Pop Quiz: Consumer Ripoffs
Take your seats, class, because it's time for another pop quiz! If you think you've done well enough on the previous quizzes, today is my chance to knock you down a peg. Today's topic is consumer ripoffs: snake-oil products and other scams that leave the scientifically illiterate vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
So let's begin. If you want time to think about each of these, just be ready to hit the pause button before I give the answer, and feel free to take as much time as you need. And don't try to look for a pattern, because I used a D6 die as a random number generator to place each correct answer.
What were once called multi-level marketing programs — barely-legal variations on pyramid schemes — such as Amway, Herbalife, and doTerra have rebranded themselves as network marketing in an effort to escape the stigma. Surveys of participants have proven what the statistical models predict, which is that virtually no participants ever either successfully sign people up as distributors, or successfully sell the products to anyone else. What percentage of all MLM participants lose money, rounded to the nearest percentage point?
The correct answer is C, 99.95% of everyone who gets roped into a network marketing scheme will lose their money. Maybe you will be lucky enough to be one of those 1 in 2000 who manage to break even; but to do so, you will typically need to be one of the company's founders.
Sooner or later, nearly everyone's credit card number gets caught up in a data breach, and receives some fraudulent charges. In an effort to defend against this, some people always try for the latest and greatest high-tech way to transact securely; others go the opposite direction and only use their card when a paper slip is used, hoping to avoid all electronic transmission of their number. Which of these three is the riskiest way to use your card?
The correct answer is B, swiping the magnetic strip. In many cases, this puts your credit card number into a point of sale system. It's often encrypted as the next step, but all of the large, high-profile cases of millions of credit card numbers being stolen come from these systems where the swiped numbers were stored somewhere in some database. Phone apps and chip cards, however, create a direct encrypted connection to the bank using one-time tokens, never exposing your card number to any system at all.
But of course, all three of these are far safer than handing your card to a restaurant server.
It's finally become well reported in the mass media that cleansing regimens, such as 7-day courses of juice drinks, do your body more harm than good, by causing it to scavenge its own lean mass to make up for missing nutrients. And it's also becoming increasingly reported that the idea of "cleansing" some hypothetical "toxins" from your body is pure pseudoscience; as the filtration of actual toxins and waste is done quite effectively by your liver and your kidneys. Thus, the marketers have to resort to deceptive claims to keep the customers coming. Which of these demographics is the biggest target market for cleansing products?
The correct answer is B. The biggest buyers of cleansing products are healthy, affluent, educated young women, so that's where the manufacturers direct their advertising. Unhealthy people tend to have real things to worry about, so they spend their healthcare resources on actual treatments. Education correlates with affluence, which is where we find people with disposable income. Younger people tend to be more into virtue-signaling wellness trends. Men tend to eat more meat and bread, while women tend to eat more fruit. These cleansing drinks are nearly always high-sugar fruit drinks, so they appeal most to women with disposable income who lack health problems.
Speed reading courses still promise to help you boost your reading speed to astronomical levels, even though decades of research has proven that getting faster always comes at the expense of comprehension. In fact, it's been shown that record-setting speed readers have about the same comprehension level as people who haven't read the text at all. When average people sit down to read something with their desired, natural level of comprehension, about what speed do they read at?
The correct answer is C, about 300 words a minute. Testing of people in the real world has shown that most of us read 200 to 400 words a minute, with the average right in the middle. Above 400, comprehension drops off precipitously.
It's always worth remembering that humanity's greatest speed reader, the prodigious savant Kim Peek, had specialized hardware that allowed him to read 10,000 words a minute with near perfect comprehension — the total lack of a corpus callosum structure in his brain, possibly allowing him to process two pages at once in parallel.
Just as we've started to see with cleansing products, there's been a detectable uptick in the mass media of correct reporting of the fact that products claiming to "boost your immune system" are deceptive. The immune system must be delicately balanced; too weak of an immune system leaves us vulnerable to pathogens; too strong of an immune system triggers autoimmune diseases, which are not something you want. Which of these is not a consequence of a boosted immune system?
