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If we’re going to tackle the rise of pseudoscience we need to make an example of Goop

In an age of a growing distrust in science and medicine, we need watchdogs to step in and hold companies accountable when it comes to bogus health-related claims that in my view are useless at best and harmful at worst

Cristiana Bedei
Tuesday 30 October 2018 11:28 GMT
Gwyneth Paltrow rejects pseudoscience claims over Goop scandal

From dubious supplements to inaccurate research, all the way to allegedly healing stones, what’s next in the wellness market? Hopefully, regular controls and stricter regulations, as the booming industry continues to spark controversies because of irresponsible health advice – but, at last, no longer without any consequence.

It’s been less than two months since Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company Goop agreed to pay a settlement of $145,000 (over £110,000) with California prosecutors, for selling women the unscientific benefits of putting fancy stone eggs inside their vaginas – yonis, if you prefer – and promoting a blend of essential oils to prevent depression; but the brand is already being criticised for more deceptive marketing. This time in the UK, where the new-agey blog-turned-$250m-empire has been reported to advertising regulators for “potentially dangerous claims”.

Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop website under fire for telling women to achieve their 'leanest liveable weight'

Specifically, the Good Thinking Society, a charity that promotes scientific thought, has flagged up 113 examples of potentially misleading statements. These include the ones falsely suggesting there to be “little evidence to support the (many) claims that sunscreen helps prevent cancer”, or advocating for the use of a set of “health-giving” stones. This, while another product, the “top-of-the-line natal protocol”, would seem to go against the NHS advice to avoid taking supplements containing vitamin A during pregnancy because of the risks of harming the baby.

Goop has been a punchline since it launched 10 years ago as a sort of best-life extravaganza for the rich; it is the company that ended a magazine deal with Condé Nast over fact-checking and has been called out over and over by enraged doctors and scientists worldwide. But given the enormous popularity, visibility and commercial success of all its operations, the stakes for spreading potentially medically unsound information with the excuse of being curious or open minded are worryingly high and can no longer be ignored. There’s an urgent need for full transparency and authenticity, from a company – and an industry, to be fair – that profits off the trust and dreams of a possibly vulnerable audience looking to shop for health and life solutions online. Products should come with a warning.

In the past few years, wellness has exploded as the ultimate cultural imperative, feeding and thriving off our needs to feel better, healthier, happier – especially at a time when an underfunded national healthcare system is struggling to provide personalised and empathetic responses to many common problems like depression, chronic pain or malnutrition. This evolved and fully accessorised version of the classic self-help approach is now a trillion-dollar business, but it remains a wild west industry. Brands and gurus often make up in warmth, aesthetic and aspirations what they may lack in robust science, qualifications and even ethos.

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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to look down on turning to new philosophies or alternative remedies to take care of any emotional or mental need, but the ramifications of pseudoscience have become increasingly concerning, and we need to challenge that. In the age of “fake news” and a growing distrust in science and medicine, we need authorities and watchdogs to step in and hold companies accountable when it comes to bogus health-related claims that in my view are useless at best and harmful at worst, no matter how well intended. And Goop’s latest controversy might set a precedent for that.

People resort to alternative products and treatments – the ones that lack scientific support – for many different reasons: some may be looking for additional hope with an illness, others might end up there as part of a bigger spiritual or religious journey, and then there are the ones who feel they have been failed by traditional medicine, either because it didn’t cure their condition or practitioners dismissed it altogether. But even such a negative, albeit legitimate, experience doesn’t make science any less authoritative or valuable. Potentially dishonest pseudoscience cannot become a business model, and authorities need to monitor and take action anytime that profits – or corporate values – are put before people.

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