The Goop Lab is a Netflix show inspired by Gwyneth Paltrow’s 250 million-dollar “wellness” empire Goop.
I was lucky enough to get early access and watch all 6 episodes of the show, and the press embargo is lifted today so I can provide you with this short review, from a scientific skepticism standpoint.
So, is it as bad as you’d think? Well, for the most part, yes. I mean, what did you expect from a company that sells highly dubious stuff like “psychic vampire repellent“? Also Gwyneth once admitted she “doesn’t know WTF they talk about on Goop“.
In short: 2 episodes are complete nonsense (energy healing, psychics), 3 address legitimate topics but manage to vastly exaggerate what the science is about (psychedelics, breathing techniques, anti-aging), and 1 episode really stands out from the rest (women’s sexuality).
Each episode follows a basic formula:
1. Gwyneth and her Chief Content Officer Elise Loehnen chat with one or two “experts” who work on some kind of health-related stuff, which is allegedly backed by science, but somehow “little-known, scary and unregulated”. They decide to test the stuff for themselves.
2. “Testing” begins, which is really Goop employees getting their own anecdotal experiences about the stuff. Interestingly, these employees are all really stressed out, tense, anxious and/or dealing with some kind of trauma from their childhood or recent life. Most of the time there’s a self-proclaimed “skeptic” among them.
3. We hear a testimonial from someone who tried the stuff before and/or does it regularly, and has had tremendous benefits from it. There’s real struggle and suffering here, and these testimonials get pretty emotional and touching.
4. “Testing” continues. Big results are obtained right away. Participants start crying and have epiphanies in a matter of seconds.
5. More heart-wrenching testimonials.
6. Final “testing” round. Several participants say they had a life-changing moment. The “skeptic” is now baffled, even though nothing really impressive happened, so it’s pretty clear he/she never really was a skeptic in the first place.
7. More testimonials. It’s becoming hard to watch at this point.
8. Gwyneth and Elise conclude with the “experts” that they’ve witnessed some pretty amazing stuff, and they can’t believe it’s not mainstream yet. The end.
Alright, now let’s dive into each episode:
We meet Mark Haden, the head of an association involved in the study of psychedelics to treat mental health issues. There’s also Will Siu, a psychiatrist who did psychedelics himself and his now treating people with the stuff. They clearly state that such interventions are currently undergoing clinical trials, and while early findings are promising, more research is needed before they can be used in a clinical setting. Everyone agrees.
So, what do they do next? The exact opposite of what was just said. Elise announces that a she and a bunch of Goop employees are going to Jamaica to test the psychedelics for themselves, because it’s “unregulated” there.
The remainder of the episode is basically the group having a drug trip with magic mushrooms. They laugh, cry, talk gibberish. We’re as far from “research” as possible: there’s a lot of hippie stuff, diviner’s sage being burned, and the leader says they need to “be with the spirit of the mushroom“.
A woman who was dealing with unresolved grief says that the experiment was like “5 years of psychotherapy in 5 hours”. A guy who was dealing with some childhood trauma says he feels somewhat better. However, none of it is convincing that the trip really helped them at all beyond some feel-good vibes for a couple of hours.
Elise concludes by suggesting that experimenting with psychedelics could be a great alternative to team-building activities at work. Wow.
WIM HOF’S BREATHING TECHNIQUE
The whole thing is centered around Wim “Ice Man” Hof, a true anomaly of nature who has unusual genetics and abnormally high amounts of brown fat, which allows him to tolerate extreme cold. Good for him. Now, they don’t tell us ANY of this in the show; they tell us it all has to do with Hof’s breathing technique (controlled hyperventilation), which he can teach other people in 10 minutes.
So, he teaches his technique to a group of people who are all dealing with anxiety and/or trauma for some reason, and suddenly it’s about curing them of various ailments. Hof tells the group his technique “makes the body more alkaline” (wrong) and “boosts the immune system” (?). We later learn that by breathing his way, you can cure a whole range of physical and psychiatric health issues. This is no surprise, as Hof has claimed in an interview that his technique can even cure cancer.
The group goes outdoors and has a workout session in the snow. They also jump in cold water. Thanks to the breathing technique, they don’t panic. Nothing really feels surprising or impressive.
We meet Valter Longo, a legitimate scientist doing legitimate research on fasting and prolonging healthy life. But throughout the episode, he proceeds to overhype his research and one is lead to believe it’s ready for mainstream.
We also meet Morgan Levine, who studies the “bioinformatics of aging”. She says that by taking a blood test, she’ll reveal Gwyneth’s, Elise’s and a 3rd lady’s “biological age“, by opposition to their boring chronological age. Why haven’t you heard about “biological age” before? Because it’s a made-up concept. Also, a quick search revealed that Ms Levine works for a company who sells the aforementioned test for 500$, as well as an anti-aging supplement.
The group will also try to reverse their biological clock by undergoing a special diet for a week: one will go vegan, another pescatarian, and the third one will eat a “fasting mimicking diet“, a kit made by Longo which is made of packaged ultra-processed foods that make astronauts’ meals look mouth-watering. At the end of the episode, we learn that they reduced their biological age by about a year after the diet. What does that mean? Nothing, because again, it’s a made-up concept.
