Skeptic Check: Power Bands

By Phil Plait | November 16, 2010 2:02 pm

arewealonelogoEvery couple of months I do a short interview with astronomer Seth Shostak called "Skeptic Check" (née "Brains on Vacation") as part of the SETI’s Are We Alone radio program. In this month’s segment I diss the Power Bands that are popping up everywhere. These are simple rubber wristbands that the manufacturers claim help your body’s balanace, stamina, performance, and so on, despite no evidence that they can do so, and what look like extremely fishy demonstrations.

I wrote more about this topic in a post last week on the blog. I’ll note these Power Placebos are under fire in other places as well; for example the Australian government is casting a jaundiced eye at them as well. I love to see governments taking action when it comes to medical consumer protection!

Here’s a direct link to the interview MP3. Are We Alone is a great podcast, and I recommend subscribing. Every week there’s something fun and interesting on it!


Related posts:

- Are We Alone: Conservapedia relativity denialism
- Are We Alone Skeptic Check: Oil’s Pill
- Are We Alone: Bomb-sniffing magic wands version


Comments (39)

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  1. anti wrinkle treatments | December 1, 2010
  1. Chris

    I’m going to start selling “Vacuum in a Can”. Harness the power of nothingness.

  2. truthspeaker

    The “power bands” we had in middle school were more impressive. Properly utilized, they could shoot a paper clip across the room.

    (What were they thinking giving us 15 minutes of unsupervised time between lunch and foreign languages?)

  3. And then there are the weeks you are on it :p

    Have you walked through a flea market recently? They are getting to be Scary Congregations of Woo! Yikes!

  4. richard saunders did a great debunking video of these (phil, didnt you link to that some time recently?).

    The demonstration for them is really sneaky and great. I have done the same thing to lots of my friends with a “power cork” or “power sticker” or “ancient Chinese chest poking”, they look at me astonished at how the balance gets “fixed” after holding the “power toothpick”

  5. Nemesis

    Has anyone here ever heard of a power sit-up? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB8y_njg55w&feature=related

    Not really related…

  6. The Jigsaw Man

    Saw a gentleman at Dragon-Con this year talking about them in a panel. He did the demonstration, and explained the intentional fraud behind it.

    Was hoping to see Phil and Randy there, but the fates were not kind.

  7. (Not to be confused with power ballads, which are excellent and totally rock.)

  8. Alan in Upstate NY

    I find the big rubber banks they put around broccoli work just as well, and they come free with any broccoli purchase. Attractive colors too.

    Clear skies, Alan

  9. Dennis

    And the broccoli actually is good for you.
    Brilliant Alan.

  10. HaelMic

    Whitesnake? Ugh. Here’s how it’s done properly: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i28UEoLXVFQ

  11. I wish I had fewer scruples, I could be a multi-millionare.

  12. noen

    “How does the hologram work?

    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.”

    See? It’s natural and based on Eastern Philosophy!!

    I can’t wait for Power Band II — It’s got what your body craves!!

  13. truthspeaker

    If they threw the word “quantum” in there they would probably sell even more.

  14. BJN

    So idiot athletes who buy into this stuff are this culture’s role models? Some of the manufacturers cite “Schumann Resonating Frequency” tuning as a mechanism for how these baubles work. Yet another example of charlatans co-opting real science to extract money from the gullible.

  15. Chief

    I don’t understand the negative comments on the power in the bands.

    Whenever I wear a band I feel the power of the device to pull the hair out around my wrist. But you have to admit that it is better than the bands that turn your wrist green.

  16. Charlie Foxtrot

    Great that our TGA (the Aussie goverment’s Therapeutic Goods Association) has called them out on this – but unfortunately they can bark but not bite. Power Balance may just completely ignore the TGA if they like, and they probably will :(

  17. I have a new product that guarantees rejuvenation: “Fresh, Mountain Air In-A-Bag”. You open the plastic bag of personally guaranteed fresh mountain air, and place the plastic bag over your head. Using the patented Mountain Air Seal, you then seal the bag while breathing deeply. They always say, mountain air makes you sleepy.

  18. I didn’t comment last week due to the huge comment response by the time I saw the post even though I had personally witnessed the best anecdotal evidence the previous Sunday morning when the pastor of the church I attend stumbled up to the pulpit for the first time that I recall then immediately removed his balance band before beginning the best sermon given since he had it. Can I get an amen?

  19. Ah yes the old power band, it had a completely different meaning in years past, it meant a headline act type rock group that relied heavily on guitars drums and ‘power’ chords.

    As for this new ‘power band’ – sweet jebus people can be gullible…

    Marketing 101 – Get a celeb to wear it (or say it) and the masses follow like sheep.

