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Netflix marketing: A new frontier for pseudoscience

By Stephen Lee, March 5 2020—

What would you say if someone told you to place a piece of jade inside your vagina? What if this person was ignorant of gynecology, vaginal microbiology or science in general? Finally, what if Gwyneth Paltrow — the actress known for winning an Academy Award for Best Actress in the early 2000s  and for playing Pepper Potts, her career relatively uneventful besides those — is the one telling you to shove porous stone up inside yourself? The kicker in this scenario — Netflix paid for the advertising. It sounds like a dream, a psilocybin (more on this shortly) or lysergic fantasy — sitting in a faux-gynecological practice listening to the late Tony Stark’s wife preach about jade stones for the vagina (without knowing the difference between vagina and vulva), the net cost of her recommendations insurmountable, Netflix logos pulsing on LCD screens in Paltrow’s office. But it’s not a dream. Recently, Netflix released a six-part docuseries called The Goop Lab in which Paltrow et al. explore various pseudoscientific topics such as psychic mediums, energy healing and psilocybin treatments in Brazil as a substitute for therapy.

The surface-level value of this show is low. Much of what Paltrow’s lackeys learn about is unverifiable. There’s fallacies galore here, perhaps the most overt being an episode about the Wim Hof breathing technique and its asserted ability to influence the autonomic nervous system. The show depends on the correlation-causation fallacy for everything except one episode about sexual education — albeit the most valuable episode whose topic was that women should be sexually informed and empowered. 

When there aren’t logical fallacies used as “undeniable proof of the given phenomenon,” there are unverifiable elements such as energy healing — the belief that the conscious human mind can influence the body at the subatomic level. Not only was this a gross misunderstanding of quantum physics, the entire “field” was debunked on cable years ago. The most infuriating episode was about psychics. I had vitriolic hatred for the unyieldingly-stupid interviewees in this episode, not to mention the various cases of psychics disproven on television. All of this is to say that if the attentive reader wants to experience skin-peeling frustration akin to being blue-balled for twenty years or Tantalus relegated to a murky slough, then go ahead and watch this because your desire will be fulfilled.

The subtext of this show, however, is incredibly profound and frightening. On the surface level, the series provides brief forays into various “alternative health approaches,” though Netflix legitimized a fraudulent, pernicious, unsubstantiated brand in a growingly-ignorant world. Netflix is no stranger to sending sour messages. Their quasi-Hallmark teenage romance movies have dubious messages for impressionable audiences. Netflix has also produced documentaries with obviously unfounded topics such as Area 51. The key difference between The Goop Lab and these shows is the intent. Regarding Netflix’s platitude-laden romcoms, it is the classic argument that the parent is obliged to ensure that their children receive or do not receive values from television, not the studio. Regarding other documentaries, the “truth” they peddle is not inherently harmful. Believing in an Area 51 conspiracy may be delusional, though it won’t inflict physical harm. Conversely, The Goop Lab is meant to expand the company’s reach, to discretely advertise underneath the sleek production of a Netflix original, the glossy pearlescent highlights hiding the fact that the content is illegitimate. Paltrow et al. have essentially done a cosmetic overhaul — as they do with all their merchandising, advertising and aesthetic — to hide the searing blemish that is the brand’s track record. The aforementioned jade vagina stone, which Paltrow has spoken about with late-night hosts, Colbert and Kimmel, has been denounced by physicians because jade is a porous material that can introduce foreign, harmful bacteria into a tightly-knit vaginal microbiome, the naturally-occurring bacteria that colonize the birth canal. Or consider Paltrow’s coffee enema, vaginal steaming and others. With this new show, Netflix has provided free advertising to a company that peddles harmful products and contributes to the growing insurrection of pseudoscience into medicine.

Even the title of the show contains subtext. Notice the word choice of calling it a “lab,” a word occupying a unique place in the English lexicon. It denotes a degree of rigor, a degree of authority. That is, information sounds more official when I say it was produced by a lab. Paltrow et al. were clever to use this subtle technique to help legitimize their bullshit. Moreover, the information presented by the interviewees is ostensibly researched. They name-drop various quasi-scientific terminology that has no substance, my favourite being “quintuple-blind method.” I think this is something inevitable with the advent of the internet, with the mass availability of information. I see a compression of sorts — information at the high end of the spectrum of validity, cogency or value is lowered. Conversely, information at the low end of this spectrum is raised such that from a general public perspective, all information is equal. Academics clearly see a hierarchy of information, though the general public does not, or at least is not as aware of such a gradation. This is problematic, especially considering that personal health is at stake. There is a disclaimer at the beginning of each episode, though it is disingenuous and clearly meant for preventing legal action should someone take their fraudulent message to heart. This is not the first use of media for disseminating pseudoscience. The progenitor of the anti-vaxx movement, Andrew Wakefield, directed a film called Vaxxed which was defended by Robert De Niro in 2016. This was not widely-released like a feature film but consider that Netflix has now entered the fold as a medium for disseminating such information.

The truly pernicious effect of Paltrow’s show is less about her material, but the precedent it sets for future releases. Netflix has a huge distribution and given that they seem to have no concerns with the validity of their content, it is scary to consider a world where anti-vaxx messages are streamed directly into the eyes of the masses underneath Netflix’s high-end production. This is truly a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing situation. Granted that Paltrow does not have to reconcile with the deaths of thousands like the anti-vaxx people, it is clear that neither she nor Netflix’s creative team have considered the potential ramifications of their actions. It would be prudent for either to reflect on this, assuming they have the capability to do so.

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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