When Woo meets Goo(p)

Last week, an e-mail arrived out of the blue from a BBC reporter asking for my thoughts on The Goop Lab. I’d been conscious of the kerfuffle surrounding Gwyneth Paltrow’s Netflix series — whatever one might think of Paltrow’s “woo age” guff, she has an exceptional talent for marketing and promotion — but hadn’t, at that point, experienced any of it. So Brady and I decided to sit down and watch — sorry, stand up and watch — Episode #5, “The Energy Experience“, together (in one of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group‘s research labs where we routinely measure energy fields and force fields.) Here’s the result:

The “energy healing” aspect of woo that we dissect in the video is nothing new. It’s a cornerstone of Deepak Chopra‘s quantum shtick, for one thing. And the “interconnectedness of all things” trope, with its deep connections to Eastern mysticism, has been with us since the publication of Fritjof Capra’s “Tao of Physics” twaddle [1] back in the seventies (and long before.) So, in this sense, The Goop Lab episode is old news — it just trots out the same old “Wow. Quantum!” pseudoscience and psychobabble. (I’m willing to bet a significant amount of money — in this universe or any other — that Chopra will not be at all happy about John Amaral, who features heavily in “The Energy Experience”, stealing his quantum healing thunder. That’s a lucrative business.)

But it’s just too easy to hop up on the physicist’s high horse and lazily berate Paltrow, Amaral, and all of their followers as being dumb, deluded, and/or duped. I am at pains in that Sixty Symbols video above to argue that we physicists need to take quite some of the blame for the rise of quantum woo. I’ve written about this previously, and at length, in a post entitled When Scientists Help to Sell Pseudoscience: The Many Worlds of Woo, so I’m not about to rehearse and rehash those arguments again. Everything that I discuss in that post (in relation to The Secret) is just as relevant to Paltrow’s Goop-y woo.

I’ve done maybe ten Skeptics In The Pub events now on the subject of that post (and related topics), including this recent presentation for Maidstone Skeptics. I routinely include this video, from an Horizon episode broadcast back in 2015, as an example of the hubris of some physicists with regard to theoretical hypotheses that have, as yet, zero supporting empirical evidence [2]…

(By the way, if that voice-over sounds vaguely familiar, you may be thinking of this.)

This is also true of the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics; there’s zero empirical evidence to prefer this interpretation over any other, and yet to listen to some physicists you’d assume that MWI  had been empirically verified beyond a shadow of a doubt. This lack of interconnectedness — this disconnect — between experiment and theory is exceptionally disconcerting and needs to be nipped in the bud. (For balanced, engaging, and informative overviews of the “state of the nation” with regard to the interpretations of quantum physics I thoroughly recommend Philip Ball’s “Beyond Weird“, Adam Becker’s “What Is Real“, and, for a slightly more technical read, Jean Bricmont’s “Quantum Sense and Nonsense“, which I reviewed for Physics World here.)

Some argue, however, that even by engaging with, and debunking, the claims of Goop, we’re contributing to the problem:

I can understand this argument but disagree entirely, for the reasons laid out by Timothy Caulfield, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? in a New Scientist article published last year:

What can the scientific community do to win back the public’s trust?

I think we have to engage with the public. When we hear somebody using scientific language inaccurately, we should speak up, in the news and on social media. There is a growing recognition by funding agencies and by universities that public engagement is important, and if that is the case then they need to give greater resources to the scientists who are doing it well.

Is the message getting through?

It is tough, because scientists are trained to be careful. You hear naturopaths talking constantly about quantum physics in the most inaccurate way, but you can imagine a scientist saying: “I don’t know if quantum physics applies to naturopathy in this context because I haven’t seen the data.” That is one of the reasons the battle is tough. People who push bunk speak with certainty.

We scientists, however, too often think that all that matters are the facts, the data, and the evidence. This is naive in the extreme — we need to be much more cognisant of the importance of just how we present our scientific arguments; Paltrow et al.‘s understanding of the value of PR and marketing far outstrips that of the average scientist. The medium so often outweighs the message.

For one thing, belittling others and telling them repeatedly that they’re stupid is not a particularly compelling strategy when it comes to changing minds. And we need to change minds — pseudoscience and misinformation are doing serious damage to society. John Amaral’s deeply disturbing — many would say criminal — hubris in claiming that his “energy healing” nonsense can cure cancer is just the most recent example of where woo has the potential to kill.


[1] The Wiki article on “The Tao of Physics” includes this pitch perfect analysis from Jeremy Bernstein,

“At the heart of the matter is Mr. Capra’s methodology – his use of what seem to me to be accidental similarities of language as if these were somehow evidence of deeply rooted connections. Thus I agree with Capra when he writes, “Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science but man needs both.” What no one needs, in my opinion, is this superficial and profoundly misleading book.”

Exactly the same confusion between scientific and everyday usage of the same terms is seen throughout Episode #5 of “The Goop Lab”. In particular, “emotional energy” is used interchangeably with the idea of an energy field. Quantum woo and pseudoscience thrive on this type of misappropriation of scientific language.

[2] In any case, Douglas Adams provided as good a description of the multiverse as any, decades before that Horizon episode…

“Very few things actually get manufactured these days, because in an infinitely large Universe such as, for instance, the one in which we live, most things one could possibly imagine and a lot of things one would rather not, grow somewhere. (A forest was discovered recently in which most of the trees grew ratchet screwdrivers as fruit…)”

 

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

2 thoughts on “When Woo meets Goo(p)”

  1. Great read here, and I agree. It’s very difficult as scientists to do battle with people who only care for marketing or making money. Whenever I see people promoting pseudoscience as proper medical technique, or something along those lines, I always get the feeling that they themselves not even believe in the things they’re trying to sell.
    Maybe there should be some kind of ethical committee that can act against this misinformation of the public, as it can be very harmful if people choose some energy healing nonsense over an actual doctor.

    That’s just my 2 cents. Looking forward to more interesting posts on here!

    Like

  2. Hi
    This is a great post! I haven’t viewed your video yet as I am at a conference and other stuff is happening. But will do that this afternoon sometime!
    Brigitte

    Like

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