Exposing PseudoAstronomy

February 18, 2012

Podcast Episode 23: The Fake Story of Planet X, Zecharia Sitchen, Part 1

Ah, modern medicine. As in antibiotics from the pharmaceutical industry (which is NOT an easy word to spell – thank you Google auto-complete!). As in not prayer, therapeutic touch, vitamin mega-doses, yoga, meditating, acupuncture, chi manipulation, homeopathy, exorcisms, magnets, nor any of that other crap. Good ol’-fashioned tested, repeatable, proven drugs.

This episode is late, though back-dated, because I did not get better, I got worse, in my sore throat. To the point of having a fever and noticing white splotches towards the back of my mouth, so I went to the doctor for the first time in almost 8 years, and the first time in over 15 due to an illness (my mom made me get a checkup when I turned 21). I’m surprised that it took so long, but I guess I’ve been lucky to be generally healthy; but when a sore throat lingers for 2 weeks and gets worse and is accompanied by increasing fatigue and fever and chills and white spots in your mouth, I figured it was a good idea to see a doctor. After a day.5 of antibiotics, I’m already feeling much better, though of course I will take my full prescribed 5-day course, and hopefully that’ll be the end of this.

Anywho, the topic of the podcast for (ahem) two days ago is the Fake Story of Planet X. In other words, all that stuff you hear about Planet X being Nibiru, Zecharia Sitchen’s ideas, brown dwarf stars, a 3600-year-long orbit, it approaching from the sun or the south pole so we can’t see it except for the gummament … all that stuff, and why it’s hooey.

The puzzler this time – because I couldn’t think of something else – is more straight-forward math, and it contains two parts — a main question and then a bonus.

I think I’m going to start soliciting puzzlers from people: The next odd-quarter episode, due out March 1 when I’ll be flying to DC, is going to be about the Magnetic Pole Shift. If you can think of a good (decent, half-decent, or passable) puzzler related to that, please e-mail me.


October 10, 2011

Making the Rounds … Another Interview of Me (with someone else, too!)

Here’s a quickie post to let anyone who is interested know that I have been interviewed by my frenemy “Parrot,” AKA “The Dumbass” (he calls himself that) for his new podcast, the Invisible Sky Monster (which I think is a thinly veiled allusion to atheism, but that’s just a hunch). I was interviewed along with Rebecca O’Neill of the Skeprechauns podcast.

The topics we discussed were highly varied, spanning things such as the organic and natural food movements, death of Steve Jobs, “alternative” medicine, the role of critical thinking in life, and womens’ place in society the amount of advocacy that we each personally feel is appropriate or not for apparent minority groups in society at large and in groups/movements (specifically related to women in skepticism, but I expanded it a bit to homosexual advocacy, too).

VERY little astronomy was discussed in this discussion, which lasts about 75 minutes, so if you’re interested in learning my views on some other things, this podcast episode is well worth a listen. Just don’t give it a 4-star rating in iTunes*.

*This will make sense if you listen to the first few minutes.

I also want to clarify my position on this last point (advocacy of minority or under-represented groups) because I don’t think I made it very well in the last 6 minutes of the episode. My personal views are ideally along the lines of “live and let live.” I think that if you push too hard for any one thing that is not an objective fact, you risk a very vocal counter-movement and appearing to be militant and intolerant yourself (since we’re talking about social interactions and groups here, that’s not an “objective fact” like Earth is round).

This does not mean that I don’t think people should be able to join whatever group they want, nor do I think that it’s “okay” that women are highly under-represented in academia or other things because of some real or perceived bias. Again, in the “live and let live” approach, ideally, there wouldn’t be any sort of bias and so there wouldn’t need to be any sort of advocacy on behalf of an under-represented group.

I think all should be welcome and all should feel free to join or not if they want to, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But I, personally, am not a huge fan of the rallies and workshops and endless meetings of how to fix a problem that may not actually exist. And I say this as a member of an under-represented group, one that is actively discriminated against by the majority.

November 10, 2010

Follow-Up 2: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


This is going to be a quick post, and for background, you should take a look at the original post about this issue and the first follow-up.

Sweetheart Deals

It was brought to my attention very early this morning that there is an article on the Sports Business Journal about PowerForce bracelets (subscription required). The article states, in part:

“Power Force, a brand of ion-infused wristbands, has struck sponsorship and advertising deals with more than 100 colleges that will give the company exposure through radio broadcasts, in-stadium signage and on-campus displays. The seven-figure deals … will give Power Force marketing and media rights at most of the nation’s top colleges. On each of the campuses where Power Force made a deal, it will be recognized as the official supplier or preferred supplier of ion-infused products. … Power Force is in the process of supplying the licensed wristbands to the schools’ bookstores and other retail outlets around campus. The company also has begun to set up retail centers under tents on college football game days where it has rights near the stadium.”

Final Thoughts

In today’s society, money talks. Multi-million dollar sponsorship, if the article is accurate, could perhaps be why the CU-Boulder Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson was reluctant to say anything bad about them.

I still think it’s not a valid excuse, and this also continues to raise the interesting question about who is funding these guys. If these were “seven-figure deals” with 100 schools, that’s one hundred million to just under one billion dollars in capital that they have put up. For a company whose website is not very good (duplicated logos at the bottom, links not working or going to the wrong page at the bottom, unreadable font sizes, disappearing press releases that weren’t linked properly the first time, etc.), one really does wonder.

