Monday, 12 March 2012
QEDcon: Richard Saunders - The Delights and Dangers of Being a TV Skeptic
Richard Saunders is a film/ TV actor and a skeptic. Perhaps his most famous show is called "The One".
We're first presented with an important message. Skeptical activism should be done and seen and heard by as many as possible.
He worked on a show called the one in 2008 & 2011. The show focused on trying to find a real-life psychic. The process to choose contestants was not very thorough, and looked for characters really. Marketing slogans said "Search for Australia's best psychic".
The idea was to whittle the contestants down to three, and public would vote for the remaining ones. Skeptical judge was Richard Saunders. The believer judge was Stacey De Marco who self described as a witch.
Richard says the show was "Good fun". He seems to look at it warmly, but not too seriously.
When the show went to air the networks encouraged the audience to tweet about it. The producers received live feedback as the show was aired. Richard said he enjoyed watching the twitter feed. It seems to be divided into two camps, believers and skeptics. The twitter battles turned out to be more entertaining than watching the show.
The producers relied heavily on Richard to recommend test protocols. Unfortunately not everyone knows how to run tests, however, the focus was on good television and not scientific tests. Do not read too much into whether the contestants do well or badly.
He then talks about the false balance on morning TV shows etc. On one such show a peice of ghost footage was shown. He played us the Ghost footage.
I thought it was a fly crawling across the lens. The psychics said it was real. Richard said it was a moth or spider crawling across the dome of the night security camera. The show took it to a video lab who agreed with the psychic.
Being a prominent skeptic led to an interesting situation regarding power balance bands. In 2009 Richard saw a report on TV advertising a wrist band with extraordinary claims. He recognised what the power balance test was. It's an old trick that has more to do with the balance of the person and angle of pressure than anything else.
Richard soon found out a lot more about power balance. They are all over world. Marketing claimed that it will even out the force fields in your body.
Why were people convinced? Scientific words. And the demonstrations used were convincing people.
Michel Marshal "volunteered" to have the tests done on him so we could all see what Power Balance were using as a test.
The video below was played later in the talk but I've included it here as it shows the tests.
Richard set up his own video showing how to do this. He also set up a guide for students called F.A.K.E.
There are 4 tests. Arm balance, back balance, tip test and flexibility. The tests are shown in the video above. They have a trick to them that can fool the person being tested into thinking things are improving.
There's also the matter of perception. Sport stars backed the products. Presumably they were also fooled by the tests & marketing. "Give a man a reputation of an early riser and he will sleep til noon." The enthusiasm of Power Balance had people convinced it was real.
Richard flew to Adelaide to meet Tom, the distributor of power balance in Australia and set up tests. The test is shown in the video above. All he had to do was find which of the six people had the real Power Balance hologram. Tom failed five out of five times.
Richard says that he thinks Tom was a true believer. He says he thinks Tom was out to help people, and was conned by the product he was selling. The reason Richard thought Tom was a true believer was that he was happy to be tested on TV. A con artist would probably shy away from TV and testing. Tom agreed to fair conditions and was puzzled when he kept failing. No ready excuses. Tom later wrote off the tests as silly TV games. Victim of the ideomotor effect?
Richard made a video on YouTube called applied kinesiology. It explained the scam.
Power Balance was told to make retraction of their claims. An official government retraction saying product doesn't work. The ACCC called the product a con, a fraud, a sham.
A company can't really come back from that kind of publicity. Power Balance were required to place a corrective ad in all publications previously advertised in and to offer a full refund to all. 20 publications had the retraction published.
Then one day the Power Balance Australia website was gone. The parent company had removed all trace of the Australia distributor.
But a class action suit was launched in the USA. The American company was forced into bankruptcy. Power Balance used Tom as the scapegoat for failure. The company Power Balance was eventually sold to a Chinese manufacturer
Lessons for skeptics:
1. Know your topic
2. Spoon feed the media
3. Keep it simple
4. In the end it may take government action
Unfortunately you can still buy variations of Power Balance all around the world. For example, Ion band. This was sold in the same chain in Australia who were selling power balance.
Richard wrote an open letter to Rebel Sport and NRG against power bands and posted this on twitter. After many people tweeting about it and complaining, the retailer decided to remove the product from sale altogether.