The retraction paradox: Once you retract, you implicitly have to defend all the many things you haven’t yet retracted

January 12, 2018
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(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Mark Palko points to this news article by Beth Skwarecki on Goop, “the Gwyneth Paltrow pseudoscience empire.” Here’s Skwarecki:

When Goop publishes something weird or, worse, harmful, I often find myself wondering what are they thinking? Recently, on Jimmy Kimmel, Gwyneth laughed at some of the newsletter’s weirder recommendations and said “I don’t know what the fuck we talk about.” . . .

I [Skwarecki] . . . end up speaking with editorial director Nandita Khanna. “You publish a lot of things that are outside of the mainstream. What are your criteria for determining that something is safe and ethical to recommend?”

Khanna starts by pointing out that they include a disclaimer at the bottom of health articles. This is true. It reads:

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

. . . I ask: “What responsibility do you believe you have to your readers?” Here at Lifehacker, I recently killed a post I was excited about—a trick for stopping kids from unbuckling and escaping from their car seat—after a car seat expert nixed it. I feel like if I’m providing information people might act on, I have a responsibility to make sure that information is reasonably accurate and that people won’t hurt themselves (or their children) if they take me at my word.

Goop’s editors don’t see it that way. “Our responsibility is to ask questions, to start the conversation,” Khanna says.

OK, so far, not so bad. Goop’s basically an entertainment site. It’s goal is to be thought-provoking. They’re not heavy on the quality control, but they make this clear, and readers can take Goop’s articles with that in mind.

From this perspective, to criticize Goop for peddling pseudoscience would like criticizing David Sedaris for embellishing his Santaland story. It’s beside the point. We can’t get mad at Goop like we can get mad at, say, Dr. Oz, who’s using his medical degree and Columbia University affiliation to push questionable products.

But then Skwarecki continues:

I turn the conversation to Goop’s infamous jade eggs. They are for sale that day in the pharmacy shop, and I got to hold one in my hand. It was smaller than I expected, not the size of a chicken egg but more like a grape tomato. Both the jade and rose quartz eggs have a hole drilled through the smaller end, and at first I imagined a Goop acolyte taking the egg out of her vagina, rinsing it off, and hanging it around her neck. I learned later that the hole is the answer to the question in the jar: you can attach dental floss to give it a removal string, like a tampon.

The idea of the jade egg, or its prettier rose quartz companion, is to “cultivate sexual energy, increase orgasm, balance the cycle, stimulate key reflexology around vaginal walls.” The grain of truth here is that using a small weight for vaginal exercises can help strengthen the muscles in that area. You can do this without a weight, too.

But Jen Gunter, a practicing gynecologist who is one of Gwyneth’s most vocal critics, has explained that jade eggs are a terrible idea. Stones can be porous enough to grow bacteria, and she says the instructions for using the egg are incorrect and could harm people. For example, a Goop article suggests walking around with the egg inside of you. Gunter counters that overworking your vaginal muscles this way can result in pelvic pain.

The Goop editors remember the jade egg backlash, and they are unfazed. “Did you read the letter from Layla?” Khanna asks. Layla Martin, who sells jade eggs and a seven-week course on how to use them, wrote a 2,000-word “letter to the editors” defending the eggs. Goop published it in their newsletter, and underneath it, their disclaimer, and underneath that, a link to their shop.

Whoa! That doesn’t sound like healthy living.

The punch line:

Khanna says they “never considered backing down.” She points out, as if it were a defense, that the eggs were very popular and sold out right away. I ask her: Has there ever been a health article in Goop that you thought afterward, maybe we shouldn’t have run that?

No, she says, never.

Interesting story. It reminds me of Freakonomics. I always wondered why they never retracted some of their more embarrassing mistakes, such as their endorsement of Satoshi Kanazawa’s silly claims about beauty and sex ratio, or their breathless coverage of Daryl Bem’s ESP paper, or their book chapter on climate change. Why not retract the errors that experts point out to you? My best guess was that they didn’t want to start retracting even their biggest goof-ups, because once you start retracting, you’re implicitly endorsing all the things you didn’t retract. Paradoxically, if you don’t really believe the things you’re writing, you might be better off not retracting anything.

the Freakonomics team and the Goop team are in the same place, which is that they believe they are fundamentally doing good by spreading the principles (healthy living for Goop, economics for Freakonomics) and that the details don’t really matter. They know they’re the good guys and they don’t want to hear otherwise.

P.S. Skwarecki’s article is on Lifehacker, a site formerly connected with Gawker. Now that they’re being mean to a business venture, I wonder if Peter Thiel will try to sue them to death. I hope not.

P.P.S. The comment thread on Palko’s post continues in some interesting directions, including a discussion of some subset of eminent journalists and scientists who seem to care more about the well-being of their professional colleagues than anything else.

The post The retraction paradox: Once you retract, you implicitly have to defend all the many things you haven’t yet retracted appeared first on Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.



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