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Pseudoscience Sells

It is an unfortunate truth that there is money in pseudoscience, particularly medical pseudoscience. Money both attracts charlatans and also funds their activities, which includes marketing pseudoscience and defending their claims from scientific scrutiny. In this way the game is rigged in favor of pseudoscience.

With0ut effective regulation, sites like ours are forced to play whack-a-mole with the medical pseudoscience du jour. The latest case in point is Titanium Ion Bands – which are just another version of the Power Balance bands that have been previously exposed as nonsense. The idea is that by wearing a small bracelet on one wrist you will experience improved athletic performance. This sounds impossible – because it is. But companies have successfully bamboozled enough of the public to rake in millions.

The marketing strategy is three-fold. First, get naive professional athletes to endorse the product. Second, give live demonstrations (deceptive parlor tricks) that convince the unsuspecting that something must be going on. And third, wow the scientifically illiterate with a confusing barrage of medical techno-babble. The combination is sadly effective.

Power Balance, for example, makes vague references to frequencies and energy as the explanation for how a little piece of rubber (with embedded holograms) can have any effect on human physiology. The company was eventually legally forced to admit: “”We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims.” The admission has not ended their sale, however.

Next up is the Titanium Ion Bands. Their claims are essentially the same – wear a little bracelet on your wrist and you will have improved performance. Instead of holograms and frequencies, their bands are alleged to work through negative ions. This is just another recycled pseudoscientific claim that has been around for years. Just search on “negative ions” and you will see a variety of products claiming to improve health with negative ions.

The bracelet claim is nonsense for two independent reasons. The first is that a piece of anything does not generate negative or positive ions. You cannot change the net electrical charge spontaneously – you need a source of energy. The only devices that actually generate negative ions are powered in some way, such as a machine that you plug into an outlet. A chemical reaction, such as occurs in a battery, is also a possible source – but not tourmaline and titanium discs, as the company claims.

Even if the bracelets did give off negative ions, there is no evidence of any healthy benefit from this. You might build up a static charge and get shocked when you grab the doorknob, but there is no evidence or reason to suspect that negative ions will increase blood flow, as the company claims. “Increasing blood flow” seems to be the go-to explanation for a wide variety of dubious health products, especially for those that involve magnets or any kind of electrical force. Such claims, however, are evidence-free.

The company touts “reports” of their own “inspections” using fancy technology like thermography to demonstrate their claimed effects. It’s all very sciencey, while being scientifically worthless. None of the proper controls are in place to make the information anything other than a marketing demonstration, similar to the parlor tricks used by Power Balance.

On the company website there are links to celebrity endorsements and testimonials – but no links to published peer-reviewed quality research backing up any component of their claims.

Conclusion

There is every reason to believe that these titanium bands are medically worthless. However current regulations allow the company to market them with deceptive health claims without the burden to provide reliable scientific evidence to back up their claims. The endless chain of such products will continue as long as the lax regulations allow them to.

At present the best we can do is to continue to educate the public about the underlying science and to be skeptical of all such products. Further, we can pressure pharmacies and other outlets not to sell pseudoscientific products. Further, there are mechanisms to force companies to retract deceptive or unsupported claims for their products. It is a game of whack-a-mole, but it’s better than nothing.

http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/40916841/ns/sports-other_sports/

Posted in: Energy Medicine, Herbs & Supplements

Leave a Comment (28) ↓

28 thoughts on “Pseudoscience Sells

  1. windriven says:

    Guaranteed to improve the health of the seller’s bottom line :-)

  2. Purenoiz says:

    These products are aimed and marketed at athletes, probably the most superstitious group of people on the planet. If not shaving during the playoffs brings good luck why wouldn’t an ion improve performance? This is the logic that allows these products to be marketed to naive athletes, people who have a very short window of opportunity to prove their prowess. Look at the rampant use of Performance Enhancing Drugs, or PED’s as we call them, and you will see why some people will swear by a useless armband that only benefits the manufacturer and the whole supply chain. Are you against supply side economics?

  3. cervantes says:

    I’ve said this before about other scams and I have yet to get a cogent answer. Why isn’t there a criminal case for fraud here? A motivated prosecutor could find somebody who bought this thing on the basis of the false claims and presto, you’ve got a victim who has been relieved of money under false pretenses. That is against the law. Am I missing something here?

  4. windriven says:

    Further to cervantes argument there is a whole tribe of plaintiffs’ attorneys who specialize in separating companies from their money. I suppose that their problem is the absence of grieving widows with whom to tug at the jurors’ heart strings; losing $25 or whatever in a paroxysm of stupidity is not usually fatal or disfiguring. Nor is it profitable for lawyers working on contingency.

    But the point is well taken that hucksters will huck as long as it is profitable.

    Absent the efforts of prosecutors or plaintiffs’ attorneys I think I will develop water imbued with the life force of the ancient Incas – guaranteed to prime your immune system, sharpen your athletic prowess and increase both the length and girth of your penis (admittedly not such a draw for female consumers). Step right up…

  5. tmac57 says:

    Clearly, the powerful effect of these devices is to cause a diversion of blood flow from the brain to other parts of the body,combined with an even more potent monetary energy transference,which de-enriches the user.

