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ScienceFebruary 1, 2017

Don’t put Gwyneth’s balls in your vagina: How to avoid celebrity quackery and pseudoscience


Looking to ‘cleanse’ your body, balance your hormones and improve your sex life? Gwyneth Paltrow has just the thing for you: jade ‘eggs’ for your hoo-ha, available for the low, low price of NZ$90 through her website Goop. The eggs are just the latest in a long tradition of celebrity quackery, says scientist Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw, who shares some tips for avoiding being taken for a ride.

Celebrity opinion has a powerful pull. Politics, climate change, gender equality and health are all within their scope of influence. Using power and influence to highlight social injustice and the various self inflicted threats to human existence seems a reasonable thing to do. But using it to sell bullshit health interventions? Not so much. There are a surprising number of people who listen to celebrity opinion on health. Did I say opinion? I actually meant to say quackery. Here are a few tips to help you hone your bullshit detector.

Beware the use of euphemistic terms for vaginas (and other body parts)


Recently my attention was drawn to Goop (seriously, Goop?), a website and ‘lifestyle brand’ owned by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. It was there that Jen Gunter, a gynecologist, first discovered the dubious claims being made about the benefits of ‘jade eggs’ for women’s sexual and reproductive health. The jade eggs were discussed on a section of Goop  devoted women’s ‘Yonis’. I had no idea what a yoni even was. Of course me not knowing it could mean I am missing important cultural knowledge and need to educate myself. However, given Goop is a website by a white woman for an overwhelmingly white audience, I had a small suspicion it was the usual bullshit cultural appropriation often found on white lifestyle blogs. So I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, which told me it was “a Hindi term for vulva, and is mainly symbolic”. So then I asked some people who actually speak Hindi: does anyone use this term to refer to any part of the female reproductive tract? They confirmed my suspicions:

“Yeah, that’s not even a real word in Hindi”

So the big pseudoscience alarm bell is clanging: the use of euphemistic/made up/culturally appropriated terms to refer to the female sexual and reproductive organs (or in fact any body part) instead of what real scientists and health practitioners use – their actual names.

A quick side note here: it would be great if doctors stopped referring to the lower bowel and anus as the “back passage”. It makes me think of whispering servants creeping down the gloomy back stairs of Victorian mansions and it is just bloody confusing in a discussion about childbirth.

So anyway, trustworthy sources of information about health and wellbeing will not refer to jujus, muffs, front bums, diddles… well, you get the idea. 

The second dead giveaway that BS is being shovelled is the life-changing amazingness of the product being sold to you.

Does it seriously fix everything, even things you did not know you had?

Goop makes the following claims about the miracle that are jade eggs:

“Jade eggs can help cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls, tighten and tone, prevent uterine prolapse, increase control of the whole perineum and bladder, develop and clear chi pathways in the body, intensify feminine energy, and invigorate our life force. To name a few!

“The jade creates kidney strength—it’s known as jing in Chinese energy, and it’s all about sexual potency, and even beauty—if your hormones are balanced, your skin will look better. It’s a holistic combination of things, where one benefit builds to another. Jade also takes away negativity and cleanses—it’s a very heavy material, very powerful.”

Quackery alarm bells are always set off when someone claims that their particular brand of potent medicine can do everything from cure cancer to fold a fitted sheet. Yep the old “this herb/ball/expensive treatment is a miracle cure’’ is usually an indication it does sweet Fanny Adams (and in this particular case it really does nothing for your fanny either).

Because the claimants are not overly burdened by the need to prove any of their health claims, what the hell, they may as well claim it can do anything you desire. Seriously – “taking away negativity”? Seriously?

I have written in long (but really quite fascinating) detail about what the scientific standard actually requires for someone to be  able to claim an intervention works. Lets just say the jade balls don’t meet it (understatement of the century). And here I get to quackery signal number three.

No side effects or risks mentioned? Be afraid

There is a massive lack of understanding of the potential risks and side effects of supposed ‘harmless’ alternative therapies. As the Jen Gunter notes, any items you put up your vagina can introduce harmful bacteria and can lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome. So you know, don’t shove any old thing Gwyneth tells you to up there. It is just a really bad idea.

There are incredibly serious problems with assuming that alternative therapies are harmless when no one has actually studied them. There are loads of sad and distressing cases that go to the Health and Disability Commissioner each year because people have either forgone treatments that do work, or have experienced pretty ghastly side effects from treatments that have not been independently studied. Never assume an alternative treatment is harmless. They can do serious damage.

That said, there is plenty of good science being done on alternative and complementary therapies to give you confidence in the ones that do work. This is covered in point 7 of the aforementioned fascinating piece revealing the secrets and joys of good science.

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So who can you trust?

