Selling Pseudoscience: it’s not that Hard

Pseudoscience, you’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t you should know that it is defined as “a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method.”

It is essentially bullshit that some people try to pass off as “science” and “fact.” Reikiclimate change deniers, and Flat Earthers are just a few examples of pseudoscience that are far more popular than you would hope.


Pseudoscience seems to be gaining popularity. Why? Well, apart from some great propaganda and a great lack of critical thinking, the main culprits are a distrust in the traditional medical system and ingrained ideas of the “perfect” body image.

Research has found that simply being a woman is a risk factor for “body image distress,” and cultural appearance standards impact a woman’s body image dissatisfaction. To try and change this dissatisfaction, women try to change their bodies.

Other research found women are more inclined to view their possessions on a symbolic level and spend money in reaction to envy, prestige and in the pursuit of pleasure. Women are likely to be envious of other women’s possessions and spend money to make them seem prestigious.

So, how does this fit in with pseudoscience? Well, as pseudoscience is often sold as luxurious “wellness” products, women may be persuaded to purchase to gain symbolic prestige and as a means to improve their body satisfaction.

I can tell you’d like another reason for choosing pseudoscientific wellness products over traditional medicine.

Well, doctors aren’t always warm and comforting and the traditional medical establishment doesn’t necessarily have a great track record when it comes to women’s health (see: “The Husband Stitch”, the lack of medical research for women, and misdiagnosed women’s health issues). If you had the choice between a (possibly) unattentive doctor who doesn’t actually listen to you, or an inviting and inclusive wellness alternative, which one would you pick?

So, it is easy to see why people, especially women, can fall prey to the marvels of pseudoscience and we haven’t even considered propaganda tactics used to sell the pseudoscientific products.

Propaganda has no basis in fact and is a tool designed to bring as much attention as possible to a product or idea.

My favourite example of pseudoscience and excellent propaganda is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. (Remember Pepper Potts from Ironman? Yeah, her.)

Paltrow has a lifestyle brand called Goop which peddles expensive products aimed at women

“with pillars in wellness, travel, food, beauty, style and work.”

Goop has been widely criticised for its pseudoscientific products such as the jade vaginal eggs which aim to increase “feminine energy”, crystal-infused water which infuses your water with “positive energy”, and the salt lamp which releases “negative ions” into the air to dilute odours.

None of these supposed benefits are scientifically backed and have proof that they are effective. Yet people still buy their $80 water bottles.


The power of propaganda!


Anthony Pratkanis, an academic in the field of social psychology, has outlined 9 tactics that people use to promote their pseudoscience, and more importantly, tactics to encourage you to buy into their bullshit. Here are the top 5 on the list.


1. Create a Phantom

A phantom is an unattainable goal – something that seems like it could be achievable with effort, money, or work, but really isn’t.

In Goop’s case, this is the elusive “positive energy” or “feminine energy.”


2. Set a rationalisation trap

Quite simply, this is the act of getting someone to commit to the brand or product. The more committed you are to the product, the less likely you are to question it. Sunk Cost Fallacy says people will dedicate more time, money and belief to a product if they have already invested in it.

The more you commit, the more you believe you have to lose.

For example, you buy Goop’s $90 vitamins for one month. They don’t seem to do a whole lot, but you buy another month’s supply. Why? Because if you don’t keep going you will have wasted the $90 you’ve already spent.


3. Manufacture credibility

This one is simple. Get a leader whom people admire and trust. If you trust the leader, then by association, the products and services are also credible.

Gwyneth does this so charismatically in public appearances such as on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Despite being a celebrity and privileged millionaire, Gwyneth Paltrow does a fantastic job of appearing down-to-earth and approachable. She is able to make fun of herself and her brand while also promoting it successfully. The power of propaganda!


4. Use vivid imagery

Vivid imagery is memorable. Very memorable. I bet you can’t get this out of your head…


5. Use Pre-Persuasion

This means changing the game in your favour. Changing the framing of the pseudoscience automatically puts you in the driver’s seat where you have better control over the outcome.

All of Goop’s Wellness products are advertised as just that – wellness products. These are not health products (so they don’t need any medical backing) but rather products to make you feel good. It’s the Placebo Effect – if you believe the product is working, it “will work” (but not because of any ingredient in the product). And, of course, if it “works,” you will buy more and more until Gwyneth is literally swimming in money.


It’s a dangerous equation:

body dissatisfaction + distrust in medicine + propaganda = legitimising pseudoscience.

Not even Goop’s award for being the best at promoting pseudoscientific nonsense will stop their believers from purchasing their products.

So, the best way to fight pseudoscience? Our doctors could be more welcoming and understanding, academics could communicate more effectively, and society can keep calling out pseudoscientific bullshit.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>