How researchers get heard
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The Problem with the Problem with Goop

Goop is not the problem. Goop is the symptom. Until we understand the problem and how to speak to it constructively, we are just making things worse.

Unfortunately, we in the research world do not seem to be learning this lesson.

Undark reports that Netflix’s new series “The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow” has many health scientists in a tizzy, outraged and “frustrated that Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop and their pseudoscientific empire is being given a platform,” as Undark’s Michael Schulson quotes Timothy Caulfield, a professor of health and science policy who wrote a book in 2015 titled Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? (A prime example of how not to start a conversation about Goop.)

As Schulson notes, Twitter mockery, boycotts and high-minded corrections of Goop’s pseudoscience haven’t worked so far — and in fact might just be generating Goop even more attention and revenue:

Goop’s continued success raises question (sic) about how experts should effectively respond to questionable information — and about what it is, exactly, that Goop is selling to its many fans. … Indeed, the cycle may sound familiar to observers of the 21st century digital media landscape: a celebrity (in this case, Paltrow) makes a statement. In interviews and on social media, experts clamor to explain why that statement is misleading, false, or dangerous. Instead of apologizing, the celebrity rebukes the critics and doubles down on the claims — and in return receives a publicity boost, as well the aura of edginess that comes from controversy.

We all know this, and yet scientists and researchers find it almost irresistible to turn off their mockery impulse when it comes to any instance of personalized evidence and rationality. Foot, meet aimed bullet.

For instance: read this Washington Post opinion piece by Alan Levinovitz, an associate professor of religious studies at James Madison University, on how Goop has created a compelling business model that conflates our aspiration for different kinds of purity in today’s highly impure world — religious purity, but also bodily, natural and psychic — into a kind of contemporary catalog of indulgences, available at great expense. Levinovitz could dive deeper and explore the reasons why people might be drawn to such a catalog — but he mocks the phenomenon as false consciousness, insufficiently attentive to the real work of wellness, which he says is reconstructing our broken health care and economic system. “If we really want to purify ourselves, we should take the simple step of detoxifying the world of this false religion wherever it’s found,” Levinovitz writes. Ah, yes: very simple. How’s that working for us?

Opinion content such as Levinovitz’s doesn’t persuade anyone who isn’t already persuaded. His argument has great white space, but his condescension shows he’s writing for the approval of elites, not to advance understanding of a phenomenon.

I find more educational (if not comforting) this Quartz analysis (“How did wellness become our new religion?”) by Sara Wilson, who ran lifestyle partnerships for five years at Facebook and so had to develop a more instrumental understanding of why Goop appeals in the face of evidence and reason. In short: it’s a kind of rationality in the face of irrational, dysfunctional institutions.

Wilson just lays out plainly the conditions for Goop’s success, without the scolding of Levinovitz, Caulfield and their ilk. The US healthcare system is sexist. (“Am I the only one wondering, for example, why I — a woman living in one of the most affluent countries in the world — can get my hands on a jade egg intended to strengthen my ‘yoni’ within hours, and yet may never see government-supported maternity leave in my lifetime?” Wilson writes.) All the systems that created and ratified facts are now under attack — which is scary but also liberates people to choose their own truths. So brands such as Goop are stepping in and taking the place of institutions, argues Wilson, “because they seem to better reflect the demands of our current world.”

In other words: Goop has authority, not expertise. Its scientific challengers have expertise, not authority. That’s not a fair fight.

Rationality doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it never did. It has to work (as in, do work) for those we wish to communicate with. If researchers are going to “combat pseudoscience,” we’re going to have to stop using deficit-model thinking, which includes denunciation, mockery and high dudgeon. We’re going to have to connect with people in ways that are more personal and that foreground our personal reasons for listening to evidence and bodies of knowledge. Or we can resolve that we’re not going to connect with everyone. But ignoring what’s really behind the rise of the Goops of the world — and their increasing appeal to both the left and the right — only marginalizes ourselves.