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Listener Feedback: Consumer Ripoffs

Skeptoid responds to comments sent in by listeners who don't accept that they've been ripped off.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #392
December 10, 2013
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Today we're opening the feedback mailbag and letting dedicated ripoff customers have their say. So much nonsense is sold these days with convincing and compelling marketing rhetoric, and many customers become converts absolutely convinced that their pet product is a miracle of some kind. Sometimes these are victims of multilevel marketing schemes who would rather persist in their conviction rather than admit they were ripped off, but more often they are ordinary consumers who paid money for a worthless product that does no more or less than their expectations did for them. Yet they all insist on attributing their perception of efficacy to the product itself. The result? Marketers get rich, and customers' wallets get lighter.

Jim from Plano, Texas is evidently a big fan of salt therapy, the latest fad miracle cure-all sold by many spas. As such, he took great issue with my conclusion that this is not something you should spend money on. He said:

I'm quite a skeptic myself, I can spot snake oil a mile away. But in this case, I think you are way off base.
1 -why do most hospitals/medical centers in Europe have salt rooms for upper respiratory sufferers?

I asked five European doctors; none had ever heard of a salt room in a hospital.

2 - why do doctors in Europe order their patients to spend a few weeks in an actual salt cave (if they are in close proximity to one)?

Neither had any of the five ever prescribed such a thing.

3 - why are there testimonials upon testimonials from upper respiratory sufferers that show great improvement using salt rooms?

Because personal testimonials are a fundamental of most marketing. Nearly every product is sold with customer testimonials. And even real customers expressing these testimonials on their own are exactly what we expect. Personal biases, preconceived notions, a lack of controls, the placebo effect, and the true benefits of stress reduction virtually guarantee that people are going to report a positive experience from any restful relaxation, salt or not.

Isn't it strange that people who work in salt mines have no breathing issues? Coincidence? I don't think so.

The claim that salt miners don't suffer from respiratory diseases comes from 1843. A Polish salt mine employed a physician, Feliks Boczkowski, to treat its workers, and Boczkowski treated other locals in his spare time at the mine, advertising with this statement. No scientifically conducted research has ever backed up his claim, nor should we expect it to: miners of all types are subject to a great many respiratory illnesses. Those working in salt mines are certainly less likely than coal or gold miners to develop pneumoconiosis, asbestosis, tuberculosis, or silicosis because they don't work with the associated minerals; but they're at much greater risk than non-miners of dehydration and subsequent lung infections like pneumonia. Boczkowski's advertising claim simply doesn't hold water, and you shouldn't be spending your money trying to acquire something that doesn't exist. Enjoy any relaxation for its stress-reducing benefits, but don't pay extra for a miracle cure-all.

Karolyn from Ruby, South Carolina is a believer in bowel cleansing, which manifests itself in the marketplace primarily as obscenely overpriced fruit juices. She repeats here the most popular marketing claim of these products:

The digestive system does get "clogged" up with junk, especially in those who don't eat properly and lack proper elimination. I have not done a cleanse for many years; however, I remember the effects of it when I did it, and they were beneficial. I did lose weight and felt better than I had in years... of course, there is always the mind-body connection. I think doing good things for your body makes you feel good mentally, which in turn makes you feel good pysically.

As dieticians and internal medicine doctors have been fruitlessly trying to communicate for decades, your bowels are a conveyor belt. What comes in one end goes out the other. Amazingly, alternative medicine marketers have successfully convinced most of the public that only their product will compel the body to do that which it's built to do. No, Carolyn, your system is not "clogged up with junk." If it were, you'd be in the hospital.

The second part of her comment is true: doing good things for your body makes you feel good mentally, and feeling good mentally can often help you feel more relaxed and in better physical condition. This is a fundamental of sound medical advice, and no competent doctor would disagree. Stress relief is wonderful. The problem is when ripoff marketers try to ascribe this benefit to the use of their product, and when customers come to believe that it's a tenet of alternative wellness rather than real wellness. Treat yourself well. Treat your body well. You'll feel better; no purchase needed.

An anonmyous commenter in Columbus, Ohio wrote in response to the episode on speed reading, an interesting and enticing product that, unfortunately, the data has shown does not work. As much as we'd love to hope otherwise, as reading speed goes up, comprehension goes down. Superpowers are always attractive but rarely realistic:

Mr. Skeptoid compared two extremes — people like [Kim] Peek, as an anomaly, and frauds, like [Kevin] Trudeau. Let's not commit the fallacy of the excluded middle in our reasoning when there is ample evidence to the contrary. If a reader begins at 200 WPM and takes a class that speeds his/her rate to 400 WPM, then their reading speed was doubled and the number of books that Mr. Skeptoid complained about not reading in his library would be twice as many. That is "speed reading.".

It would be, but despite the fact that well-marketed superpower classes have entered the public consciousness and have become taken for granted by many people, the largest and best studies have shown that it doesn't work. But the reason I wanted to include this comment here is that Mr. Anonymous thought I focused only on anomalous extreme cases and not on the bulk of ordinary speed reading customers. In fact, the episode focused almost entirely on what he called "the excluded middle". I can only assume he did not actually listen to, or read the transcript of, this episode. The studies I focused on ran for decades and tested thousands of readers.

Interestingly, the best supported conclusion was that to read faster, you should focus on reading slower and better, which increases what researchers call your recognition vocabulary. No classes, gimmicks, or credit cards needed.

