixed. After just five days on one of the special diets, Paltrow lost 1.7 biological years. According to Longo, one would have to periodically repeat the restricted calorie diet to retain the alleged age reduction. But how would one verify these test results are meaningful? Is anyone buying this?
Don’t worry, if being on a difficult diet isn’t your thing, and you just care about looking younger, The Health-Span Plan provides some options. Elise Loehnen, Goop’s Chief Content Officer, undergoes what’s described as facial acupuncture, with 100 needles stuck into her face to “build collagen.” Another Gooper submits to having slow-dissolving threads injected into her face, and Paltrow has a “vampire facial” (which is just as creepy as it sounds). Of course, the “proof” that any of this is worth the cost (or pain, or risk) is Paltrow and her employees complimenting one another on the results. Goop Science at its best!
Episode 5, The Energy Experience, covers the topic of energy healing and features “body worker” and chiropractor to the stars, John Amaral. Paltrow is joined by Julianne Hough (of Dancing with the Stars fame), who provides a glowing testimonial of Amaral’s paranormal abilities.
Did I say paranormal? Amaral claims to be treating both physical and emotional problems by using invisible, unmeasurable “energy fields” surrounding the human body. He’s shown physically manipulating his patients, by “interacting” with these energy fields, as they lie on a table. Picture a puppeteer making his puppets move, jerk, and shudder by pulling on their strings!
How does it work? Amaral explains,
You can measure the energy field of the body somewhere four to six feet off the body … The body doesn’t end right here at the skin. The body is multidimensional … So, when I’m moving my hands in the air … I’m putting energy into the field around somebody’s body … The way we interact with someone, without even touching them, at the subatomic level, changes them in some way, shape, or form …
Amaral says the 21st century will be the century of energy medicine, and he’s trying to make that a reality by teaching others his methods.
My question is: Why hasn’t he taken any of the many paranormal challenges that currently add up to over a million dollars, with the highest one being $250,000? Why not conclusively prove the existence of these energy fields and his healing abilities? I guess he doesn’t care about money, or even about winning a Nobel prize which would surely follow such a proof.
The final episode of The Goop Lab is by far the worst offender. Are You Intuit? is a promotional advertisement for Paltrow’s personal psychic medium, Laura Lynne Jackson, and more worrisome, it’s a promotion of the entire psychic industry. Jackson is shown running various activities with the Goop staff, each designed to prove a different claim of her paranormal abilities to the participants (and the viewers).
To lend scientific credibility to the paranormal claims, Julie Beischel shares the spotlight. Beischel is introduced as the Director of Research at the Windbridge Research Center, which promotes mediumship and has a disclaimer on its website stronger than that on The Goop Lab episodes. An excerpt reads,
… This site is for education and personal/spiritual growth only … It is not to be a substitute for, nor should it ever take the place of, diagnosis or treatment from a professional … The Windbridge Research Center accepts no liability or responsibility for the thoughts, actions, or decisions of any visitor.
“We have shown that mediums can report accurate and specific information about deceased people, when they aren’t using fraud, they aren’t using cold reading or Googling someone beforehand,” Beischel says boldly. It should be noted it’s been repeatedly shown that even scientists can be fooled regarding this type of thing, especially when they’re true believers to begin with. Again, I must ask about the paranormal challenges available to be won: why hasn’t Beischel sponsored one of her “verified” test subjects to enter any of these?
Between the team sessions with Jackson and the anti-science claims of Beischel, Are You Intuit? will leave credulous viewers with the opinion that psychic powers and mediumship are real. And what’s the harm in that? Financial ruin often befalls those who seek the advice of psychics. People lose huge sums, even their life savings, to con artists looking to take advantage of vulnerable believers.
Due to the huge, global reach of Netflix, this one episode of The Goop Lab could cause an untold number of people to face devastating financial and emotional harm if they accept the message that psychics and mediums are real — you should find one to help you.
Looking at the series as a whole, there was a noticeable absence of Goop product placement, and at first, I was very surprised by this. But I think I understand the strategy. Rather than an obvious infomercial designed to sell specific Goop products, Paltrow and company took the far craftier path with The Goop Lab.
It seems the series is intended to swell the ranks of potential customers by persuading Netflix subscribers to buy into the Goop philosophy. Their intention is to convince viewers that scientific consensus is untrustworthy, that pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs are correct, and that using alternative medicine products and solutions (such as those coincidentally sold by Goop) is a better strategy for healthy living than relying on science-based healthcare.
Viewers successfully manipulated by this series will become new Goop customers, eager to purchase all the expensive, alt-med, pseudoscientific, and paranormal nonsense Goop promotes and sells. It’s an ingenious (if morally questionable) marketing strategy.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.