On Jan. 24, Goop, actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company long criticized for peddling pseudoscience, launched its Netflix documentary series, The Goop Lab. The six-part series covers subjects such as “energy healing,” exorcisms, and cold therapy.
In the show, various Goop employees — a young and diverse crowd — try such health fads as vampire facials, in which the client’s own blood is drawn and applied to the face, supposedly to promote cell renewal. Another thing they try is the Wim Hof method, which involves jumping into an icy lake after meditation and breathing exercises.
But after settling a $145,000 lawsuit in 2018 over unscientific claims of what its jade egg can do, such as correct hormonal imbalances and regulate periods, Goop’s new show includes a disclaimer with every episode: “The following is designed to entertain and inform — not provide medical advice.” Goop employees are careful to say that when something works for them, it could very well not work for someone else.
Some of the content featured in The Goop Lab comes across as harmless, even educational. The show’s episode on female pleasure, which debunks myths about women’s genitalia and teaches a clinically tested orgasm technique, received praise from mainstream media for being anti-shaming and entertaining. Paltrow’s decision to show a real female orgasm on camera was hailed as revolutionary and bold. But experts are cautious about the show’s approach to wellness, especially when it promotes “natural” practices — such as exorcism-like energy healing — alongside scientifically tested methods, like such as the use of psychedelics such as mushrooms in treating PTSD, anxiety and depression.
"Something The Goop Lab does is sprinkle in a bit of science by talking about some interesting, real research going on," said Tim Caulfield, the research director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash. “That makes everything that follows seem more legitimate. I call that science-ploitation, using real science to sell pseudoscience.”
Caulfield said that research shows when companies use scientific-sounding language to sell their products, it makes their products seem more legitimate to consumers. He pointed to the cosmetics industry, where brands throw around such scientific phrases as “stem cells" and “cannabinoids.”
“The one bit of good news is when you start talking about science to justify what you’re presenting, we, the research community, find it entirely appropriate to critique it against the standards of science," Caulfield said.
Irene Kan, an associate professor in psychological and brain sciences at Villanova University, said when a product or practice is advertised as natural, people may automatically assume that it’s good for them, and be less likely to engage in critical thinking — reading the labels or conducting their own research — surrounding it. She also said that research has shown that when people are familiar with something, they tend to trust it more, such as believing that being cold can make you sick.
“This happens even when we don’t remember where we learned that piece of information to begin with,” Kan said. “This phenomenon is called the ‘illusory truth effect.’”
She also pointed to the continued influence effect, a related idea, to highlight how pseudoscientific information can lead to real actions and decisions made by people.
“For example, despite a two-decades-long battle to counter the unfounded association between MMR vaccine and autism, a large proportion of the general public continues to hold that inaccurate belief,” Kan said.
Caulfield, who hosted a 2017 Netflix series called A User’s Guide to Cheating Death that examined controversial procedures, diets and therapies to extend people’s lives, said that it was “disappointing” to see the streaming platform feed into the problem of scientific misinformation.
“It’s important to recognize that people who have a science-informed background have open minds,” Caulfield said. “If something works, we want to know. But that’s not what the show promotes. It actually promotes skepticism of science.”