The Winnipeg Free Press Investigates Sports Bracelets

In today’s Winnipeg Free Press you’ll find an article entitled Wrist management: Can trendy sports bracelets actually improve your game or are they glorified rubber bands? In it, you’ll find a satisfying investigative report by Carolin Vesely on the subject of Power Balance and similar sports bracelets.

Photo by Bill Ebbesen (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

I’ll excerpt some of the good bits here, but please read the article if you’re at all curious about the claims being made.

“That sounds like gibberish to me,” [University of Manitoba kinesiology professor Todd] Duhamel says. Biofields can be measured, but “we don’t know what everybody’s biofield should be; there’s no ‘normal’ biofield frequency” where we can say, ‘Oh, you’re at 47.7 hertz and therefore you’re out of whack because you should be 49 hertz.”

Wearing a watch or ring made of metal will also influence your electrical field, he says, but any ions or other electricity or radiation emitted would only penetrate to a depth of one or two skin cell layers. And it doesn’t make sense, says Duhamel, that something worn on the wrist would affect how your legs work.

“I’d love to see scientific evidence. The fact that they’re making claims about strength and balance but not making an actual health claim would tell me that they have no evidence that it actually affects the human body in any real, meaningful way.”

Renny says iRenew should have results of its latest clinical studies on the website by the end of February. The tab marked “research” currently opens to an empty page, save for a photo of a muscled, braceleted young man hooked up to machines while running on a treadmill.

One of the main marketing tools used by the bracelet companies is a balance test. The test subject is asked to stand on one leg and hold his or her arms straight out to the side. The tester then pushes down on the arm on the same side as the raised leg until the subject falls off balance. The subject then puts on the bracelet and repeats the test — without toppling over.

Gem Newman, founder of the Winnipeg Skeptics, has an explanation.

“It’s a trick sometimes called applied kinesiology,” he says. “The first time when they’re pressing down on your arm, they’re pulling very slightly away from your body. It’s imperceptible to the subject, but they’re pulling you off balance.
“However when they put the wristband on your arm or in your hand, they’ll pull down on your arm again but slightly toward your body.”

Members of his group exposed the “trickery” for visitors at this year’s Red River Ex, where they happened to have their booth near a vendor of Energy Balance bracelets.

Anyone can test this out for themselves at home with a friend, says Newman.

“I’ll usually do it with my magic iPhone.”

When she was writing the article, Carolin Vesely contacted me about some of the claims these hucksters were making. I gave her a brief overview of some of the tricks they use to convince people that their balance or flexibility is improved, and tried to put her in touch with Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics. Unfortunately, the time difference apparently made it difficult to conduct a telephone interview, so you’re stuck with me, instead.

For those interested, here’s some news coverage from Australia that, while being rife with false balance and anecdote, does conduct a miniature blinded trial:

Because the claim isn’t addressed in the video, I feel the need to point out that in the segment where flexibility is being tested by having a “skeptical” reporter twist at the waist, it’s common for the subject to be able to twist around more fully on the second attempt than on the first, regardless of whether they’re wearing a rubber band.

Credit where credit is due: Richard Saunders and the rest of the Australian Skeptics deserve high praise for the work that they’ve done combating the vigorous nonsense promoted by Power Balance and their imitators, so I’ll give Richard the last word. Here he is demonstrating exactly how this so-called “applied kinesiology” trick works. It’s easy to do, and I highly recommend trying it out for yourself!

Escape to Reality

The Humanist Association of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Skeptics were joint sponsors of an informational booth at the Red River Exhibition that ran 17–26 June 2011. Surrounded as we were by booths from the Gideons, the Winnipeg League for Life, the Church of Scientology, and folks hawking knock-off Power Balance wristbands, we called the booth “Escape to Reality”.

I spent a fair portion of my free time over the last week staffing the booth (along with the indefatigable and demonstrably more dedicated Donna Harris and others), and generally had a lot of fun. We even got a shout-out from PZ, which is always appreciated. We had many enjoyable conversations with believers and skeptics of all stripes.

Donna, Laura, and I chatted at length with a few creationists, who were apparently offended that one of our signs put “Young Earth Creationism” in the same evidential category as “The Easter Bunny”. When pressed, they could provide no positive evidence for their position, and seemed to forget several of their own talking points. Apparently there are no beneficial mutations, evolution cannot add information to the genome, and Darwinism predicts that species will just get stronger, smarter, and better over time, while we’re clearly just getting sicker and sicker.

When I tried to explain that evolution only predicts increasing adaptation to the species’ environment, I was smugly informed that I did not understand evolution. When I tried to explain precisely how mutations can add “information” in a genetic sequence, bringing up insertions, deletions, transpositions, and point mutations, I was met with blank stares. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote out some codons (ATG CTG TAG…), changing or crossing out letters to illustrate the replication or replacement of one or more nucleotides.

