Sunday, July 31, 2011

I Have the Power...Bracelet

Oh, so many absurdities.  What is it about our civilization that seems to force at least a marginal percentage of the population into complete ignorance of empirical value?  What is it that has us put any level of trust into unsubstantiated claims - admittedly unsubstantiated claims?  There's a reason the psychic hotline commercials flash the words For entertainment purposes only at the bottom of your television screen.  There is a reason that the overpriced bottles of water you buy at your local homeopathic shops can never make any actual medical claims (and should be forced to read, "Very expensive pee inside.").  But what is the reason for the lack of disclaimer in the human brain that should say, "Hey, just because athletes are wearing this, doesn't mean it has any real-life relevance.  Maybe, just maybe, they're being paid to promote the product like the incredibly, unusually hot woman at the bar who keeps ordering the same drink and keeps talking to random guys about how good it is.."

In this particular sense, I'm talking about something I noticed back in 2008, and apparently I was a year behind the trend, per usual.  The trend is called the Power Balance bracelet, and packs within it some of the most unbelievably unsubstantiated, and at times, impossible, claims I've heard since I was first introduced to Astrology as a teenager.  These claims are also admittedly unsubstantiated by the makers of the product, which you can read about here in an article from Yahoo! Sports from January of this year.

The claims in particular is that these bracelets have the ability to interact with the body's natural energy to increase balance, speed, endurance, flexibility, strength (by 500%), and from something I read about a while ago, I heard they're also known to cause Spidey-Sense.  Now keep in mind, I'm not talking about the power bracelet worn by Link in The Legend of Zelda, I'm talking about a real life item here, that actually claims to have similar powers of magic and mystery, while interacting with an energy field just as magical and mysterious.  Even the great and powerful Shaquille O'Neal swears by them, citing they're the secret to his success.  Though, I don't remember him doing anything of note since I was a kid (and by "of note" I don't mean Shaq-Fu) and Power Bracelets have only been out since 2007.  Are they retroactive?  Do they posses the power of reverse time travel on top of all of their mystical powers?

The Evidence
Just briefly, for the sake of argument, let's examine the evidence in favor of the Power Balance bracelet.  The first piece of evidence is that the makers say the bracelets give you powers.  The last piece of evidence is that paid spokespersons say they give you powers.  Since both of these are merely unproven conjecture, let's move on to the evidence against the bracelets.  A study was performed by the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) in 2010 which used actual scientific methods - imagine that - to determine the effects of the bracelets vs that of placebo.  Four bracelets were used in the experiment, with only one of them being an authentic Power Balance bracelet.  All four were wrapped in tape so that none of the participants, nor the scorekeepers of the event, knew which person was wearing the authentic one.  According to the athletic trial results, in each trial, the results of placebo were exactly the same as the results of the bracelet. Zero statistical significance.  Conclusion A: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more.

Next, researchers at RMIT's School of Health and Sciences duplicated the above experiment, finding the same result.  Something to note: These researchers were chiropractors.  If you have people as low in the field of pseudoscience such as chiropractors saying that your product is bunk and has no empirical truth to it, that really says something.  Conclusion B: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more.

The website's own videos, before being removed earlier this year, showed videos of people stretching without, then with the power bracelet on their wrists.  One person would stretch a few times, then apply the bracelet, and stretch again, showing increased flexibility.  Problem A: There's no way of actually knowing if the person was stretching to their fullest extent in the first place.  Problem B: We have no time scale as reference.  Problem C: A person always becomes slightly more flexible from one stretch to another.  This is why it's called stretching in the first place.  This shows intent to provide misleading experimental results, and to me, in what I refer to as the d factor, counts as negative evidence, as deceptive experimental presentation not only demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the product, but that the producers of the conclusions know the product are completely aware.  Conclusion C: Power Balance bracelets are placebo and nothing more; and their product is knowingly deceptive (d=3x10^-4).

A Deeper Concern
What you're looking at in a Power Bracelet is a silicone version of a power crystal.  Yet, even after the company was forced to recant any and all claims that power crystals improve your performance in any way, people still buy them.  People still sell them in airports.  People can still by them on websites for ovarian cancer, which is deeply troubling to me, as it doesn't take a marketing genius to see the implications of that.  You can still buy them online for the same price they were before they were forced to admit their product was absolute hokum, and people still buy them.  Their projected sales in 2011 aren't that far off from their $30 million in sales the previous year.  Now, we all know definitively that the power of this product is entirely a work of fiction, but - I can't stress this enough - people are still buying them!

The company can legally no longer use the term "performance technology" in their ads or their packaging.  The company can legally no longer claim that their product increases performance of any kind beyond that of placebo.  The company had to, at its own expense, release a series of ads correcting previous claims of the bracelet increasing a person's strength, flexibility, or performance.  They can legally no longer say the bracelets are designed to work with the body's natural energy field.  Plus, they legally had to offer full refunds, with postage, to each and every person who had ever purchased their product.  The makers of the product were forced to publicly denounce their own product in front of the world to drive the point home that their product is for entertainment purposes only.  What more do you need?