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:

    tmac57on 14 Sep 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Clearly, the powerful effect of these devices is to cause a diversion of blood flow from the brain to other parts of the body,combined with an even more potent monetary energy transference,which de-enriches the user.

    Wow, all that technology for only 5 bucks?

    http://i55.tinypic.com/2cy5gtk.jpg

    Thanks, Walgreens!

  7. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Another marketing technique is the old don’t-be-fooled-by-imitators:

    http://www.powerbalance.com/report-a-fake

    Be sure you are buying a real fake magic bracelet, not a fake fake magic bracelet. And if you see any of those fake criminals, turn em in!

    Steven Novella said
    Second, give live demonstrations (deceptive parlor tricks) that convince the unsuspecting that something must be going on.

    This is an interesting part of the plot. Witnessing the gag is probably a powerful influence on some suckers, but it might be enough to merely announce that a demonstration will be done, or has been done. Unless people specifically hear that the demonstration was a complete failure, the idea will stick in their heads and, when they are in a store which presents the product, they will think “I’ve heard about these”.

  8. windriven says:

    http://www.powerbalance.com/report-a-fake

    Hmmm, the smart thing would be to avoid the Power Balance ™ trade mark and advertise the HyperErg Toroid ™ GUARANTEED to deliver the same performance as Power Balance ™ but with styling you can wear anywhere.

  9. CC says:

    People in general are superstitious about things they don’t fully understand – I’ve seen it in chemical plants too. Changed something and had a bad day, be it performance in an event or a plant upset, and that gets latched on to as the cause of the bad day, even if there’s no possible way it could have made a difference. This goes double for things they think they understand based on their experience – athletes and performance, operators and chemical plants.

    Nutrition science and performance science keeps changing as we learn more, and athletes rarely are scientists in those fields. I see things in this month’s running magazine that repeats old beliefs, and which goes against a scientific paper I saw a year ago advancing the science: nutrition, superfoods, form, injury prevention, you name it.

    Operators in a chemical plant rarely are chemists; they know the operational aspects very well, but when something strange happens to the plant they often don’t have the background to understand the cause. Instead, they have superstition. I have personally seen “If I have x for breakfast, the plant is in an upset when I get on shift” grow as a superstition. Stuff like that.

  10. Sabio Lantz says:

    Thanx for the education. Heck, no sooner do we do some research to show one scam doesn’t work, another pops up.

    Has anyone done a study of the type of radio shows that these things are marketed on? I find a lot of conservative talk shows have this stuff during their evening and weekend hours. I wonder why.

  11. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    There is of course the problem that there is a conservation law that says the amount of electrical charge cannot change. So if you produce electrically charged negative ions, you put electrons into neutral atoms or molecules. These electrons must come from somewhere, so somewhere else there is a build-up of positive charge. The energy required is the energy to pull away those negative and positive charges from each other. In a battery it is clear: one side is negatively “charged” and the other side is positively charged. Chemical reactions inside the battery preserve a differenmce in potential between the two poles.

    But if anything produces negative ions, where do the electrons come from? What is positively charged? If negative ions are ‘good’, what about the equal amounts of positive ions that are produced at the same time? What prevents the negatively charged particles to reunite with their positive counterparts? And how do the supposedly negative ions work on the human body? They are ions of what exactly? Air molecules? And are they inhaled or do they just go through the skin? Oh yes, I see: the skin breathes, that is a well known fact in the woowoo world. But a negative ion in close contact with other matter will give off their electrons, so the net result is that the body (which is a good conductor) is negatively charged (and again: where is the positive charge going? Positive ions that enter the body just vas easily?)

    The problem is of course that most people have no idea what ions are. Ions are a high falutin’ concept that only sciency nerds and boring boffins understand.

  12. art malernee dvm says:

    I’ve said this before about other scams and I have yet to get a cogent answer. Why isn’t there a criminal case for fraud here? A motivated prosecutor could find somebody who bought this thing on the basis of the false claims and presto, you’ve got a victim who has been relieved of money under false pretenses. That is against the law. Am I missing something here?>>>>>>

    Scientific facts are not as persuasive in the legal and political arenas as we might hope.The FDA guidelines for marketing is most interesting for the inclusion of a definition of Health Fraud:

    “The deceptive promotion, advertisement, distribution or sale of articles, intended for human or animal use, that are represented as being effective to diagnose, prevent, cure, treat, or mitigate disease (or other conditions), or provide a beneficial effect on health, but which have not been scientifically proven safe and effective for such purposes. Such practices may be deliberate, or done without adequate knowledge or understanding of the article”.

    If the knee and back surgery’s were under FDA control many if not most would be seen by the FDA as a scar that denotes an unproven remedy. You cannot go around arresting everyone with a suitcase and a bowler hat on unless we redefine the government definition of fraud or listen to evidence based medicine preachers who insist on proof that traditional medical practices work.
    art malernee dvm
    fla lic 1820

  13. @JWN, As someone who has struggled with math, (and therefore, physics and chemistry as well) my whole life, I think it’s a mistake to assume that people don’t know what ions are because they think they are nerdy or boring.