The episode on bullshido, or fraudulent martial arts techniques, took martial arts instructors to task for tempting students with magical attacks like the touchless knockout: defeat your opponent with a look or a wave of the hand, and send him sprawling. It strokes our Western fascination with what we believe to be superior Eastern mysticism, and it sells classes. Listener Angelo was quick to defend some of the exact same magical actions going under a different name:

Since you are writting about magical arts it seems fair to me that you should have metioned Reiki or Qi Gong or Perhaps Yoga. As a JKD practioner I learned to try the other arts and I'm not a very relgious person I tried Reiki because of a back injury. Reiki is a healing art and not very likely to kill someone in a fight. Reiki does fall under your Martial arts Magic and does not fall under your Bullshido. After trying a Healing session I immediately realized this internal Art art could prove useful to me as an athlete decided to become a practioner. However as a martial artist and Soldier I recomend everyone at least get their level one with a Reiki master.

A magical touchless knockout deserves a magical touchless cure: reiki. It doesn't matter whether you call it a martial art; doesn't matter whether you call it an attack or a cure; they are two faces of the same tired old New Age "energy" techniques. Consumers, please try to understand: your body does not have an energy field, which is why doctors never talk about them. In fact there isn't really even such a thing as an energy field. Fields are directional, like the gravity field or the electromagnetic field. Energy, on the other hand, is a measurement of work capability. There is no glowing region around the human body in which some kind of static work capability can be measured; it's a conglomeration of words that have nothing to do with each other and don't make any kind of sense.

When a martial arts master or New Age guru tries to sell you a product that looks, feels, and sounds like it's nonexistent — whether it's a touchless knockout for attack or reiki for touchless healing — ask the mechanism. If they say it's to do with energy fields, that's explaining an unknown with another unknown. If you want to buy it anyway, then please pay for it with invisible money. Tell them the currency will astrally project to their bank account along the 49th vibration.

I hate to always bring up local and organic food as a consumer ripoff, because the product is absolutely fine. The reason it's a ripoff is because the marketing message dishonestly tells you that the lower-priced competing product is somehow poisonous or harmful, and thus the marketers charge a premium price on a false premise. "Flex" from San Antonio, Texas defended the practice with the familar arguments:

Though you raise some interesting points, I think you paint an overly-broad picture of organic food buyers as ignorant and conned consumers. On a global scale, "industrial" agriculture may be more sustainable, but those who can afford to buy organic produce from local, smaller farmers are doing a world of good for their communities, and their own health.

Definitively untrue. As discussed in my episode on locally grown produce, eliminating the economies of scale associated with mass distribution is clearly not better for the community, based on simple math. If your preference is instead to profit the small local farmer instead of the commercial farms, who is this local farmer? When you buy broccoli at your local farmer's market, and assuming the guy selling it works for the actual grower, how far did he have to drive his truck from the broccoli farm to your neighorhood? 50 kilometers? 200 kilometers? That farmer's delivery cost per unit sold is outrageous, not to mention incredibly wasteful of fuel.

I would also like to hear your thoughts on organic meat and dairy, and the potential for any pseudo-science behind the better health claims in that industry. I am much more concerned with the meat and dairy my family consumes than I am about produce, and I think the health claims are much stronger on the side of organic meats.

I wouldn't be too concerned. All that really means is that the cattle were given more expensive organic feed rather than conventional feed, which delivered a similar nutrient load, and resulted in nutritionally identical beef. Hardly worth paying for. If your concern is that conventional beef and dairy cattle are usually treated with antibiotics and/or growth hormones (organic cattle is not), then again, your worries are due more to the success of the shocking scaremongering by the marketers of organics and not due to measurable science. The meat is still chemically identical. When cows are so treated, they must be tested before they can be milked or slaughtered, and then the milk or beef is tested again before being distributed. So that's two layers of protection, plus a third layer being that antibiotics are very rapidly metabolized, and a fourth being that even if they weren't there's no plausible safety concern.

So listeners, keep that feedback coming. Got a question, comment, or disagreement with any episode you hear? Come to Skeptoid.com and put it into the comment form on the transcript page for that episode. I look forward to hearing from you.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Listener Feedback: Consumer Ripoffs." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 10 Dec 2013. Web. 25 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4392>

 

References & Further Reading

Dangour, A., Aikenhead, A., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. "Comparison of Putative Health Effects of Oragnically and Conventionally Produced Foodstuffs: A Systematic Review." Food Standards Agency. Food Standards Agency, 29 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/organicreviewreport.pdf>

McWilliams, James E. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.

Medew, J. "Questions over salt caves' claim to fight illnesses." The Age. Fairfax Media, 8 Aug. 2013. Web. 15 Aug. 2013. <http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/questions-over-salt-caves-claim-to-fight-illnesses-20130807-2rguk.html>

Noah, T. "The 1,000-Word Dash." Slate. Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC, 18 Feb. 2000. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. <http://www.slate.com/id/74766>

Thomas, T. Bruce Lee, Fighting Spirit: A Biography. San Antonio: Frog Books, 1994. 224-225.

Wawryszczuk, A., Gucwa, M. Kocham Ziemie Wielicką. Warszawa: Tajne Wojskowe Zakłady Wydawnicze, 2002.

 

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