Monday, June 26, 2017

The Goop criteria

There's a lot of good reporting by Beth Skwarecki in this long but never boring expose of the Gwyneth Paltrow pseudoscience empire (which is still respectable enough for New York Magazine). Difficult to single out the best part, but this exchange struck me as especially pertinent to some of our previous discussions of science journalism.
When Goop publishes something weird or, worse, harmful, I often find myself wondering what are they thinking? Recently, on Jimmy Kimmel, Gwyneth laughed at some of the newsletter’s weirder recommendations and said “I don’t know what the fuck we talk about.” I know Goop is Gwyneth’s brainchild, but I also know a woman of her status does not write a weekly newsletter by herself.

Luckily, there is an “Ask Me Anything” stop staffed with Goop editors. They lounge on white-cushioned chairs, under umbrellas for shade, and are dressed in light blue button-down shirts. The editors are mobbed all day. Whenever I stop by to eavesdrop, it sounds like attendees are pitching them products to feature.

I find the station quiet during one of the more popular talks, and end up speaking with editorial director Nandita Khanna. “You publish a lot of things that are outside of the mainstream. What are your criteria for determining that something is safe and ethical to recommend?”

Khanna starts by pointing out that they include a disclaimer at the bottom of health articles. This is true. It reads:
    The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

Okay, but how do you decide that something is worth including in Goop to begin with? “We definitely do our homework,” she says, and insists that the team extensively discusses and researches the things that end up in the pages of Goop. She won’t go into detail about the process, but she points out that some of their sources are doctors. Do you ever ask the doctors to vet new ideas? I ask. Yes, she says, often.

But she says they don’t have any specific guidelines. Sometimes Gwyneth will say she doesn’t think this or that story is the right one to tell, or maybe it’s not the right time to tell it.

So I ask: “What responsibility do you believe you have to your readers?” Here at Lifehacker, I recently killed a post I was excited about—a trick for stopping kids from unbuckling and escaping from their car seat—after a car seat expert nixed it. I feel like if I’m providing information people might act on, I have a responsibility to make sure that information is reasonably accurate and that people won’t hurt themselves (or their children) if they take me at my word.

Goop’s editors don’t see it that way. “Our responsibility is to ask questions, to start the conversation,” Khanna says. Even if the product or advice doesn’t work? “I think it’s up to each person to decide what works for them,” says another editor sitting nearby. Khanna agrees. “Medicine is so subjective.”

(Medicine, actually, is not subjective in this way. The point of randomized controlled trials, a key concept in medical research, is to set aside subjectivity and figure out what’s useful and what’s a waste of time. Nobody here, staff or attendees, seems even the least bit interested in separating the worthwhile stuff from the garbage.) [I'm not crazy about Skwarecki's phrasing here (I would have mentioned double blinding, placebo effects and the need for well defined objective metrics), but the basic point is important -- MP]

I turn the conversation to Goop’s infamous jade eggs. They are for sale that day in the pharmacy shop, and I got to hold one in my hand. It was smaller than I expected, not the size of a chicken egg but more like a grape tomato. Both the jade and rose quartz eggs have a hole drilled through the smaller end, and at first I imagined a Goop acolyte taking the egg out of her vagina, rinsing it off, and hanging it around her neck. I learned later that the hole is the answer to the question in the jar: you can attach dental floss to give it a removal string, like a tampon.

The idea of the jade egg, or its prettier rose quartz companion, is to “cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls.” The grain of truth here is that using a small weight for vaginal exercises can help strengthen the muscles in that area. You can do this without a weight, too.

But Jen Gunter, a practicing gynecologist who is one of Gwyneth’s most vocal critics, has explained that jade eggs are a terrible idea. Stones can be porous enough to grow bacteria, and she says the instructions for using the egg are incorrect and could harm people. For example, a Goop article suggests walking around with the egg inside of you. Gunter counters that overworking your vaginal muscles this way can result in pelvic pain.

The Goop editors remember the jade egg backlash, and they are unfazed. “Did you read the letter from Layla?” Khanna asks. Layla Martin, who sells jade eggs and a seven-week course on how to use them, wrote a 2,000-word “letter to the editors” defending the eggs. Goop published it in their newsletter, and underneath it, their disclaimer, and underneath that, a link to their shop.

Khanna says they “never considered backing down.” She points out, as if it were a defense, that the eggs were very popular and sold out right away. I ask her: Has there ever been a health article in Goop that you thought afterward, maybe we shouldn’t have run that?

No, she says, never.


