The power of celebrities to sell snake oil remedies — or in actor Gwyneth Paltrow’s case, a candle supposedly scented like her vagina — comes under the scrutiny of New Scientist and complementary medicine sceptic Dr Edzard Ernst.
Dr Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter writes in his blog:
We all have mis-understood good old Gwyneth Paltrow. At heart, she is a true sceptic! Even the New Scientist seems alarmed about Gwyneth and her activities.
Psychic readings, energy healing and vampire facials are just a few of the adventures had by actor and alternative health guru Gwyneth Paltrow and her team in her forthcoming Netflix series The Goop Lab. Goop, Paltrow’s natural health company, has already become a byword for unrestrained woo, but the TV series takes things to the next level.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can stick your fingers in your ears and pretend it isn’t happening. There is unlikely to be any escape from The Goop Lab after it is released on 24 January, judging by the current explosion of interest in Goop’s latest offering, a candle scented like Paltrow’s vagina, which has reportedly sold out…
Yet, I am sure we got her all wrong! Good old Gwennie is really one of us – she is a true sceptic!
Think about it; it’s the only explanation.
When she first started dabbling in woo, she only wanted to test us. I’ll just display a few cupping marks and see how they react, she thought. Then she saw that most people were so gullible that they bought it. Of course, she thought, if they buy it, I might as well take their money. In her attempt to see how far she can push her boat out, she decided to conduct a sceptical experiment and went further and further. This is when she started to focus on her vagina – jade eggs, steaming it, etc. Surely, she thought, eventually they must realise that I am a sceptic taking the Mikey!
But they never did realise it; at least not so far.
So, she decided to do something even more brazen and sell candles to dispense the smell of her vagina in the homes of her fans. That will do it, she felt, now they will realise what I want to achieve with all this. But what happened? They sold out in no time (actually, both the candles and the gullible public)! That was a surprise even to our Gwennie. She thought she had seen it all, but she was wrong.
Now she is trying to think of something even more outrageous – but she admits, it’s not easy. What can be a more obvious and disgusting hoax than filling people’ homes with the smell of my genitals and let them pay through their noses for the pleasure? she asks herself.
Yes, poor old Gwennie is at loss! Stuck in her own vagina, so to speak.
Perhaps you can help her? Please suggest what vaginal gimmick she might sell next to make her position inescapably clear to even the dumbest of the gullible. Just mention your ideas in the comment section below; I have a feeling she is an avid reader of this blog. Gwennie might even show herself generous; if she likes your innovation, she will certainly make it worth your while.
Because, by Jove, she can afford to be generous. Apparently, her business is now worth a quarter of a billion US$. But we must not be envious. Knowing that she did all this merely to stimulate sceptical thinking in the general public, you will not be surprised to learn what she intends to do with all this dosh: once she has succeeded in demonstrating to all the gullible pin heads and devotees that she really is on the side of the angles, she will donate all of it to sceptic organisations across the globe.
So, sceptics of the world: stop snarling at my friend Gwennie, rejoice and prepare for a major windfall.
The Goop Lab on Netflix shows how easy it is to fall for bad science, writes Clare Wilson, in the New Scientist.
Like a car-crash unfolding in front of me, once I started watching The Goop Lab I couldn’t look away. In fact, it is so bad it is good – a masterclass in how to defend pseudoscience with a few logical fallacies, non-sequiturs and bit of cherry picking. Take the episode on energy healing, also known as Reiki healing. Practitioners say they can see energy fields around people’s bodies that are invisible to the rest of us and manipulate them with their hands.
This looks as outlandish as it sounds. While the “patient” lies on a massage table, the practitioner, Paltrow’s personal healer, lightly touches or waves his hands over their body to twiddle their fields into place. Members of the Goop team jerk and arch their backs theatrically – they are either true believers or are going to heroic lengths to suck up to their boss. Most say they feel better afterwards, although one says it felt like an exorcism.
As proof that it works, the show wheels out a 57-year-old man who says the technique cured him of numbness in his legs after cancer treatment. But this kind of nerve damage often fades with time, and the show doesn’t say how many people try it without success.
Wilson writes that these kinds of alternative therapies might seem harmless, but when people rely on them to treat serious illnesses it can be deadly. People with cancer who use complementary therapies tend to reject conventional treatment and so can be less likely to survive their disease than those who don’t. The show states at the beginning of each episode that people shouldn’t take it as medical advice, but the impact of a 10-second disclaimer seems tiny compared with half an hour of beautiful Californians saying how awesome they feel.