This is indicative of a much deeper problem than just one product.  This is, itself, the entire reason I write this blog: People will continue to believe things, even at their expense, no matter the lack of evidence, or even the contrary evidence to the affects of a product, entity, or practice.  I understand that people these days have a level of mistrust toward science, and are therefore always looking for alternatives.  This is one of the reasons for the vast disconnect between science and the general populace.  Science is hard to follow in many ways for someone who doesn't maintain an interest.  "How can those physicists and cosmologists know the age of the universe when they weren't there?" someone may ask; although, if they read a little deeper and followed the fields with a level of interest, they would actually see how simple it is for them to know using very easy step by step processes.  They may also say that organizations such as the FDA are unreliable for certain reasons.  While I will admit there are conflicts of interest.  I don't understand for the life of me why most of it is made up of pharmaceutical executives (those who've only worked on the financial and monetary side of medical science) instead of the scientists who actually produce the medicines in the first place (those who may actually know what they're talking about and have a substantiated authority on matters of medicine).  However, this does not make the FDA untrustworthy in the long run.  In fact, I would venture to say that if even the FDA won't approve something, that says something about the value of the product itself (I refer you back to the Chiropractor point I made before regarding the magic bracelets).

I understand the distrust toward modern science, but it is entirely unsubstantiated and based on misunderstandings and disconnects.  Scientists are here to help people and make the world a better place.  If we weren't, we wouldn't have gone into our various fields, which, on average, have very limited earning potential.  Therefore, if the entirety of modern science is telling you that you're just throwing money down the drain by purchasing a product, then why would you not listen and at least investigate a little?  The claims made by power bracelets are no more absurd than the claims made by astrologers, psychics, homeopathic retailers; and I think most people know that none of those fields are worth the paper their professions' names are written on.  Why, then, do people still continue to visit the astrologer, the psychic, the homeopathic doctor, and the chiropractor?  Is it a pure lack of critical thinking, or are people really just that lazy that they'll just believe what they're told by any quack with a website (because they won't give just anybody one of those)?  I personally believe the latter.

Laziness is not a trait unknown to humans.  Let's face it: Many people would rather drive four blocks to the convenience store than walk it, even though it's only a few blocks away, and the walk might actually be beneficial to you and to the environment.  But that's not the laziness I'm talking about.  I'm referring to intellectual laziness, when combined for a desire for power and an unwillingness to do anything to gain it, this causes people to resort to believing crazy claims in the hopes that they can get that one hour workout in five minutes; they can see into the future to see what they should be doing in the present; they can burn a candle and speak a few archaic words and they'll somehow get rich; and worse than any of it, they'll actually believe a single word written in The Secret.  This creates a need for faith in people which is ultimately destructive to them.  These people will pump as much money as they can into crazy products, churches, sprititualists, "advisers", and other entities in order to obtain something without having to work for it.  Combine this physical laziness with intellectual laziness, and you have someone who would rather go broke than not subscribe faith into every shortcut that is offered to them, no matter how absurd it sounds, and no matter how unsubstantiated it is.  Just believing what they're told and having faith is easier than reading a little bit about such claims.

Intellectual laziness is a trait that is so common among people that it sort of hurts to think about - which is coincidental of me to say, because looking at so many people in this country, one would assume that thinking must be painful or at least incredibly straining.  Yes, it is easier to just believe what you're told than to compare all of the available evidence and come to your own educated conclusions.  Yes, just thinking that everything happens because it happens, is a lot easier than questioning why and how things happen.  It's much easier to just walk down the sidewalk without thinking about it at all, instead of thinking of all of the physical principles you're applying when walking, not to mention what's happening under your feet at the subatomic level with every step you take.  Many people don't find this interesting, and I think the only reason for this is because it all seems too daunting.  The big words; the hard equations; the imagination; the scientific method and process; it's all so much harder.  Yet, you'll notice that when you read one book on science, you have to read another, and another, and another, until you're a sponge soaking up information and you're doing your own experiments at home, in time, based after your own original hypotheses.  The problem is that most people don't take that first step because of a laziness that is brought about by fear - the fear that they may not be able to understand it.  But the more you read, the easier it all becomes, until you're up at 5:00 AM conclusively disproving the young earth creation story using the speed of light with one hand, and eating your Cheerios with the other (read about this here on August 1).

Just that one boost could be the difference between a life of ignorance and a life of scientific inquiry and success.  But most never receive that boost.  Their parents never encourage it, or they never get over the fear of feeling stupid, or they didn't have the best teachers, or any number of reasons.  Maybe they grew up in a cult and never had access to scientific papers.  Who am I to judge?  What I can do is say that this first step is something that we, as a society, need to start concerning ourselves with.  People need to see just how cool the universe is before they can develop an interest.  If that scientific interest were to be developed in more people, we would see psychics, astrologers, and Power Bracelets diminished within just a generation or two.  And how great of a world would that be?

Thanks for reading.  Next week, I'll be posting a few experiments I performed with face-to-face psychics and telepsychics a few years ago that were quite fun to perform, and should be very fun to read.  And on the first of the month, I'll be introducing a new feature to the blog called Monthly Arguments Against Evolution, where I'll be choosing one particular argument against the theory of evolution to burn to the ground on a monthly basis.  Keep smiling and always be skeptical.

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