My first ‘phlog’ via iPadio

I thought I’d try out iPadio, a free service available from which allows you to record your phone conversations and publish them as ‘phlogs’ on the iPadio website. You can also sync them up to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or in my case my WordPress blog.

My first foray is just a little introduction about myself and what I do. As it appears to have worked, I’ll be using it to do a series of interviews at the upcoming QED conference in Manchester (February 5th and 6th, but of course you all know that by now!). If you want to share your thoughts with me at conference, feel free!

Just two weeks to go till QED conference!

QED ConferenceOn February 5th and 6th the QED (Question Explore Discover) conference comes to the Piccadilly Hotel Manchester, and I for one cannot wait! A plethora of great speakers will be in attendance, as well of lots of exciting events including live podcast recordings and this year’s 10:23 event, campaigning against homeopathy.

I’ll be there helping out, so if you see me be sure to say hello! I’ll have my iPhone and I’ll be updating this blog live with iPadio (hopefully) and I’ll be asking all kinds of people over for a quick chat. Tickets are just £99 for the weekend (£75 for students with ID) and day tickets are available for £59, so get yours now if you haven’t already done so!

Power Balance bands: the “Dumbo’s Feather” of the 21st Century

Dumbo's featherOne product has really got skeptics worked up recently: the Power Balance bracelet. In case you are not familiar with it, the Power Balance bracelet is merely a silicone bracelet with a hologram in it. The makers claim that the hologram “work’s with your body’s natural energy field” and is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”. Of course, the manufacturers offer up no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up these claims.

The Power Balance website contains at least one huge contradiction: due to a ruling by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Power Balance were forced to retract claims of efficacy in a corrective advertisement, admitting 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”. However, they released a statement addressing this on their website, where they use an amazing double negative:

Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has made no claims that our product does not perform.

So, it is clear that there is no evidence to suggest that wearing a hologram would improve your supporting performance, so why on earth would a professional sportsman wear a Power Balance bracelet, yet alone endorse it?

Quite simply, Power Balance is all about exploiting the psychology of the customer. It starts by relying on the placebo effect, where the athlete in question thinks “I’m wearing something that should make me perform better”, so they EXPECT to perform better, and consequently may feel they are performing better, even if they are not (or in the case of England cricketer Paul Collingwood, getting worse).

I would compare this effect to the feather that the eponymous hero of the Disney film Dumbo carries. Just in case you are not familiar with this character, allow me to explain: Dumbo is a baby elephant with extraordinarily large ears. He gets given a feather by his mentor (who happens to be a mouse, of course), which he’s told is a ‘magic feather’. This gives Dumbo the confidence to use his ears to fly. The feather itself does nothing physical, but it is exerting an effect on the psychology of Dumbo, much like the Power Balance exerts a psychological effect on the people who wear it and believe it works.

Why does Power Balance seem to work as a placebo? There are several important factors:

  • It’s shiny
  • It’s got the word ‘Power’ in it’s name
  • It’s very expensive for a piece of plastic ($29.95)
  • It’s sold through a glossy website
  • Sportsmen use and endorse it

That last point is worthy of particular attention. Once one sportsman wears it and thinks it works, they influence other sportsmen. This reinforcement continues until the product becomes a familiar and accepted sight. For example, it’s clearly visible many times amongst the members of the England test cricket team.

Why should we care?

It’s very easy to dismiss Power Balance and say “Why should I care if a rich idiot wants to spend £20 on a piece of plastic?”. However, I always find myself asking the same question when I come across something like this: “If you believe in Power Balance, what else do you believe in?”. Power Balance should serve as an example as to what can happen if you let woo into your life. If you’ve wasted money on Power Balance bracelets, what else have you spent on exploitative crap?

On top of that, Power Balance makes about $35 million per year. Is it at all ethical that a company should make that much money by exploiting people’s lack of critical thinking?

What can be done?

Power Balance relies on endorsements from sports stars to further it’s profile. I would love to see a sports star stand up to them and say “Listen people, Power Balance is just a piece of plastic, it does nothing!”. I know that’s highly unlikely, because there is no monetary incentive to do such a thing. Still, I can dream…

Event Review: Elizabeth Pisani @ Liverpool Skeptics in the Pub

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

The evening of Wednesday the 27th of October 2010 the Merseyside Skeptics Society hold one of their regular ‘Skeptics in the Pub events’, set as always in the grandiose Vines pub in Liverpool, a stones throw from Liverpool Lime Street station. The guest speaker was one Elizabeth Pisani, epidemiologist and author of The Wisdom of Whores, a controversial book about HIV/AIDS.

Elizabeth took us through her work on the spread and prevalence of HIV, explaining the people who became infected in the 1980’s, how the virus spread, and what could be done to prevent it. Each point was very eloquently made, and well backed up with solid data.

The core of the talk was fascinating, but that wasn’t the only reason why I found the talk as a whole to be completely engrossing. There were many important lessons to be learned. Firstly, we saw that most of data lead to some conclusions that the “Politically Correct” would find pretty ugly. However, Elizabeth wasn’t at all afraid to tell us of these conclusions, simply because they were supported by good evidence. Secondly, we were told that to raise money for HIV research, the whole issue of HIV had to be made politically attractive. In a sense, the science had to be somehow sacrificed to appeal to a wider audience. This was partly accomplished by some sneaky data presentation. I found it amazing how a graph could be made to tell a different story just by changing the X axis from absolute values to percentages!

The Q and A following the talk was very lively, with Elizabeth answering a wide range of questions. Treatment plans, the effect of treatment on the spread of the disease, the role of religion and the destigmatization of AIDS patients were all covered. Elizabeth continued to be charming and engaging throughout.

Overall, I found this to be one of the most intellectually stimulating ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ events yet. Highly recommended!

Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani

PS – Many aspects of the talk reminded me of a brilliant piece of satire on the Chris Morris show Brass Eye. Here’s “Good AIDS/Bad AIDS“.

I’m off to TAM

Well, the time has come for me to head down to that London for The Amaz!ng Meeting. I’ll be there for the whole weekend, so please say hello if you bump into me. To give you an idea of what I look and sound like, here’s a video I made shortly after the 10:23 protest about the packaging of Boots brand homeopathy. See you at TAM!