Exposing PseudoAstronomy

October 27, 2010

Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?


I will start this post with two disclaimers.

First, I am not a medical professional, nor student, nor have I had any medical training beyond a wonderfully taught class in high school on human anatomy and physiology. That is why I link to those who do have that necessary expertise for some points in this post. I do have the physics background, though, and use that where appropriate.

Second, I will be discussing the contents of two e-mails that were not sent to nor from me but were forwarded to me by the initial sender. I have received their (being gender neutral) permission to post the contents and while I have no way of guaranteeing the validity, I do think they are genuine since I know the person who sent them fairly well. I have also verified the main claims contained in the initial e-mail. I will also be anonymizing them for some liability reasons except for the name of the Chancellor (since that’s easy enough for anyone to look up, anyway).

With that out of the way, I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder), for those of you who have not been reading this blog very long or have not checked the “About” page. For those who are unfamiliar with the university, it boasts roughly 30,000 undergraduate students and somewhere around 6,000 graduate students. The university has four Nobel laureates, three of them are in physics and one in chemistry. It is a Research I university meaning that faculty who want to do more research than teaching will go here, and it is fairly prestigious. The university is also reasonably famous (maybe a tad infamous, too) for its sports, and the entire campus pretty much shuts down itself and the nearby streets when there’s a football game. Now comes the disappointing part.

Edited to Add: I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.

Initial E-Mail

Mr. Chancellor, Mr. Athletic Director, and esteemed regents:

Today I attended a football game at my alma mater CU-Boulder. I felt a moment of pride as I passed by Wayne [sic] Physics and saw the sign noting CU’s three nobel prize winners in physics. This feeling was countered by one of chagrin when I saw that CU was promoting a plastic wrist band called “Power Force” as “the preferred wrist band of CU athletics.” This promotion was done on the video screen (complete with a photo of the power force band) and with the announcer promoting this product. It was, to my memory, the only product that was promoted during the game in such a fashion during today’s game. I have had an opportunity to examine the website for this Power Force. They are selling rubber (or rubberized plastic, it does not actually say) wrist bands with collegiate logos for $28.99.

The website justifies this price with the following advertising copy: “Power Force Power Bands the Official Power Band of Collegiate Licensed Schools. Power Force, LLC is licensed to distribute team merchandise for more than 100 college teams. Power Force’s Innovative Products were developed to work with your body’s natural inner force. Within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy to give you confidence from within. Your inner force is limitless. Channel this force with Power Force powerband. Power Your Inner Force.” It does not take more than a rudimentary understanding of human anatomy and physiology to understand that there is no such thing as a “natural inner force” and that imbuing a plastic wrist band with some kind of ion is not going to have any effect on the human body whatsoever (except–I guess–if the ions were somehow toxic and would poison the wearer, which I doubt is the case here). The claim by the Power Force company as to the efficacy of this product is clearly pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. It is extremely disappointing to see a university of CU’s caliber publicly and proudly associate itself with this kind of product, and with this kind of pseudoscientific claim. You are quite clearly (and apparently proudly) involved in selling a … overpriced product that cannot work in the way that its sales people claim. … This is no different than having the “preferred palm reader of CU Athletics” or the “preferred psychic medium of CU Athletics.”

I would also note that the website for Power Force brags that it is the official wristband of a great many universities. I don’t know how so many universities have been horns-waggled into an association with this dubious business partner, but I urge you to reconsider CU’s association, for the good name of the University that all of us love.

The website for this Power Force company is: http://www.powerforcellc.com/

Thank you for your consideration.

CU graduate, BA A&S [year].

Emphasis is mine. Ellipses have been added to avoid liability issues.


Dear [Name],
I asked our athletic department for an explanation for you regarding how products receive permission to use the CU logo and its endorsement. Buffalo Sports Properties owns the rights to all the advertising and sponsorship opportunities so this is their response.

“The company Powerforce went through all of the appropriate channels for approval to use the CU marks and logos. They applied for the CU license through CLC and based on the company’s information, goals and objectives, a license was granted. Additionally, the company has paid for a sponsorship with CU Athletics, which is the product was [sic] promoted on the video board.

As for the actual product, there has been research about magnetic therapy and its effects on pain, stress, fatigue, and concentration. While I don’t have access to our campus library (which may have better access to scientific research), here are two links to websites with articles about magnetic therapy.

[First Name]
[Full Name]
Buffalo Sports Properties

Thank you for your interest and support of CU.

Go Buffs!

Philip P. DiStefano, Chancellor
University of Colorado Boulder


What are these mysterious “ions”? Put very simply, all atoms have at least one proton. If an atom does not have the same number of electrons as it does protons, then it is an ion. This will give the atom a net positive or net negative charge (if number of electrons is less than protons, then positive; if electrons are more than protons, then negative).

