Snake oil in science magazines


in Economics, Geek stuff, Science

Climbing wall

One odd tendency I have noticed is the frequency with which popular science magazines contain ads for very dubious products and services: often, precisely the sort you would expect the scientifically knowledgeable to shun. Looking through this month’s Scientific American there are ads for ‘stress erasing’ gizmos, a machine that supposedly makes you fit and muscled on the basis of four minutes of exercise a day, and dubious dietary supplements. I recall that Popular Science regularly featured ads for hypnosis machines and virtual reality helmets supposedly capable of teaching you a new language in hours.

Why do companies selling such things consider the readers of science magazines to be a good target audience? One element is probably that actual scientists don’t read these magazines. The articles they publish are not peer-reviewed and can sometimes be quite low-brow (Scientific American, in particular, seems to have made a big shift towards the Popular Mechanics end of the intellectual spectrum). While the readers are unlikely to be scientists, they are likely to have an acute interest in scientific things, novel ideas, and new technologies. Probably, advertisers are taking advantage of the way in which seeing an ad in a trusted publication already full of novel claims provides it with more legitimacy than it might accrue on its own.

In the broader picture, this is just one reflection of the fundamental problems of authenticity and verification that exist in our society. People can’t decide if climate change is happening, whether taking vitamins is helpful and worth the cost, or whether radiation from cell phones is dangerous. Perhaps more than ever before, people are in a world that is incomprehensible due to the abundance, rather than the absence, of information. Those looking to bring in a few dollars from gullible armchair scientists are taking advantage of that confusion.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. March 26, 2008 at 5:56 pm

It may also be that people who read these magazines have an overblown sense of themselves and their ability to process information.

Hubris creates plenty of suckers.

. April 10, 2008 at 12:49 pm

Many Scientists Using Performance Enhancing Drugs

docinthemachine is one of several readers to send word of a new poll published in Nature showing unprecedented levels of cognitive performance-enhancing drug abuse by top academic scientists. The poll, conducted among subscribers to Nature, surveyed 1,400 scientists from 60 nations (70% from the US). 20% reported using performance-enhancing drugs. Among the drug-using population, 62% used Ritalin, 44% used Provigil, and 15% used beta-blockers like Inderal. Frequency of use was evenly divided among those who used drugs daily, weekly, monthly, and once a year. All such use without a prescription is illegal.

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