  1. Interesting story. It reminds me of Freakonomics. I don't know of any story they ever retracted. Even their breathless coverage of Daryl Bem's ESP paper, or their embarrassing chapter on climate change. I wondered about this, and my best guess was that they didn't want to start retracting even their biggest goof-ups, because once you start retracting, you're implicitly endorsing all the things you didn't retract. Paradoxically, if you don't really believe the things you're writing, you might be better off not retracting anything.

    1. At the risk of having a closed mind on the subject, the people at Goop are beyond saving (and arguably beneath contempt). I am more interested in the difference between people like this author (and Stephen Colbert) whose primary response is to call bullshit compared to publications like New York magazine which is trying to thread the needle of hyping the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world while still maintaining some semblance of journalistic credibility.

    2. I suspect the concern over non-retraction as endorsement is beyond these clowns

    3. Mark:

      Forget about Goop, then. Let's consider Freakonomics. Why don't they retract their most embarrassing errors? I suspect the fundamental thing is that they consider their articles "entertainment" rather than "science." Or, perhaps more accurately, they want it both ways: on one hand, they're spreading the gospel of economics, on the other hand, they're just having fun, not like those spinster schoolmarm types who feel the need to check the accuracy on every claim. As a practical matter, they perhaps feel that going back and checking past writings would be too much trouble, and also that admitting error would be more costly to their reputation than not admitting error. It's the David Brooks thing.

      Fundamentally, though, I have the impression that the Freakonomics team and the Goop team are in the same place, which is that they believe they are fundamentally doing good by spreading the principles (healthy living for Goop, economics for Freakonomics) and that the details don't really matter. Same with those school-privatization advocates you mentioned in your post above. They know they're the good guys and they don't want to hear otherwise.

      It's almost like there are two kinds of people out there: those who care about the details, and those who don't. And those of us in the first group get very frustrated by those in the second group.

    4. Andrew,

      I suspect that the Goop people are simply post-truth, but offenders like Brooks, Levitt and Dubner certainly aren't and should know better. How to explain this?

      We should probably start with the obvious: playing fast and loose has been an exceptionally good career move with great upside and almost no downside. You grab (or in the case of Brooks, sometimes fabricate) some example that fits nicely with your thesis, knowing that demands for correction can be ignored without consequence. Incentives matter (apparently especially for people writing pop Econ books).

      As for entertainment, a better concept might be popularization. I believe these men see themselves as deep thinkers and great communicators. They feel that they are presenting deep and important ideas to the masses. Unfortunately, they tend to have a low opinion of the intellect of their readers. Therefore, they see dumbing down as unavoidable.

      Under these circumstances, getting details wrong is no big deal and having mistakes pointed out are an annoyance and a distraction from the big picture. Furthermore, the people pointing out those mistakes are often seen as pests who don't understand the important points.

    5. As for attitudes toward those who point out mistakes, here's David Carr:

      "And part of the deal with working at the New York Times is that your readers - a portion of whom are kind of church ladies and copy-ninnies and fact-freaks - they wait like crows on a wire for you to make the slightest error and then descend, caw, caw, cawing every time you screw up."

    6. "Fact freaks," huh? I followed the link and was disappointed to see that the interviewer didn't call him on this one.

    7. Carr was much on my mind when I did the post on the victimology of journalistic crimes.

      Crimes against fellow journalist – – unforgivable

      Crimes against subjects (and particularly sources) – – Serious

      Crimes against readers – – "well, everybody makes mistakes now and then."

    8. Hmmm, maybe that's why the NPR interviewer didn't challenge Carr . . . she felt like the two of them were both journalists, so they're on the same team.

    9. Mark:

      In your last comment regarding journalists valuing journalists more than anything else, I'm reminded of that attitudes of mandarins of science such as Susan Fiske, who don't seem particularly bothered by sloppy science, cargo-cult science, or even scientific fraud. No, what really gets their goat is when scientists in their tenure-track club are criticized. That's when we hear the accusations of terrorism etc.

    10. I think Gross is that non-confrontational by nature, but as for Fiske et al., I think you're exactly on target. Anything that inconveniences members of the profession or makes them look bad is evil.

  2. Carr's attitudes are particularly important given his standing

    "It’s not that we didn’t know what we had until it was gone. No, we all knew what we had in David Carr. We had a compass. As an industry, as a community of media makers, we had a person we trusted to orient us — morally, intellectually, critically, comedically. And we trusted him to be a voice on our behalf, choosing what was important to communicate about the systems and characters that make the press go, and doing so with an absence of bullshit and a fullness of humanity."

    Carr was a hack and a class bigot and a meme-whore, and that's just what the profession was looking for.