  20. John

    Skepticism isn’t denial. Done any studies?

    Yes, I think this is crap, too, but using your platform as an astronomer for this? (checking the top) Yes, it seems to say Bad Astronomer up there.

  21. #20:John

    If you look to the right hand column on the blog page. You’ll notice a “Post Categories” drop down menu. Those are all the categories that are covered on this blog. We get the “Full Meal Deal” here. It’s not JUST about Astronomy, it’s about all those things on that menu. Ahh, hell… it’s Phil’s Blog and he can post whatever he wants.

    Skepticism is not denial. Agreed, but are you familiar with Carl Sagan’s famous quip? “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”?

    Where’s the extraordinary evidence in this case?

  22. John

    Agreed, he can post anything he wants . . . and I’m not attempting to troll, but my concern is when people with no (specific) expertise on a subject use a platform derived from their expertise to advocate things that they “feel.” This is a similar (and related) error to not being skeptical. Phil regularly derides people whom he disagrees with for just such use of a platform (and I can cite examples).

    (I think the wristband is crap, too, but it is not based on any rigorous study nor evaluation of claims.)

    Phil is (last I checked) an Astronomer. He has (I would assume) some experience and a basis for his views regarding that, and I would bet he would be even less dogmatic about unusual claims in astronomy, wanting to drive to actual scientific data to understand the unusual phenomena – even counterintuitive conclusions. This is the cutting edge where real knowledge accumulation occurs. (I am SO hoping they don’t find the Higgs!)

    I am somewhat sad when I see scientists attempt to become pop-culture figures by dropping the science that made them interesting. See: Michio Kaku.

    The post above (Phil’s) is similar to Meryl Streep giving advice on subatomic collisions – sure, she may be right, but she has little basis for it, and it’s based on feelings, not facts.

    As to the evidence, I provide none (I’m not making a claim that having stretchy things dangling about your appendages makes you taller and your teeth whiter), but neither does Phil provide any evidence about stretchy dangling things.

    Phil’s post reminds me of:

    “That’s not an argument, it’s simple refutation.” – Python, Monty

    As to your quote of the late Dr. Sagan, I disagree. Extraordinary claims require evidence. Solid, repeatable evidence. As does all science.

    Call me a skeptic of skeptics – I want them to follow the same process of disproving that they would in proving.

    BTW – cool blog – you should post more.

  23. Daniel J. Andrews

    John….I understand your point, but it seems to me you’ve missed a few things. If the proof of something comes from using simple magician party tricks then you don’t need to go around demanding a whole lot of studies that would debunk harmonic resonance between silicon bands and our bodies. How seriously would you take a claim that wearing this power band enables you to read minds and you demonstrate that by holding out a pack of cards and saying, “Pick a card, any card, don’t tell me which one it is….”

    Phil did previously post a link showing how promoters of this bracelet do their kinetic tricks (they make for great party tricks–see techskeptic’s comment), his link in this post mentions a double-blind study (you did ask if there had been any studies–or were you asking if Phil personally had done studies?), and it doesn’t take too much googling to find that people who do have relevant backgrounds have shown that even the statements made by promoters of these bracelets are nonsensical–all sciencey-sounding without any actual science. This stuff has also been around for a very long time and doesn’t need to be debunked in every reincarnation.

    Besides, a word-salad claim isn’t taken nearly as seriously as a claim that is built upon actual relevant measurable mechanisms. E.g. a claim that plant X will alleviate inflammation in injuries when taken internally is more likely to be investigated than the claim that plant Y emits a harmonic resonation that opens unseen gateways through the time-space continuum so power flows through from the multidimensional quadrats from evaporating black holes as postulated by Hawking to enhance your own quantum sense of well-being and improve your balance and flexibility which can be ‘proved’ by doing a demonstration that also just happens, quite coincidentally we’re sure, to be a simple party/magician’s trick.

  24. Daniel J. Andrews

    Shorter me: Follow the links to see why Phil can make his claims despite his “inexpertise”. :)

    And he should post more? You’re new here, aren’t you? Phil often does several posts a day.

  25. highnumber
  26. me

    john, the band claims to work using holography and phil is an astronomer and therefore knows a hell of a lot about optics. he is qualified enough to give a very well educated opinion imho.

    If you think that his comments are about the same as Meryl Streep giving advice on subatomic collisions, then the problem is you have not really understood the issue.

