Why do some people in the technology community seem so susceptible to snake oil?
I suspect it's because of two things.
- We trust our friends' judgement.
- We are experts in our fields and, therefore, trust our own judgement in matters we don't fully understand.
Compare and contrast the following two statements.
On the announcement of the original iPod, one influential pundit declared...
"No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame."
Source: Slashdot.org's original iPod discussion
On the search for the Higgs Boson, Stephen Hawking said
One is someone who has studied markets and technology trends, the other who has studied physics. Both are highly respected in their field.
However, one is making social and economic predictions, the other mathematical and scientific predictions.
One is backed up by data, the other by "anecdata".
In reality - we're comparing apples and appletinis. There's a superficial relationship - both are making predictions - but a whole world of difference between what those predictions mean and what backs them up.
When someone - even someone we trust - brings us a new idea, it often pays to be sceptical. This doesn't mean dismissing anything new out of hand. This doesn't mean demanding unreasonable standard of proof. This doesn't mean ridiculing anyone who disagrees.
It means asking some very basic questions to determine their credibility.
When I am trying to assess whether a new product is a scam, I usually ask the following questions.
- What's my gut reaction? Does it fit in with my understanding of the world?
- Does it ask for belief rather than proof? Am I just expected to just accept someone's claims?
- Does it introduce a totally new piece of knowledge into the world? Extraordinary things can happen - but they are rare.
- Does it rely on endorsements from celebrities?
- Are they asking for money?
This is usually enough to see through most charlatans.
I'd like to take three recent examples of products which bear scepticism.
I pick these because I know some otherwise very intelligent people who have taken these scams on trust. Because they either trust the friends who endorse them - or because they believe they are an expert in one field, so can't be fooled in another - they've ended up backing the wrong horse.
This pocket sized device will harvest stray WiFi signals from the room and use them to charge your phone's battery.
There are lots of "ambient energy" devices - piezo electrics, solar power, kinetic energy etc - so it seems reasonable that you could harvest WiFi energy in a similar way.
But surely there can't be that much of it?
It seems like it could work - but only if you ignore the basic laws of physics.
No proof was forthcoming. Several physics experts pointed out that the total amount of energy emanating from a WiFi access point wouldn't be enough to trickle charge a phone. The physicists backed up their work with equations and links to proof. RCA asked for faith.
Proponents claimed what they had done was revolutionary and such a trade secret that they couldn't possible reveal how they'd done it.
When it was pointed out that they had discovered a whole new branch of physics and could probably win a Nobel Prize rather than sell a $40 gizmo, they again told people to believe rather than look for proof.
Using the good name of RCA really propelled this scam. Why would a company like RCA endorse such a product unless it was real? Sadly, like many celebrities these days, RCA doesn't really exist.
$40 for a product. True, not a lot of money, but considering how much it costs to charge a phone, it's extortionate. To fully charge an electric car costs just a few pounds - paying $40 to save maybe $10 on a lifetime of phone battery charging is a false economy at best.
I was in email contact with the inventor. Here's what he had to say:
On August 27, 2010 4:28 AM, Terence Eden wrote:
Just wondering when the Airnegy will be released.
Or was it a hoax all along?
On 09/12/10 10:32 PM, Hank Caskey wrote:
Our team was showing this product to retailers and carriers at IFA. It is still coming.
Date: January 17, 2011
Just wondered if Airnegy will be at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year?
And I never heard back...
Wear a hologram on your wrist and you'll get measurably better sporting performance.
No. What could possibly cause this? This doesn't fit in with anyone's understanding of how the world works.
None whatsoever. Indeed, the company is so brazen as to state
Power Balance does not, and has never, made any scientific or medical claims about its products.
Just... what? Mumbo-jumbo dressed up in highly compelling language.
It would require such a huge leap in understanding of physiology that it bears really close study.
Multiple. All from celebrities - none from sports scientists.
Oh yes. Total cost of production, a few pennies - retail cost of £30!
What's interesting is that there maybe a psychological boost via the placebo effect. But independent testing showed no performance increase. The full report from the BBC is worth a read.
If you shine a light into your ears, you'll recover from depression, get over jet-lag, and have superior mental performance.
This is backed up by scientists.
From the earliest human civilisations, "medicine men" have been selling snake-oil. Powerful tonics which cure all manner of ailments.
Indeed, Coca Cola was originally sold being able to cure many diseases, including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence.
So, it pays to be sceptical of any new medical advance - especially one which claims so much.