“I’m going to stop you there,” one of the creationists said. “What are all those letters supposed to mean?”

Sorry, I thought, my mistake. I assumed that because you so arrogantly asserted that mutations were incapable of adding new information to a genome, you were at least passingly familiar with what “information” means in the context of genetics. I decided to cut my losses and move on.

There were times that they stumbled over their own talking points, which I found amusing. For example, they brought up Mount St. Helens several times, but couldn’t seem to remember why it was so important for their case. I reminded them that Steven Austin had rock from a new lava flow at Mount St. Helens dated, and the potassium-argon dating showed the rock to be hundreds of thousands of years old—unfortunately, it is well established that Austin (either knowingly or in ignorance) used the incorrect radiometric dating methods. The various types of radiometric dating are accurate for varying (and overlapping) ranges of time. They are validated not only against each other, but also by other dating methods, such as dendrochronology, which uses tree rings.

Wait a second, it says here that God created humanity, not Darwin...

Of course, the creationists weren’t the only people we met whose beliefs took a sharp right turn when confronted with reality. A young woman who seemed very interested in our booth asked me, “Do you guys believe in energy?” “Sure!” I said. “Energy is the capacity of a system to perform work.” She seemed a little nonplussed by this. “No,” she said. “How we’re all connected by energy. It’s all about science. There’s this movie you should see…” “Ah!” I said. “You’re talking about What the Bleep Do We Know?.” And then I told her, as gently as I could, precisely what I thought of that particular quantum fantasy film.

We spent much of our time at the Ex promoting SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, which is coming up on September 17th at Aqua Books, and the MASH Film Festival, on August 14th at the Park Theatre. Both events garnered a lot of interest.

We also did a few demonstrations. I’m told that the fellow hawking “Energy Balance” bracelets ($30 rubber bands—with “ions”!) threatened to call security on Ashlyn as she calmly explained to his marks how all of his tricks could easily be faked. Hypothetically, of course. She wasn’t calling him a fraud. It’s all about the consumer protection, folks! (Richard Saunders explains the tricks here.)

On Thursday night, Scott and I went to get “stress tests” at the Dianetics booth run by the Church of Scientology. There, we were asked personal questions while we held tin cans connected to a volt meter. I found that if you squeezed the cans, the needle would jump, which led to some amusing shenanigans.

Pictured: Science.

There, we learned that L. Ron Hubbard had apparently been both a renowned physicist and a research psychologist. “Through his research,” I was told, “he discovered that humans are spiritual beings.” Fascinating! We were told that Scientologists were first responders in Haiti and Japan. “Oh,” I said, “that’s great! How did they help?” I was informed that these “first responders” were trained in Touch Assist, a form of energy healing.

The recruiters told Scott and I that one of the greatest boons that Dianetics has to offer is increased mental discipline and help to those who suffer from mental illness. “You know how Einstein said that you only use this much of your brain?” my recruiter said, holding her hands about an inch apart. “Well, with Dianetics…” She spread her arms wide, presumably indicating that Dianetics would allow me to meet my intellectual potential.

“So Dianetics is about mental health,” I said slowly. “That’s exactly right,” she told me.

“Oh,” I said. “Like psychiatry.”

She stared at me as though I’d slapped her. Recovering quickly, she launched into a conspiracy-mongering diatribe about drug dependency and the Big Psychiatry smear campaign against the Church of Scientology. Scientologist successfully trolled. I’m such a bastard.

My favourite quotation of the night: “Dianetics is a science. It’s like gravity. You can’t disprove it.” Fact.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped out with planning and staffing the booth, and to those who stopped by for a chat!

Power Balance Apologises for Misleading the Public

From the official Power Balance Australia website:

CORRECTIVE ADVERTISEMENT

POWER BALANCE WRISTBANDS

In our advertising we stated that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility.

We admit 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. [Emphasis added.]

If you feel you have been misled by our promotions, we wish to unreservedly apologise and offer a full refund.

To obtain a refund please visit our website http://www.powerbalance.com.au or contact us toll-free on 1800 733 436

This offer will be available until 30th June 2011. To be eligible for a refund, together with return postage, you will need to return a genuine Power Balance product along with proof of purchase (including credit card records, store barcodes and receipts) from an authorised reseller in Australia.

This Corrective Notice has been paid for by Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd and placed pursuant to an undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission given under section 87B of the Trade Practices Act, 1974.

Congratulations to Richard Saunders and everyone else who has been tirelessly skeptical of such pseudoscientific magic trinkets.