Trust is a big issue in relaying factual information and it’s a huge issue when you are desperate for a health fix. We are psychologically primed to believe those we find attractive and successful, or who we aspire to be, and those we recognise. Advertisers have of course known this for years as celebrities have endorsed any number of crackpot health remedies, from magnetic sheets to cigarettes for well being. One particular problematic celebrity position is the anti-vaccination one. Thanks in large part to a few celebrities using their platform to fan the flames of antiscience, the myths about vaccines endure. Let us be clear, vaccines are critical not just for your child’s health but also to protect more vulnerable children through herd immunity (when most of the population is vaccinated it keeps a disease from breaking out ‘in the herd’,  and therefore protects children with weakened immune systems, like those who have cancer, from getting seriously ill).

The MMR vaccine for instance does a great job at preventing measles-related deaths, which can occur when brain swelling develops. Any side effects of the vaccine are relatively minor. Autism is a disorder of the developing brain and research shows genetic factors play a role in its development. Conditions affecting the brain – for example the type of brain swelling that measles may cause – may also have a role to play. In case you missed that massive irony: a vaccine that may actually help reduce the risk of autism is being touted by non scientists and celebrities as causing it. Huh. If you are still concerned about the MMR conspiracy you can read all about how vaccines apparently cause autism here.

Generally speaking, taking health and science advice from those with the scientific knowledge of Beaker from The Muppet Show is not a winning strategy in the advancement of the human race.

However, there is a chance that well known people may know about evidence (anyone can learn this stuff – science and research is a broad church that welcomes all newcomers), so how can you check up on what celebrities are claiming?

Luckily we in the health sciences are better at this communicating with the public thing, so there are quite a few reliable sources out there on the internet.

Ta Da! Your guide to trustworthy sources of health evidence

First arm yourself with a basic understanding of good science so you know what is missing in these discussions (see previous oh-so-subtle links to my resource piece on good science. Here’s the link again!).

After that I suggest you use the following highly trustworthy sources of evidence-based information. I won’t give you my long list as that would be boring and like sex after having children, it is all about quality not quantity.

The Cochrane Library. New Zealanders have free access to this organisation and their resources. The Cochrane is basically a really awesome collaboration of scientists, researchers, medical doctors, dentists, patients, and people interested in health, who follow a really rigorous protocol to research what works. They have no commercial sponsorship and many of those who write these reviews are at the top of their field. It is like getting health advice for free from the best doctor/midwife/scientists in the world.

NHS Choices.While this is a UK based website, the evidence that it draws upon is applicable to New Zealand too. It is trustworthy and reliable, with some good easy to read guides especially for parents.

NICE. The National Institute of Clinical Excellence is another fantastic UK-based source of information. It undertakes the gold standard in health and wellbeing evidence reviews and is especially useful if you are interested in a particular health issue and you need to go deep into what works. They have both professional and patient guides free to access.

Kellymom. Specifically for parents, with a focus on pregnancy and breastfeeding, this is a US site that is firmly evidence based and the content is very easy to read and understand.

If you have any concerns or questions about treatments you are being offered and you can’t find information in the sources above, the Choose Wisely campaign has resources that patients and clinicians can use to figure out if a treatment or test is really necessary. They suggest four questions you can ask that can help you figure out if  the tests, treatments, and procedures you are being offered provide any benefit or cause harm.

  1. Do I really need this test or procedure?
  2. What are the risks?
  3. Are there simpler, safer options?
  4. What happens if I don’t do anything?

I think adding these three other questions is helpful

  1. Is this treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) – and, if not, why not? New Zealanders have access to these recommendations and in the main they apply to our population and health system, though a treatment recommended in the UK may not be funded here.
  2. Has this treatment been subjected to randomised controlled clinical trials that show it is effective and is there a Cochrane review available? (also available to NZers)
  3. What are the costs? Costs can be financial, emotional or a cost of your time. Where there is a cost to the community, is the cost reasonable? Is there a cheaper alternative?

Choose Wisely has a list of tests and treatments that are not recommended. Unfortunately tests and treatments for infertility, pregnancy and childbirth are not covered. This is a shame as for many people fertility treatment or pregnancy and birth will be the first time they are faced with a lot of big health decisions to make (often during an intensely stressful time) and they need to know what is necessary, what the risks and benefits are, and what actually works. Instead of being told by the doctor: “This is something we have always done, or sounded promising at a conference I went to.”

Asking questions is your right

If you start asking questions about the evidence for a test or an intervention and a health professional gets agitated then you should be concerned, as this means they have not got with the programme (the one that says science empowers us all). Be suspicious and get a new one if you feel uncomfortable with their response.

And one final note on the jade eggs quackery, which I cannot claim to have come up with myself, but nicely sums it up:

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck… and this one quacks like a duck with a very large jade egg to lay.

Dr Jess works at the Morgan Foundation public policy think tank. She agitates on evidence and good social policy and believes in the power of honest storytelling. See her full bio and work here.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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