We all want to believe that there’s some unseen force maintaining a sense of order of in the world. A benevolent hand guiding us along a meaningful path, towards a destiny or — at the very least — away from harm. If only we could harness this invisible essence, we say, imagine the changes we could unleash upon the world. Imagine the transformations we could bring about in ourselves.
For as long as one man has envisioned these things, another has stood beside him with an open coin purse and a mouth full of promises. From Victorian era seances to Peter Popoff’s Miracle Spring Water, pseudoscience has flourished across continents and centuries. Practiced equally in lavish ballrooms and television infomercials, the often authoritative salesmen typically have a flashy product on offer, but the real merchandise always remains beneath the table.
The business of pseudoscience is to sell a promise, not a product.
The promise of change, happiness or safety. Of health, security or virility. To the salesman, the product is irrelevant because what the purchaser really wants is intangible. And worse yet, to the purchaser, the product often becomes a manifestation — a totem — of that promise. The salesman peddles his promise, the purchaser imbues it with an imagined power and — as if by magic — the promise is realized.
But the business of pseudoscience is bankrupt.
The realization of the promise will occur regardless of the salesman’s device. A necklace claimed to cure cancer can only be given to a patient who will recover or pass away. If they recover, proponents of pseudoscience are quick to laud the effectiveness of their miracle charm. If they pass away, well, there isn’t much in the way of Yelp in the afterlife.
So, here we pull back the curtain obscuring the miracle salesman’s stockroom. From the shaky science of divining intent from biological processes to the world’s most advanced pajamas, we count down five products that highlight the big business of fringe science.
Reigning as one of the most historically persistent pseudoscientific devices, polygraphs — more commonly known as lie detectors — are a point of contention in the scientific community. As of 2001, a sizable portion of the community believed them to have little scientific credibility. In most states, the admissibility of polygraph tests falls into two categories: inadmissible or admissible only by the agreement of all parties.
Opponents of the polygraph describe it as “voodoo psychology” and are quick to point out that the test’s primary benefit seems to be its ability to fool uninformed subjects into making a confession. In 2001, William Iacono, a professor of psychology and neuroscience concluded that, “[the polygraph] may be useful as an investigative aid and tool to induce confessions, it does not pass muster as a scientifically credible test.”
Despite the mounting evidence showing the test’s questionable scientific validity, every year the federal government administers polygraphs to over 70,000 job applicants.
Homeopathy, founded upon the claim of “like cures like,” has enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent years. The value of homeopathic remedies is claimed to be acquired through a series of dilutions. The process involves repeatedly diluting a substance in alcohol or distilled water; the number of dilutions that a specific remedy has undergone is designated using a system of Roman numerals.
Modern remedies tend to fall into the 6X to 30X range. A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted more times than there are dollar bills in circulation. About one trillion times more. At that level of dilution, there is no chance that any trace of the original substance remains. Proponents of homeopathic medicine, however, claim that the presence of the original substance is irrelevant. Instead, they claim that healing is effected by the dilution’s “memory” of the substance.
James Randi famously swallowed an entire bottle of homeopathic pills on stage and issued a challenge to homeopathy manufacturers. Putting $1 million on the line, Randi offered the money to any company that could prove their claims. The money remains unclaimed to this day. However, homeopathic products continue to litter the shelves of popular drugstores across the country.
According to their website, “Goodnighties is [sic] the most advanced sleepwear on the market.” With claims like that, it’s no surprise that in 2012, television personality Dr. Oz revealed that Goodnighties were one of his “bedroom secrets” for a better night’s sleep.
On his site, Dr. Oz — vice-chair and professor of surgery at Columbia University — claimed that, “Goodnighties neutralize the stress that our bodies produce by stimulating blood flow with negative ions to tired strained muscles. Plus, the fabric wicks away moisture, keeping you cool so can sleep all through the night.”
It might be better to invest in pajamas that wick away buzzwords and unclear concepts.
Tests performed on Goodnighties pajamas in 2012 showed that they did not, in fact, emit negative charges or stimulate blood flow. Furthermore, Dr. Oz’s improbable claims rest upon the idea that the pajamas can neutralize stress produced by the body. But, can such stress be measured in a scientifically sound way? Can it be observed and quantified in a way that bolsters Goodnighties’ claims? The answer, of course, is probably not.
As of 2014, Goodnighties have been removed from Dr. Oz’s site.
Golf Ball Bomb Detectors
Governments around the world learned an important lesson in 2008 when they were fleeced by cop turned conman James McCormick. McCormick, seeing a once in a lifetime opportunity after September 11, 2001, quickly formed his own company, “Advanced Tactical Security & Communications Ltd.”
With no scientific or engineering background, McCormick’s company was limited by a burdensome ignorance of what exactly “advanced tactical security” was but — like any good conman — McCormick devised a solution. Copying a popular golfball finder, he slapped a company logo on it and sold it to over 20 countries as a bomb detector for $7,000 a pop.
Turning a quick $2.2 million profit on what amounted to a fancy dowsing rod, McCormick’s product quickly came under fire with Sandia National Laboratories finding that the device never “performed better than random chance.” And, once again, magician James Randi stepped in calling it, “a useless quack device which cannot perform any other function than separating naive persons from their money.”
McCormick, unfazed, stood by his product until the end, though he is said to have as much as confirmed Randi’s accusation, insisting that the device did “exactly what it’s meant to … it makes money.”
In an old scam that always seems to be given a fresh chance, “magnet therapy” bracelets have — once again — found their way into mainstream acceptance. Users of the bracelets claim that the magnetic field created by permanent magnets in the bracelet can result in a number of beneficial health effects. Across the board, from simple aches and pains to cancer treatment, these claims have been proven to lack scientific credibility to such an extent that the American Cancer Society came forward to insist, “available scientific evidence does not support these claims.”
In fact, recently, one of the largest manufacturers of these bracelets, a company called PowerBalance, came forward and stated, “In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility. […] We admit that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of S52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974.”
With that kind of press, you’d think power bracelets would be relegated to the bargain bin by now, but — as we’ve shown — the world is not always a sensible place. Magnet therapy continues to be a billion dollar industry, turning a profit of nearly $300 million per year in the United States alone.