The correct answer is A, obesity. Psoriasis and multiple sclerosis are both autoimmune diseases which happen when the body's immune system becomes overactive. If any of these products did truly have some ability to strengthen your immune responses, these are two very real possible outcomes you might experience. Fortunately we don't see this happening, which is another line of evidence that all such products are fraudulent.
One of the worst things you can do online is to use the same password on many websites, or on your email, or other services. If your data ever got caught up in one of the large public data breaches, and if that breach included that password, you may find out that many of your accounts have been broken into. Which of these three options is the safest password policy to follow?
The correct answer is A. Password managers built into modern web browsers generate strong passwords, but most important, they are different for every site and service you use. The browser should remember them for you, so there is no downside to using strong, hard-to-guess passwords. Here's what's wrong with the other two options.
Websites that restrict you to using certain combinations of upper and lower case, numbers, and special characters will often not work with browser password managers, forcing you to manually invent a password that meets the requirements. Frustrated users will often resort to the simplest password that works. Research has proven these passwords are less secure.
Easily remembered passwords consisting of long strings of common words are actually great passwords, due to their length. The weakness is that it's a password you come up with and remember yourself. Research has proven that people tend to re-use such passwords on multiple sites, thus making them less secure.
Martial arts are full of woo, especially when hucksters offer to sell amazing secrets like the touchless knockout. One such example was a booklet called The World's Deadliest Fighting Secrets that used to be sold in the backs of comic books. Who was its author?
The correct answer is A, Count Dante. John Timothy Keehan, who legally changed his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante, promised his booklet would save your life. His advertisement most boldly touted the Dim Mak, or touch of death: the ability to kill any opponent with one simple touch. It was, of course, bullshido.
Cryotherapy is a current fad where you get into a chamber for three minutes at temperatures as low as -170°C/-275°F. Claims for its medical benefits are myriad, but many focus on athletic recovery, just like using an icepack. It does not have this effect, because cold air is a terrible conductor of heat. Which of the following effects does cryotherapy actually have?
The correct answer is B, it gives you a rush. It's called the cold shock response, like what you'd get jumping suddenly into freezing water. Among its numerous physiological changes throughout the body are the production of dopamine in the brain and a great dump of adrenalin into the bloodstream, which produces endorphins. This might feel nice in the short term, but if you were hoping for pain relief for your sore or inflamed knee or shoulder, sorry, but you're still going to need that icepack.
Among the many products sold through network marketing schemes are machines that claim to ionize and alkalize your water, which, they claim, provides a huge range of health benefits. But since pure water is not electrically conductive, it can't really be ionized; so to make this possible, you have to add a special solution to your water to make it alkaline — a solution which is almost as expensive as the machine itself. There is no medically sound reason you'd want to do this, but assuming you did want to anyway just for grins, you could accomplish the same thing by adding a bit of what to your regular tap water?
The correct answer is A, bleach. Having dissolved metallic ions in solution in your water is all these machines achieve. That's right, you could spend thousands of dollars to join a multi-level marketing scheme and get one of these silly water filters, or you could just add a small amount of Clorox bleach to your water, and get identical results. If you believe the marketing materials, and are persuaded that this is the unsung secret to miracle health, just ask your doctor if adding a small amount of bleach to your diet is something you should do.
Many companies offer to sell you either real estate on Mars or the Moon, or the naming rights to celestial bodies such as stars or asteroids. Few of these services are legitimate, as any names they might sell are not legally recognized by anyone. Which is the one organization on Earth which, by international treaty, is actually authorized to sell star naming rights?
The correct answer is C, nobody. Although many companies will take your money to sell you naming rights for a star, none of them have any legal right to do so. The International Astronomical Union is the only recognized naming authority, but their services are not for sale. They have special processes in place by which celestial objects acquire their names, but in no case are commercial transactions ever involved. If you want a star named after you, your best bet is to become a god of an ancient culture.
And so ends this week's pop quiz. How did you do? If you got all ten right, either you're naturally really good at protecting yourself from scams, or else Skeptoid is doing its job at finding the intersection between science literacy and consumer protection. As always, tweet me your score at Twitter.com/BrianDunning, or post it to the Skeptoid Podcast page on Facebook.
Correction: An earlier version of this accidentally had two correct answers offered for #9. Baking soda was a choice, which would also make your water alkaline. –BD
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