  27. I discovered I have both holograms AND magnets in my wallet in the form of credit cards. I am going to rubber band them to my wrist to make my own, personal, highly debt-laden powerband. My posterior is very powerful, indeed. I suppose that the hologram in the cards are ideally designed to resonate with my bank account, however. Considering how much I’ve been using them recently, I expect my bank to tremble and fall any day now.

  28. noen

    @ John:
    “Agreed, he can post anything he wants . . . and I’m not attempting to troll, but my concern is when people with no (specific) expertise on a subject use a platform derived from their expertise to advocate things that they “feel.” “

    Concern troll is concerned.

    We don’t need any particular expertise to know that the claims made for the Power Band product are false. All one needs is a high school education. I know for a fact that their claim that “Power Balance is based on the idea of optimizing the body’s natural energy flow” is false. I also know that the holograms on the power band are not in fact “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body.” How can I know that such claims are false?

    It is…. a mystery!

  29. Bunk

    http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=5699811&categoryid=2378529

    I don’t normally expect any skepticism from ESPN, but they did run this a few weeks ago.

  30. Joseph G (AG in SC)

    @#25: Win.

    I’m trying to figure out how I can rig a “demonstration” so that I can sell pieces of plastic at ridiculously inflated prices… Let’s see, I’ve got an old bag of ink-stained rubber bands that my newspapers come in. Aha!

    “Men! Step right up and be part of a revolution in male enhancement! Why gamble with your health using dangerous pills with all kinds of potentially harmful side effects!? The incredible patent-pending ManBands® are naturally infused with the botanical power of Hevea brasiliensis and Glycine max! Hell, they even SOUND manly! These all-natural yet potent plant-based ingredients will have you and your partner “up” all night, if you know what I mean! This amazing product gives results in just seconds! Just double-wrap our comfortable ManBand® around the base of the area you wish to enhance (wherever that might be!) In just seconds, you’ll notice marked improvement.

    You there, sir! Yes you! Just step into our little privacy booth and try one on.

    “Yes, it stings a bit at first. That’s how you know our powerful all-natural botanicals are working.”

    “What did I tell you? Amazing! No, don’t try to take it off – this one’s on us! Yes, free. You’re very welcome.”

    Amazing, folks! Just like that gentleman being escorted out the door over there, within a minute, you’ll be going places you’ve never gone before! It’s impossible to deny results like these – try it and see the difference within minutes, or your money back! Just $49.99 – but call now and get two for the low low price of $59.95! Men, snap your love life into shape today with ManBands®!”

  31. QuietDesperation

    And if you click them together you can unlock Wonder Twin powers.

    Click! Form of… a gullible rube!

    Wait… I’ve already done a Wonder Twins joke this month, haven’t I?

  32. Ubi Dubium

    I teach 6th graders at my local UU, and I try to get as much critical thinking into the curriculum as I can. Two weeks ago I showed the kids magic rubber-band bracelets, and did the parlor trick for them, then gave them a week to think about whether it was real. Last week I we talked about how to tell whether something was real, what better tests of it would be, and then showed them all how to do the trick. I hope to have a crop of budding skeptics by the end of the year!

  33. John

    @Daniel J. – Ahhh – did not see the double blind reference earlier. My apologies. That invalidates my specific criticism for this issue. (Again, my apologies.) I was wrong.

    I stand by my statement that skeptics are all too quick to dismiss things that science doesn’t understand yet in the absence of doing real science – See: germ theory, heavier than air flight, earth being round, etc., etc.

    I was referring to MichaelL’s blog on the (“You should blog more.”) I noobed out and thought I was nesting to his post.

    @me – he uses optics. Difference. I took a class in astrophysics and never did we do any actual fusion. Despite the claimed reference to how a thing works, if a thing works, that’s evidence. Science is littered where the effect was real but the science was lacking to explain it. (See: orbital theory before Kepler)

    @noen – I disagree. We can use a high school degree for, well, whatever one is good for nowadays. It’s evidence that matters in science. What I disagree with is a person of prominence using that station to opine on things with which they have no expertise on.

    “Knowing” isn’t science. Much of what we “knew” as mankind 100 years ago is wrong.

  34. Atheist Panda

    @John – “That’s not an argument, it’s simple refutation.” – Python, Monty

    No it isn’t…..

    AP ;)

  35. noen

    @ John — “I disagree. We can use a high school degree for, well, whatever one is good for nowadays.”

    I think I’ll retract that. I think that any reasonably intelligent eight year old child with a decent background in elementary science could probably refute their claims. A precocious eight year old could probably also understand that just because an idea is based on “Eastern Philosophies” does not make it true.

    “It’s evidence that matters in science.”

    I do not need to produce any evidence in order to refute the assertions made by Power Band. I can in fact know that the hologram on the power band is not designed to resonate with the body’s natural energy field.

