Defend Truth


Dr Woo and the Silicon Snake-oil Bangle Sellers

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

No, it isn’t the name of some new post-neo-modern funk-fusion band - though the epidemic of quackery, and its attendant clear-as-mud marketing besieging us on all sides at present could easily be mistaken for something genuinely novel, exciting and worth a listen. Caveat emptor!

There is a pestilence of woo sweeping the land. While some versions of pseudoscience, mysticism and general quackery are fairly constant insults to our sensibilities (Rhoda Byrne, Oprah, homeopathy, and chiropractic treatment are examples), others seem to go in and out of fashion like spinning tops and yo-yo’s.

And while it is not always clear that these fashions cause direct harm to our health, they often cause at least two sorts of indirect harm. The first sort of harm occurs through quackery often taking the place of effective medical interventions, and thereby allowing people to suffer needlessly. Sometimes, people even die, as was the case with nine-month-old Gloria Sam, an Australian infant whose (treatable) eczema became chronic – and through infection, deadly – after her homeopath father chose to “treat” her with water instead of medicine.

The second sort of harm is to our wallets, in that mystical interventions always come at a price. Sometimes, you might consider the investment a sensible one – the 10% you might tithe to your church does at least support various forms of communal activity, regardless of whether or not it simultaneously supports some version of mass delusion.

It’s also perhaps true that the gullible don’t always deserve protection from their poor judgement – if it comforts you to build an airport for aliens, as the town council of Arès in France did in 1976, the ensuing merriment could well be worth the cost, assuming the money should not instead have been spent on basic sanitation or some such. In this case, the tourism income resulting from this novelty suggests that more towns should consider a similar strategy.

But not everybody has money to waste on such follies. For every person with more money than sense, there will be plenty who might instead believe that some mass-marketed trinket can bring them increased health, wealth or happiness, and who then proceed to allocate resources they cannot afford to purchasing those trinkets.

Instead of choosing to take (expensive) medication, those suffering from bursitis or arthritis could choose to buy a PowerBalance bracelet at the relatively cheap price of roughly R500 – a once-off expense instead of a lifetime of medication. Well, perhaps once-off: If you join the Pretoria-based Quantum Leap bracelet cult instead (Os du Randt has, you know – if it’s “quantum”, it must be good), your bracelet might need a recharge “for more intensity”.

The claims made on behalf of these magical bracelets are obviously absurd, and it is frustrating to note that even the most blatant contradictions contained in the marketing of them has little effect on consumer behaviour. Quantum Leap, for example, has a blog post defending “so-called ‘balance bracelets’”, which liberally quotes from a selection of sceptical literature on CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) before saying that they “don’t claim that it will ‘heal’ anybody, but that one might get relief from aches and pains”.

They conclude the post with this: “If it is placebo effect, seems to work, helps you drink less painkillers and has no harmful side effects… What harm does it do? [sic]”. However, it is clear that Quantum Leap and ProBalance (to mention just two peddlers of this form of woo) do not believe that it’s only a placebo effect at work. Placebo effects could be sold without recharges, and without talk of “biofeedback technology” or (in the case of PowerBalance) holograms that are imprinted with frequencies that “resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”.

Instead, they are simply trying to cover their legal bases while making vague concessions to the fact that they know they are simply selling a more modern form of snake oil – this time in colourful silicone form. Given the short memories people seem to have of these sorts of exploitation, this strategy should work for long enough to make a fair amount of money.

They surely know, for example, that the manufacturers of the Q-Ray bracelet in the US lost a class-action suit in 2006, and that the judge forced them to pay back $22.5 million of their “ill-gotten gains”. And that PowerBalance in Australia were required to publish “corrective advertising” and refund all customers who asked for their money back.

But our memories are short indeed, and we also often fail to do our homework when something new and apparently wonderful comes along. We forget, or never learnt, that the demonstration a PowerBalance salesperson will perform for a prospective buyer is a simple variant of what is known as “applied kinesiology”, frequently used by stage magicians to produce entirely subjective perceptions of increased strength and balance.

We allow ourselves to forget, in the hope of some magic bullet for health and happiness, that we have no evidence for the existence of an “energy field” in humans that can be affected by negative ions or biofeedback. We don’t know that holograms can be “imprinted” with frequencies, how this could be done, or on what principles the manufacturers choose the frequencies or amount of mysticism to cram into their bracelets.

Take a look at the “research” described on the web pages of the manufacturers of these products. None of them conform to the commonly understood standard for scientific research, namely the double-blind experimental trial. Instead, they consist of strings of meaningless technobabble and woo-words like “quantum”, along with user testimonials. But user testimonials are no more than anecdotes, and no matter how many anecdotes you might accumulate, they can only add up to anecdata.

And the increased wealth of these snake-oil peddlers comes at a broader cost than simply offering false hope to a few, and the waste of money that buying these bracelets entails. They contribute to us not doing our homework, and becoming more gullible and more ignorant. They tap into the absurd deference we afford to celebrities and their product endorsements, regardless of the fact that many of these celebrities have no relevant expertise (and that they often seem no more successful for wearing magic bracelets).

The climate of unreason is a dangerous thing in itself, regardless of the triviality of any particular instance of unreason. PowerBalance, T4ProBalance, Quantum Leap and all the other variants of these pyritic placebos can assist in raising our tolerance for quackery in general, and quackery comes in forms far more dangerous than a hologram. It was quack science that led to years of HIV/Aids denialism, and quack science that supported, and supports, various flavours of racist identity politics.

It would be foolish to make any claims for a causal link between our tolerating relatively benign forms of pseudoscience, and the more dangerous ones described above. But it is in environments where we refrain from being critical of nonsense that people develop their crazy ideas, and it’s therefore not implausible to suggest that we should take care to foster a more critical environment, even in cases like these.

So for all the value they provide as useful idiot-detectors, those of us who scoff at the gullibility of PowerBalance wearers should perhaps consider going further than mere ridicule – there’s a war on woo going on and while we sneer, the woo-mongers stealthily encircle us with their silicon bracelets. DM


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