Now, it is true that ions in the body play an important role – an essential role – in allowing cell membranes to function as they should and in the basic function of muscle and nerve cells. I’m not going into more detail there because that’s beyond my expertise and it’s unimportant to this post. What is important is that while ions are essential, the phrase, “ions … work with your body’s natural inner force” is absolutely meaningless.

What inner force? There are four fundamental forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. So maybe they mean electromagnetic force. Except that the ions in a bracelet aren’t going to affect you in any way, pretty much no matter how strong they try to make them (assuming they actually do “put ions” into their product). For example, the multi-million dollar machines hospitals use called MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) create electromagnetic fields that are thousands of times stronger than a refrigerator magnet, yet they don’t affect your health.

One sentence later, the marketing claim for PowerForce changes: “… [I]ons … work with your body’s energy …” But we’re faced with a similar problem. What energy? I’ll refer you to Skeptoid Episode #1 – New Age Energy for a good discussion on that.

Magnetic Supposed-Therapy

Interestingly, the response quoted by the Chancellor has nothing to do with ions. Rather, the person moved the goalpost to discuss magnetic therapy. This lends credence to my supposition that PowerForce is advocating that the “force” their products work through is the electromagnetic.

It’s also interesting to note that the responder thinks that the CU library may have “better access to scientific research” on magnetic therapy. I’ll tell you that they have better access than the average person to medical journals, but magnetic therapy studies that are actually done with large sample sizes and are double-blinded show null results. I recommend listening to QuackCast episode #15 that has a 33-minute discussion of the main claims of magnet therapy and why they are all untrue.

Since I am not a medical person, I will merely state and explain my favorite: The most common is that magnetic bracelets will help the flow of blood because your blood (specifically the hemoglobin molecule in the red blood cells) contains iron. The only problem with this is that the iron in the hemoglobin is nearly completely magnetically neutral. If it wasn’t, then if you went in to get an MRI, your blood would explosively exit your body and coat the inside of the machine. It’s really that simple.

I went to the two links that were recommended by the Buffalo Sports Properties responder. The first has an ad at the top that promises to teach you to “use your own body’s healing power to end chronic tendonitis pain.” The second is fairly obviously an umbrella page for pro-magnet therapy folks. While not necessarily wrong to use this as evidence, it is wrong to use them if you actually read their studies. The first is a self-study and is meaningless since it was completely unblinded. The second is a report on another study that in itself is meaningless and one would need to examine the initial study. The third is from the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine … hardly a mainstream journal that is accepted by most medical professionals.

For magnetic therapy to actually be true, it must be physically plausible, requiring a mechanism. From a physics standpoint, it does not, at least not in any of the ways promoted. Again, one of the easiest ways to almost literally blast any claim to its efficacy is to take it to the logical conclusion: Put the person in an MRI and the effects should be magnified significantly. And yet decades of MRI use has failed to show any kind of results claimed by magnetic therapy proponents.

Edited to add: A good, recent meta-analysis of magnet therapy.

Final Thoughts: What We’re Left

We are left with either knowingly or unknowingly ignorant marketing and promotion. If unknowing, it’s embarrassing at a bare minimum and should be corrected when pointed out. If knowing, then I would, in my opinion, say this probably gets into the realm of fraud (by the PowerForce company).

It’s ridiculous that a university as prestigious as CU, with three physics and one chemistry Nobel laureates on faculty, would sink to the level of unabashedly lending its name, logos, and promotional space to such an obviously untrue product and set of claims. I can understand someone over in the Buffalo Sports Properties office being ignorant of physics, chemistry, and human physiology and being swayed by big words, sciencey-sounding claims, and falling prey to the argument from popularity of dozens of universities on their bandwagon.

I may even be able to understand a Chancellor maybe not wanting to deal with looking further into the issue. But that’s part of his job. Any kind of promotion of pseudoscience by any academic institution should not be tolerated.

I have checked the PowerForce website and they do offer the CU bracelet. Their main marketing page does make the claims quoted in the initial e-mail. I encourage anyone and everyone who thinks that a university should not promote pseudoscience to contact the CU-Boulder administration and let them know.

If you do contact them, I recommend sticking to the basic fact that CU allows PowerForce to license their name and logo, that CU unabashedly advertises for them, and that the claims are demonstrably wrong. Details of the initial e-mail I presented and the narrative that followed are less important than the basic idea of an academic institution advertising pseudoscience.

Or, if you go to, are employed by, or are affiliated with another university, I encourage you to check out PowerForce’s website and see if they have yours listed. And then contact your own university’s administration.

Edited to Add: Now that you have read this, I have written a follow-up post with the response of the Media Relations Director and Spokesperson at CU-Boulder. It’s not encouraging.


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