It's not impossible - and it is backed by seemingly reputable scientists - but does its central claim "feel" right? Shine a light in your ear and feel better...?
This is an interesting one. They claim that several Finish University scientists are working on this.
The VALKEE bright light headset has been researched in a series of clinical tests by the University of Oulu. In a recent clinical trial, 25 severely depressed patients were treated with a daily dose of 8-12 minutes of light with the VALKEE bright light headset. Over a period of four weeks nine patient out of ten experienced total relief of symptoms, which is a revolutionary result. Currently VALKEE is being studied for seasonal affective disorder in open and placebo-controlled studies. In addition, the research is being conducted for other depression types.
Want to see the evidence? Well, they won't let you.
They haven't published their data (the first step). They haven't convinced any reputable journal to publish their findings. The data which they claim to have hasn't been peer reviewed.
Indeed, last year, they were saying
please be patient and expect to get answers to many of your burning questions during the early part of 2011.
Of course, that hasn't stopped them selling the device before they've completed clinical trials.
Let us, for a moment, take a look at the scientific claims on their "evidence" page - there are only three.
- "Valkee has CE Class II(a) medical device certification." All this means is that they have certified the device not to cause any harm. Incidentally, the certification covers everything from tongue-depressors to heart-valves. So that doesn't tell us much.
- The research paper is a single page - which, admittedly, isn't uncommon when introducing an idea. But it is a long way from proof. There's room to mention the blind trial - but not the results.
- Finally, their last (single page) paper hints that they've found particles in cadavers which may be sensitive to light. No indication that they actually are.
So, this adds up to "We have a tongue depressor, which we think may cure depression, but you can't see the statistics. Look! We found a thing in the brain!"
It's not terribly convincing, is it? If they had proof, they would show it. Instead, they're asking for our faith. And our money.
Anyone can quickly figure out three things.
- The brain isn't designed to get light in to it. If your brain is receiving light; there's a hole in your head. That's not healthy!
- Drawing a straight line through one ear canal to the other on a human skull does not intersect the brain in any meaningful way. Indeed, here's the diagram from Valkee's own paper.
There's not much there with which to interact.
- Even if the brain was receptive to light, and the ear canal was the perfect way to do it, how strong would a light have to be to pass through skin, bone, and blood vessels? Take an LED and hold it to, say, the palm of your hand. How much light gets through?
To believe that the Valkee works would mean believing several highly unlikely things. However - unlikely things do happen. So let us not dismiss it straight away.
Lots of very successful people have poured money into the venture - including Former Nokia Executive Vice-President Anssi Vanjoki, and Esther Dyson. The website and marketing is replete with testimonies from anonymous CEOs and other luminaries.
Anonymous isn't another word for "fictitious" - but it should raise alarm bells. While Esther Dyson is an extraordinarily clever person - is she a scientist? Or has she simply been conned in the same way that many intelligent people were conned by Madhoff?
This device includes two LEDs, some wires, a headband, and a timer. Total cost to you, sir? €185.
Does that seem reasonable? For a device that will totally cure depression? Total cost of manufacture can't be more than €10.
Valkee is a scam - pure and simple. Like all good scams it has the hint of mystery, a soupçon of cure-all, a dash of celebrity, and a strong desire to part you from your money.
Business is not science. Too many people treat science as though it can be overcome with sufficient wishful thinking and a good business plan. That's not the case.
Consider the following statements:
- I can turn lead into gold.
- I can cram more information into a signal than Shannon's law will allow for.
- The phone will replace TV.
I don't doubt that someone, somewhen, will be able to do the first two. But it requires such a jump in our fundamental understanding to the laws of the universe that it would require an extraordinary level of proof.
"The phone will replace TV" would have been an idiotic statement twenty years ago - but today it's (almost) a reality.
The key difference is there is nothing in our understanding of the universe stopping phones being TV. Nothing to stop wristwatches replacing phones. Nothing to stop wristwatches transmitting holographic video.
But there is something stopping perpetual motion. There is something which stops light from entering our ears and interacting with our brain.
Don't get me wrong - there are companies and individuals revolutionising business every day. But there are very few who are revolutionising science.
Those that are about to revolutionise the world demand our utmost respect - and deserve to have their claims challenged fairly.
Taking claims on trust is abdicating our responsibility to each other. We have a responsibility to challenge extraordinary claims. To make sure that evidence is supplied. To protect ourselves and our friends.
There are people wearing power-bands, shining light in their ears, and waiting for a Nigerian Prince to deposit a million dollars in their bank account. Don't let that happen to you.