    “What I disagree with is a person of prominence using that station to opine on things with which they have no expertise on.”

    And mine is that no special expertise is required. Any reasonably educated child should be able to tell you that holograms cannot “resonate” with the body’s natural energy field because he would already know that “resonate” is not something a hologram can do and that the so-called natural energy fields do not exist.

    ““Knowing” isn’t science.”

    Yes it is. Empiricism (science) is the only reliable means to producing facts (knowledge) about the world.

    “Much of what we “knew” as mankind 100 years ago is wrong.”

    That’s not true. Much of what was taken as scientific fact in 1910 is still true. Secondly, your argument that because “much of what we “knew” as mankind 100 years ago is wrong” therefore we cannot make knowledge claims now is an invalid argument. It simply does not follow from the fact that we know more today than we did 100 years ago that we cannot know anything for certain today.

  36. John

    @Atheist Panda
    Yes it is. Oh, time’s up. :)

    @noen
    I think that any reasonably intelligent eight year old child with a decent background in elementary science could probably refute their claims.

    Yes. Refutation is not an argument. I can say no it’s not, all day long. Presto, no evidence required.

    I do not need to produce any evidence in order to refute the assertions made by Power Band.

    I do not need any evidence to refute the existence of beer. Yet, there one sits next to me. Dang, I’ll refute it again. A few more swallows and . . .

    Seriously, I wish I had your certitude on all things. Strangely, though, your certainty sounds much like a creationist defending a 6k year old Earth. Evidence? Piffle.

    Empiricism (science) is the only reliable means to producing facts (knowledge) about the world.

    My point, and this also provides an internal fault in your argument. You argue that without empirical proof you can refute a thing. Then you state that empiricism is the means to produce facts. Unless you empirically test a thing, no facts. So, unless your precocious 8 year old tests a thing, they can have doubt, but not knowledge.

    That’s not true. Much of what was taken as scientific fact in 1910 is still true.

    It is true. Much has changed. Fusion. Hubble. Einstein. Watson-Crick. Quantum electrodynamics. The fundamentals of ALL basic science have changed. 1910 was a Newtonian (with a hint of Maxwellian) world. I guess math is a constant – the sum of the interior angles of a planar triangle are still a buck-eighty. Talk to your precocious 8 year old in 1910 about quantum entanglement and they’d have told you it was a lot of hooey. He’d “know” that. Scientists would have bunched it in with some sort of wibbily-wobbley timey-wimey superstition.

    My argument is not that we can’t know things, but I do have humility in the face of the awesome wonder of the universe. Time and time again it has made fools (even smart people can be fools) of those who would talk about a thing being impossible.

    Scientists and skeptics must be ethical, and have enough humility to understand the limits of human knowledge.

    Feel free to believe what you want. But know the difference – a belief is not a fact and is not science.

  37. noen

    @ John
    “I do not need any evidence to refute the existence of beer. Yet, there one sits next to me. “

    Perhaps you are using an archaic definition. “Refute: Overthrow by argument, evidence, or proof.” So in order to refute your claim all I would need to do is to point to the beer next to you. Maybe you have confused refute with rebuke.

    “You argue that without empirical proof you can refute a thing. Then you state that empiricism is the means to produce facts. Unless you empirically test a thing, no facts. So, unless your precocious 8 year old tests a thing, they can have doubt, but not knowledge.”

    Ah… you seem to think that I have to personally rediscover the Copernican heliocentric theory everyday before I can make a valid claim that the earth revolves around the sun. Fortunately this is not the case as it would make starting my car in the morning “difficult”. There are a body of facts that have been empirically tested and to which we can refer to in order to derive other facts. So it is perfectly valid for someone to make use of the body of scientific knowledge in order to debunk pseudoscientific claims.

    “My argument is not that we can’t know things, but I do have humility in the face of the awesome wonder of the universe. “

    That’s not an argument.

    “Time and time again it has made fools (even smart people can be fools) of those who would talk about a thing being impossible.”

    Your claim, that because the universe has time and time again made fools of those who would claim something impossible that therefore Power Bands could work, is invalid. To repeat, it does not follow from the fact that people have been wrong in the past that they are wrong about this now.

    “Feel free to believe what you want. But know the difference – a belief is not a fact and is not science.”

    Science is not absolute truth, it is justified true belief. Facts are the product of the activity of science. Belief is “Any mental content held as true”. Therefore facts are beliefs which we hold as true because they have been justified as true by science. We are justified in rejecting the claims made for the Power Band because there is no evidence for their claims and their explanations for how it works runs contrary to established knowledge.

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