Power Balance

June 20, 2010

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.

Go figure.

Tackling superstition

July 2, 2009

Apologies it’s been so long, but I’m crazy busy working every day and don’t  have a lot of time. I spend a lot of my space on this blog bashing religion, but I should specify that I don’t think religion is the main problem. Religion is in turn fed by irrationality and superstition, I think weeding out this root cause could solve a lot of the problems we have today.

I spend a lot of time talking with the people at my new job, not least because a large proportion of them speak Spanish and I like to practice. One of my colleagues provided an example of such irrationality at work. She said that she took her flatmate to the bank machine to take out rent money, and after he withdrew the money, he folded the notes over, and a number handwritten on the outside note was the exact same number as the amount of money he’d withdrawn. “How do you explain that?” she said smugly.

My response was to ask her how many times she’d taken money out, folded it up and there was a different number written on the outside note, or how many times there hadn’t been any number written on the note. A statistically unlikely event will still happen if you repeat the situation an excessive number of times, and that doesn’t make it a coincidence, much less a supernatural event.

Dawkins goes through a similar idea in one or other of his books, which I’ll paraphrase here. A TV psychic looks into the camera and tells the audience to look at their watches and clocks, proudly declaring that someone’s will stop right at that second, and that they should call in. 5 minutes later, a few people are calling in, amazed that he was correct. I mean, what are the odds that my watch would just happen to stop right when he told me it would, that’s amazing!

Except that it’s not. If millions of people are watching and they’re each looking at several timepieces, the odds of one of them stopping aren’t all that huge. Next we have people saying “my watch didn’t stop just then, but I was speaking to my aunt in Canada and hers did stop just then, she’s across on the other side of the world and wasn’t even watching, that’s amazing!” Except it’s not. If we’re now including not only the millions of people who are watching but all their friends and relatives that aren’t, then the Population of Events That Would Have Appeared Coincidental (PETWHAC) just grew significantly, but conversely it seems more amazing that a watch belonging to someone who wasn’t even watching had stopped.

So, how do we tackle such basic superstition? Fortunately I think the education system can do a lot of the work for us.

I suggest we start with a basic education in statistics and probability. I’m not hot at all on statistics but I have the basics and it helps a lot. There’s a lot of logic that goes along with it too which often isn’t emphasised. For example, just because there are two possibilities, doesn’t mean that they are equally likely. Most mathematical problems used to teach probability involve 10 different coloured balls in a bag pulled at random, but this is only useful for illustrating equally likely outcomes. There isn’t, as some apologists seem to think, a 50/50 chance that God exists, just because he either does or he doesn’t. A building either stays up or falls down, that does not mean that there’s a 50/50 chance that it’ll fall down at any given moment.

A knowledge of the scientific method would also go down well. My friend wouldn’t have made her silly mistake if she’d known about recall and confirmation bias (she only remembered the time there was a number, and not the hundreds of times there wasn’t), both of which need to be accounted for when we’re practicing science. Put Philosophy of Science on the school science syllabus! This will also make sure everyone knows why clinically controlled trials are essential in proving the efficacy of a treatment, why randomization, blinding and placebo controls are important, and hopefully get rid of people’s faith in unproven alternative medicines. Win/win.

Last but not least, we need to foster an environment of critical thinking. I took a Critical Thinking class at school. It was terrible. We got a history teacher who barely knew the first thing about the subject for a single session a week for 40 minutes, and all he did was teach us what a non-sequitor was (which I could’ve figured out from my Latin class) every week, and we’d mess around for the rest of it. If that was taught properly, that would’ve been the most valuble class I could have taken. But then I suppose Catholic schools aren’t too keen on having rational critically thinking students, are they? Fortunately I’m happy to hear that Critical Thinking will be going on the GCSE syllabus.

As a final thought, remember that dwindling church attendance numbers are not in themselves good news, since lots of these people are losing faith in organised religion simply to go into New Age bollocks or become superstitious and just believe in ‘something’. We need to tackle the root cause, not just one of it’s branching weeds.