There’s a second part in the episode in which the three women get plastic surgery, because… that’s considered anti-aging, I guess? One of them unexpectedly gets a facelift live, where they insert wires in her face and pull it back; my wife was watching with me, and she was traumatized by that. Gwyneth gets a so-called “vampire facelift“, a highly controversial and potentially dangerous technique which consists of injecting platelet-rich plasma (PRP), made from her own blood, in her face. Her face gets red and swollen. The whole thing is pretty disturbing. Gwyneth concludes with: “I’m happy it’s my own blood and not some toxin. People put some weird shit in their skin!“. No shit.
We’re introduced to John Amaral, a guy who offers “energy healing” to his clients who are mainly celebrities. He starts by going all-out quantum mysticism, a type of quackery that uses sciencey-sounding words (like “subatomic”) and misuses concepts related to quantum physics. Also present is Dr Apostolos Lakos, an “integrative physician” who has “studied magnets and vibration”. Whatever.
Amaral starts doing energy stuff on four people, including a “skeptic” dude. Amaral looks like a puppeteer, pulling strings in the air from as far as several feet from the participants’ bodies. It’s quite theatrical and absurd. Now interestingly, he talks a lot and pretty much says what the participants should feel and do. For instance, he might say: “You have an energy blockage in your lower back, right here. So I’m going to pull on it, you’ll feel yourself being pulled upwards slightly, and you’ll feel less tense“. And unsurprisingly, people react in the exact way he just told them! So that’s a great demo of what I would call guided autosuggestion.
Elise says it feels like she “just had an exorcism”, which is something we hear in the show’s trailer, but fortunately there’s no actual exorcism… I can’t believe that’s a positive point for the show 😕
Say hello the Laura Lynne Jackson, a medium/psychic who speaks to the dead. Next to her is Dr Julie Beischel, who says she’s done research which irrefutably shows that psychics aren’t frauds and have real powers (no, it does not).
Jackson then proceeds to showing us a beautiful, perfect example of the classic fraudulent technique called cold reading. The idea is to make many broad claims (guesses) in a short amount of time, so that the people in front of you will invariably make a connection with something personal (watch this video for another great example).
In one instance, she tells a woman: “I hear something like E-L“. The woman starts crying almost instantly; somehow, she connects that with her dead mother. And of course, Jackson goes like “yeah sure, your mother is here right now!“. More broad guesses, more crying. Unfortunately, we’re only shown a few bits of the cold reading, so we can’t calculate how many of her guesses are right. But Dr Jen Gunter (a Canadian OB/GYN) saw her full performance live in 2018 and wasn’t impressed.
Finally, she tells a group she can teach them to be clairvoyant. Woman 1 hands Woman 2 a picture of a dog. W2 focuses and says: “I see an M, and something that has to do with allergies“. Well, turns out the picture showed W1’s former dog, his name was Muffin, but they no longer have him because of her brother’s allergies. The group concludes that W2 is clairvoyant. Sure.
This episode is radically different from the others. It explores women’s relationship with their sexuality, as well as acceptance and knowledge of their own bodies. It talks about masturbation, orgasm, and how porn has created unrealistic expectations about sexuality.
This is beyond my field of expertise and I watched the episode with less of a critical eye, so I might have missed some dubious stuff, but overall this episode appears to make some good points. It’s biggest downside, though, is being part of this terrible show.
(Note : If you have some specific criticism regarding this episode, please tell me and I’ll add a note with credit.)
The Goop Lab is the embodiment of pseudoscience, because it’s really good at pretending it’s science-based. There’s sciencey-sounding words. There’s people with PhDs and MDs. There’s talks of clinical trials, studies being referred to, calls for more research. But all of this is ultimately a facade, because most of what is presented is speculation, exaggeration, hype, or utter nonsense.
The most troubling aspect, to me, is that the show relies heavily on anecdotes and testimonials that are legitimately appealing and touching. You can’t help but feel sympathetic to these people who suffer from physical and psychological trauma, and whose needs have been unmet by the medical system. They need help. Unfortunately, The Goop Lab pretends to help by offering them psychic readings, by teaching them overhyped breathing techniques and by increasing their anxiety about overall health and aging, amongst other things. In that sense, the show (and therefore Netflix) comes out as socially and scientifically irresponsible, in my opinion. In fact, the biggest danger here is that it will further impair scientific literacy and people’s overall trust in science.
One might be under the impression, after watching the show, that it’s not so much an infomercial for Goop’s products after all. And sure, they don’t suggest buying any products, or even advertise them… But wait a minute: Goop DOES sell products related to every single one of the topics discussed in the show: immune system boosters, energy crystals, anti-aging supplements and cosmetics, jade eggs (no longer for the vagina)… I don’t think it’s a coincidence. The only exception might be psychedelics, but interestingly in the episode, they say Goop could help do research; I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Should you watch for the sake of entertainment? Well, personally, I did not find it entertaining. Early during our binge-watch, my wife said: “Wow, that show is depressing“. Yeah, I think she’s right. Or there’s something wrong with our subatomic particles.