Wilson writes that in another episode, the Goop gang explore their psychic sides. Paltrow’s personal medium comes on and claims to be getting messages from the dead. She calls out a few initials and words, a lot of which don’t hit home, but the few that do provoke open-mouthed admiration from the Goop team.
Paltrow interviews a scientist who says she has carried out rigorous studies that prove mediums are real. But other work has shown that scientists are too easily fooled and that the best people at catching out mediums are professional magicians and illusionists. The researcher rolls out another cliche – “science is just one way of knowing” – which leaves me sceptical that she is appropriately sceptical.
The Goop team is happy to invoke the authority of science, however, for those practices based around a kernel of research. For example, Paltrow has a vampire facial, in which her face is injected with platelet-rich plasma made from her own blood. It’s true, as the show claims, that platelets contain substances that promote healing. But despite intense efforts, practitioners have failed to show platelet-rich plasma has convincing effects on tissue repair in large randomised trials.
Still, Wilson writes Goop was valued at a quarter of a billion dollars in 2018, so Paltrow has clearly found an effective business model. She was quoted in The New York Times as saying that controversies just led to more people visiting her website, letting her “monetise those eyeballs”.
Wilson writes: “It’s hard not to suspect that criticism of The Goop Lab won’t bother Paltrow one bit.”
Ernst writes meanwhile that belief that homeopathics can replace antibitics does not make it true.
He writes: Ever since the government in Bavaria has been misguided enough to agree to a research programme testing whether homeopathy has a role in curtailing the over-use of anti-biotics, the subject of homeopathics as a replacement of antibiotics has been revived.
In this paper, homeopaths at the University of Bern, Institute of Complementary and Integrative Medicine and the University of Witten/Herdecke, describe four female cases with recurrent urinary tract infections. The patients were treated successfully with the homeopathic strategy after several conventional approaches revealed no improvement. The follow-up period was a minimum of 3 years and the frequency of episodes with urinary tract infection as well as of antibiotic treatment was documented. Additionally, the patients were asked to assess the treatment outcome retrospectively in a validated questionnaire.
The treatment resulted in a reduction of urinary tract infections and the need for antibiotics from monthly to less than 3 times a year. Three of the four women had no cystitis and related intake of antibiotics for more than 1.5 years. A relapse of symptoms could be treated efficiently with a repetition of the homeopathic remedy. All subjective outcome assessments resulted positive.
The authors concluded that this case series suggests a possible benefit of individualized homeopathic treatment for female patients with recurrent urinary tract infections. Larger observational studies and controlled investigations are warranted.
Such articles make me quite angry! They have the potential to mislead many patients and, in extreme cases, might even cost lives. The “possible benefit” of any treatment cannot be demonstrated with such flimsy case series. It has to be shown in properly controlled clinical trials. The findings of case series are confounded by dozens of variables and tell us next to nothing about cause and effect.
Case series make sense when they explore possible new therapeutic avenues. Homeopathy does certainly not fall into this category. The notion that homeopathics might be an alternative to antibiotics has been tested many times before in different settings, in animals, in humans, it vivo and in vitro. This has never generated convincingly positive findings. To re-address it by reporting uncontrolled cases is not just a nonsense; in my view, it is an unethical attempt to mislead us.
Background: Recurrent urinary tract infections are of importance for public health as most clinicians are faced with repeated and long-term administration of broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents leading to an increased risk of resistant bacteria. One encouraging treatment approach may be individualized homeopathy.
Case reports: Here, four female cases with recurrent urinary tract infections are reported. They were treated successfully with the homeopathic strategy after several conventional approaches revealed no improvement. The follow-up period was a minimum of 3 years and the frequency of episodes with urinary tract infection as well as of antibiotic treatment was documented. Additionally, the patients were asked to assess the treatment outcome retrospectively in a validated questionnaire.
Results: The treatment resulted in a reduction of urinary tract infections and the need for antibiotics from monthly to less than 3 times a year. Three of the four women had no cystitis and related intake of antibiotics for more than 1.5 years. A relapse of symptoms could be treated efficiently with a repetition of the homeopathic remedy. All subjective outcome assessments resulted positive.
Conclusion: This case series suggests a possible benefit of individualized homeopathic treatment for female patients with recurrent urinary tract infections. Larger observational studies and controlled investigations are warranted.
Katharina Gaertner, Klaus von Ammon, Martin Frei-Erb