Edit 5/1/11: Good news! Power Balance has been forced to give a retraction and if you’re in Australia, you can get a refund!
This not sleeping malarkey is really not cool but at least it lets me get some blogging in. Tonight I’m going to take a quick look at the claims of a company called Power Balance. This is the latest bit of woo to hit the sporting world, consisting of a plastic band with a couple of holograms in them (the crappy ones they stick on DVD boxes, not the immense Star Trek ones), although you can apparently also get them in a pendant. Now sportspeople are notoriously superstitious folk. Lots of sports stars have rituals they’ll go through before a competition; Liverpool players will touch the ‘This is Anfield‘ sign in the tunnel as they go out onto the pitch for example, and Robin van Persie famously went to a house in Serbia where a woman gives massages with horse placenta. Lovely.
Power Balance is apparently used by Cristiano Ronaldo, as well as various stars of other sports including basketball, Aussie rules football, surfing, cycling, and whatever else you can think of, but I first came across it when the Cardiff Blues started using them. Some of these atheletes are obviously being paid to wear them, and the piece on the Blues’ website looks more like a page out of a catalogue than a news item.
So what are the supposed benefits? Well the website is very careful, as are many proponents of woo, particularly after the quacklash, led by Simon Perry, JDC and Zeno. You can often tell when a claim is a bit suspect when you get language like this, which is about the closest thing to a claim that I can find on the company’s website.
Power Balance holograms are designed to work with your body’s natural energy field.
Notice the ‘designed’. It doesn’t say they do work with your body’s energy field, whatever that means, just that that’s what it was designed to do. There’s similar language in a section titled ‘How does the hologram work?’ which is something I wanted to know too. Unfortunately it doesn’t answer its own question.
Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow, similar to concepts behind many Eastern philosophies. The hologram in Power Balance is designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.
‘Based on the idea‘, ‘designed to resonate’. I bet if you got the company’s founder and really grilled him on what the hologram does, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. Does the hologram produce a field? What kind of field?
Note too that most of the claims are made through testimonials on the website. This is another favourite tactic of woosters, I suppose because it makes it easier for them to get around advertising regulators. I’ve certainly heard various ‘healers’ concerned with ‘wellbeing’ saying that they’re not claiming to cure cancer, merely that after going through their therapy, people have found that cases of cancer have gone into remission. Using a testimonial is an interesting way of making a claim without actually personally making the claim, avoiding responsibility.
Maybe I should give a brief recap as to why testimonials are not good evidence. The problem is that a testimonial is essentially an anecdote, and as the saying goes, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’ (anecdote comes from the Greek meaning ‘not published’, and the plural is actually ‘anecdota’ according to some). Anecdotes are problematic because they are subject to pretty much every kind of bias going. Take all the criteria of a good trial and anecdotes have none of them. People have bad memories so the anecdote is subject to recall bias, they’ll be more likely to take note of a result if it confirms what they already believe, particularly if they’ve just spent £29.99 on a bit of plastic they could’ve got in a Happy Meal, there’s no control group, there’s no objective measurement, the sample size is 1, there’s no blinding, there’s no randomisation, and perhaps most importantly there’s a publication bias, because the company are not going to put testimonials on their website if they say it didn’t work! Testimonials can be a good justification to look for evidence of a claim, but they are not good evidence in themselves.
The website is almost completely devoid of any claims. What they do is highlight where the holograms have been covered by various media outlets (and of course we know that a lot of stories are merely press releases disguised as news), where the claims are made not by the Power Balance company (at least not on the website), but by reporters. Again they avoid responsibility. It’s a piece of marketing that’s really quite incredible, because they’re more concerned with which celebrities are using the product, and which glossy magazines and newspapers have covered the story, than stating the evidence that it works. It’s very telling that in their ‘as seen in…’ section has the likes of Sports Illustrated and ESPN Radio rather than any peer-reviewed journals.
The wristbands are being covered today in Australia’s The Age newspaper, and surprisingly the reporter has actually bothered to do some digging rather than just accepting the claims as they’re presented. Here’s a little gem that caught my eye:
Power Balance says the holograms on either side of the wrist react with the body’s energy flow and tune its frequency to the ideal 7.83 hertz required to power the body.
7.83 hz? That’s very specific. Running that number, Google came out with this, about the Schumann Resonance. Apparently the Earth vibrates at 7.83 hertz and that’s good for meditation. No idea how tuning the ‘body’s frequency’ to that would do anything though. Or how it would be possible to do that with a hologram. Or how the body’s frequency ‘powers the body’ at all. My body is powered by a chemical process involving food.
Here’s another excuse for evidence:
Power Balance’s Tom O’Dowd says if the bands – which are said to increase an athlete’s core strength and power by up to 500 per cent – didn’t work, people wouldn’t wear them.
Ah yes, and people wouldn’t cross their fingers for good luck if it didn’t work, and 30% of people in France wouldn’t use homeopathy if it didn’t work, and people wouldn’t keep playing the lottery if they didn’t win. The problem with this kind of argument is that people don’t have their own internal placebo control, they can’t blind themselves and be objective, they think they’ve seen the evidence with their own eyes when really they’re suffering from recall bias and confirmation bias. That’s why the Randomised Controlled Trial is the gold standard of testing these kinds of claims. Here’s another line that made me laugh.
However, Mr O’Dowd who refused to release sales figures for the bands, believed to be in the tens of thousands, said about 30 per cent of sales were to the medical profession, mainly osteopaths and chiropractors.