It is easy to mock the ridiculous and potentially harmful health advice and product lines promoted by Gwyneth Paltrow and her team at Goop. Sleeping near healing crystals, lugging around jade eggs in the vagina, swilling moon juice, undergoing raw goat milk cleanses, dabbing on sex dust, and snapping photos of your aura are just some of the ridiculous treatments and remedies offered at high prices to those looking for health ideas from a movie star.
The mocking may be a bit understated. How does this company and other equally daffy outfits pull off these highly lucrative health scams?
Mainstream medicine is partly to blame.
Some of the most prestigious hospitals and clinics in North America offer many of the same kinds of “treatments” that Goop promotes. And some of the practitioners who advise the company, those Goop calls “the best doctors and experts in the field for advice and solutions,” work at these same institutions.
Why is this? And isn’t it time for all of mainstream health care to condemn rather than tolerate doctors who are advising the Goop-like companies of the world that are growing rich by peddling a potent mix of glamor, hipness, and mumbo jumbo?
Several thousand years ago, whether you were an Egyptian pharaoh with migraines or a feverish Spartan soldier, chances are your doctor would try to cure you by bloodletting. He would open a vein with an unsterilized knife or sharpened piece of wood, causing blood to flow into a handy bowl. If you had a high-tech doctor, he might have used leeches instead of a knife.
Despite the fact that bleeding did not work and probably killed a fair number of those who got it, this “treatment” was a mainstay of medicine for thousands of years. It wasn’t until late in the 20th century that doctors began to argue that tradition, custom, and patients willing to pay were a lousy foundation upon which to base medical care. Evidence, in the form of objective clinical trials, needed to be the basis upon which doctors treated their patients.
Still, the twisted logic that “ancient therapy” means “effective therapy” can be found on both Goop.com — to justify cupping, essential oils, and jade vagina eggs — and, incredibly, on many academic and university websites pushing alternative practices.
Today, all medical education from medical school through continuing professional education preaches the value of evidence-based medicine, with one exception. Up in medicine’s attic, the crazy uncle of medical practice, alternative and complementary medicine, is allowed to offer aromatherapy, crystals, herbal remedies, homeopathy, reiki, detoxification, and other nostrums and elixirs at many of the finest hospitals and clinics in North America. Neither evidence nor scientific plausibility are required. Custom, cultural beliefs, and fairy dust are deemed sufficient to entice patients willing to pay for the equivalent of bleeding.
Think we are kidding? In fact, many universities and academic health centers throughout North America have provided either explicit or implicit support for everything from spoon bending to homeopathy to reiki.
Worse, some of these institutions also endorse the supernatural underpinnings of these “therapies.” The Cleveland Clinic, to cite just one example, suggests that energy therapies like reiki work by “promoting balance and flow in the body’s electromagnetic and subtle energies.” Ridiculous? Yes. But not very different from the much-mocked language that Goop and Gwyneth use to market wearable stickers that target our bodies’ energy imbalances, because, as the Goop website explains, “human bodies operate at an ideal energetic frequency.”
Little wonder that Goop and its ilk are flourishing. Medicine is sitting inside a glass pyramid from which it is tough to throw stones at alternative and complementary medicine.
A team of researchers recently published a wonderful study outlining how primary school children in Uganda could be taught critical thinking skills in the context of health claims. Teaching a few basic concepts — that testimonials are not evidence and that ancient and/or popular does not mean a therapy is effective — had a significant impact on how the children assessed claims about health remedies. Perhaps Gwyneth and a few of the leaders of our best academic health institutions should take the same course.
Arthur L. Caplan heads the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine. Timothy Caulfield is the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and author of “Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything?”