    We have one good opportunity to learn the basics of math that will form the foundation for higher math that will be needed in the hard sciences. If you don’t have the wisdom in 4th, 5th and 6th grade to insist that your teacher slow down and explain until you understand, or ask your parents to hire a tutor or possibly attempt to help with homework in a constructive way, then you basically miss out on most of the opportunity to receive a high school education in physics and chemistry.

    Going to community education to learn algebra, geometry, calculus, then physics and chemistry would be the virtuous thing to do. Then I could understand why negative ions are so silly. But, honestly, it is hard enough to scrape together the time and money to exercise, produce work, care for the family, save for emergencies, etc.

    In short, education that doesn’t offer pretty immediate returns in the form of increased income is a luxury that many of us can not afford. For many of us, that has nothing to do with thinking science is boring or nerdy. It is just as fact of life.

    Then again, knowledge has become so specialized that one has to be able to make decisions without understanding the underlying concepts. My father was a talented physicist, but he wouldn’t have understood the mechanisms behind immunization enough to separate the BS from facts.

  14. art malernee dvm “I’ve said this before about other scams and I have yet to get a cogent answer. Why isn’t there a criminal case for fraud here? A motivated prosecutor could find somebody who bought this thing on the basis of the false claims and presto, you’ve got a victim who has been relieved of money under false pretenses. That is against the law. Am I missing something here?”

    I’m having a hard time understanding why I should pay taxes for prosecutors and law enforcement to protect people from spending $50 on a useless item.

    I’m perfectly happy to protect children from harmful medical care, protect people from violence, theft or large scale scams that bilk people of large portions of their savings. I’m happy to pay to protect the environment.

    The company has a 30 day return policy. If you buy the product and you are practical enough to see that it doesn’t do anything, you are free to return it and get your money back. If they don’t send your money back, then call your credit card company and have them rescind the payment.

    Bloody Heck, there are agricultural companies in Florida who basically keep folks as slaves to farm tomatoes AND they are not being adequately prosecuted. Ever month or so we have a series of recalls on dangerous products that were produced in factories that are not in compliance with federal regulations. We have massive oil spills due to substandard processes.

    Could we keep a little perspective and admit that government resources to curb harm to the public are not limitless.

  15. BlisterBlue says:

    Was anyone else as shocked to find out they have their own sports arena – owned by the Maloof family – Power Balance Pavilion? It’s in Sacramento, and hosts an NBA team……..yuck!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Balance_Pavilion

  16. ConspicuousCarl says:

    micheleinmichigan on 15 Sep 2011 at 9:55 am

    I’m having a hard time understanding why I should pay taxes for prosecutors and law enforcement to protect people from spending $50 on a useless item.

    I agree with the concept, but not all scams are placed into the moron category as easily as Power Balance. Phishing scams can be anything from completely obvious to extremely sophisticated. Homeopathy sounds insane if you read about it, but looks perfectly reasonable sitting on a shelf next to real drugs.

    Mockery is definitely my first choice for something like Power Balance, but most people think I shouldn’t go around asking people who wear such things “Are you some kind of idiot?” Next time someone objects, I will tell them I am just trying to help the government save money.

  17. Costner says:

    All of these power bracelets remind of a device that was sold as a pain management tool.

    Does anyone else remember “The Stimulator”? It was in fact nothing other than a grill igniter with finger holes. Considering I can buy a grill igniter at my local hardware store about around $3 and they were charging $40 and $50 for it… well it really irked me.

    Not so much that it was taking advanage of idiots, but rather that I didn’t think of it first! Eventually the FDA shut them down for their medical claims, but not before they had bilked people out of millions upon millions of dollars.

    A fool and his money…

  18. ConspicuousCarl “Mockery is definitely my first choice for something like Power Balance, but most people think I shouldn’t go around asking people who wear such things “Are you some kind of idiot?”

    You definitely need some cred for that. As someone who has just wasted far too much time obsessively googling Chinese electronic surf music*, I feel highly uncomfortable calling anyone else an idiot.

  19. ConspicuousCarl says:

    micheleinmichigan on 15 Sep 2011 at 6:35 pm
    googling Chinese electronic surf music*,

    LoLz. I actually highlighted that phrase and goggled it, and then when the results page came up I said, “oh, SURF music”. I thought I was going to find the oriental version of the music for the little blue things.

  20. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Oh, and I will be heading to Japan to market my Energy Fairness Manacle. Used by American baseball players! Balances the power of your future with the power of your ancestors through bi-directional hologramic interflection technology! ¥7995.

  21. hehe, Chinese electronics smurf music? I hope things never get that desperate.

  22. aeauooo says:

    Does anyone remember PF Flyers?

    Run faster, jump higher

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PF_Flyers

  23. BillyJoe says:

    …phew!…thought you said PZ Myers!

  24. Rob McD says:

    Is it me or does it seem that these two samples are from different patients? They had different previous meals which were both eaten 2 hours before the test despite one test being conducted an hour later than the other…

    http://nrgtitanium.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/blood-final.jpg

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