Oh, and in browsing the company’s legal page, I came across this gem:

“Unless we give you written permission in advance, any other use of this website, its content and its information, including linking or framing to this website, is strictly prohibited.”


November 7, 2010

Follow-Up 1: Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience


This post is a follow-up to my first post from two weeks ago, “Major American University Advertising Pseudoscience?” I strongly suggest reading it first.

If you don’t, a very brief summary is:

  • The University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) is a Research I university with 4 Nobel Prize winners on staff, 3 in physics and 1 in chemistry.
  • CU-Boulder has licensed Power|Force to use CU’s logo on PowerForce’s products and CU-Boulder is actively advertising for the product.
  • The product is a bracelet that, in the company’s own words, was “developed to work with your body’s natural inner force … [because] within each Power Force powerband are ions that work with your body’s energy.”
  • This is a fundamentally meaningless statement and in the opinion of many, fraud.
  • This was pointed out to CU-Boulder administration, which replied in an e-mail claiming that magnetic therapy (no mention of ions) is a clinically verified science.
  • See my first post as to why that is not true.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copy below on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

Further Correspondence

I was one of three people whom the original person notified of the advertising of PowerForce by CU-Boulder during football games (that person prefers to remain anonymous, but I have verified the basic claims in my previous post). One of the other people was less lazy than I, and in addition to writing her own blog post about this, sent a letter onto CU-Boulder’s administration. Her reply (and I have received permission to include the reply on my blog as well as post her name), comes not from the Chancellor’s e-mail this time, but Bronson Hilliard, the “Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson” at CU-Boulder.

Dear Rachael:

Allow me to answer your query regarding the University’s athletic marketing of the “Power Force” Power Band.

First, let me explain that the previous response that went out to a few individuals who e-mailed Chancellor DiStefano was supposed to be a reply on behalf of the chancellor by a staff member in our Buffalo Sports Properties office, not areply from the chancellor himself. I apologize for the way the reply was worded – it was confusing as to who the author actually was.

Regarding your query: members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns, looked into the University’s contract with the company that markets the bands, examined our peer universities’ relationships with the company, and reached the following conclusions:

· As you suggest, the claims of the company regarding the efficacy of the band aren’t based on firm scientific ground. However, the band is being marketed by through the athletic department as a novelty with affinity-inspired athletic branding that is unique to CU Athletics. The symbol it uses – the charging Ralphie – represents CU sports teams, not the university as a whole, and certainly not its research entities.

· In the same spirit, our sports-labeled products include everything from sweat bands to golf tees tolawn gnomes. These are all designed to create affinity and build school spirit, not to be literal representations of the University and its academic work.

· Likewise, the company is offering the same Powerforce Power Bands for universities that include Cal, Penn State, Missouri, Pitt and a host of other peer schools. These are quality institutions that, like us, have elected to promote a novelty item with an athletic logo for affinity and commercial purposes.

I appreciate your concern and that of your fellow graduate students and otherskeptics. Your respect for science and the scientific method is manifest inyour concern, and your dedication to advancing our highest academic values is impressive.

We do not believe in the end, however, that novelty items like the “Power Force Power Band” are threats to these values.


Bronson R. Hilliard, director of media relations and spokesperson
University of Colorado at Boulder

An Analysis of Mr. Hilliard’s E-Mail

In this analysis, I am going to translate Mr. Hilliard’s message from that of a media relations person to what it actually says (implies) to those of us who have been pursuing this. My translations are in quotes, my comments are not in quotes. Note that I am not actually claiming that Mr. Hilliard actually said the things I put in quotes, these are just my translations from what I infer.

First Paragraph Translation: I’m not certain to what this is referring, perhaps Rachael in her original e-mail accidentally complained that the message about magnetic healing came from the Chancellor, which it actually did, though in the form of a forward from someone else. Regardless, this paragraph is unimportant as it is stated.

Second Paragraph Translation: “Here’s what we’ve decided:”

Third Paragraph / First Bullet Translation: “Agreed, PowerForce’s claims are meaningless, but I’m being as cagey as I can in stating that. But we’re not actually claiming it works, we’re just marketing it. Oh, and by the way, that CU logo? That doesn’t actually represent CU.” I would consider this an Inconsistency fallacy. Another person has suggested it’s simply an “absurdity” fallacy (not a formal logical fallacy, mind you, but one that works just as well). This claim might be, on paper, true, but anyone in the general public who sees any logo related to CU is not going to separate a sports logo from an academic logo or whatever Mr. Hilliard is claiming.

Fourth Paragraph / Second Bullet Translation: “I hope that what I’m saying is convincing you. ‘Cause, you know, we market other stuff like clothing with the CU logo but I’m saying that those don’t represent the University, either. I mean, a hoodie can really be risqué and we don’t want people to think CU administration really wants to present that image!” Alright, I may have gone slightly over the top with that translation, but in all seriousness, how naïve can a director of media relations be? Or how naïve does he seriously expect us to be? This is a False Equivalency fallacy. He’s attempting to shift the burden of proof to us, which I would claim that I (and others involved in this) have more than met (again, see my first post on this). What my/our point, though, is how can the bracelet and its extraordinary claims be considered a “novelty” that’s simply “designed to create an affinity and build school spirit” if they are being sold with the $29 price tag that claims it comes with magical ions … versus sweatpants that cost the same in the CU bookstore as they would at Target; this is not the same thing (the false equivalency fallacy). No one claims that the garden gnomes that CU sells are going to be like the garden gnomes in Harry Potter, but the claims that come with the bracelets are about as magical as that book/movie series.

Fifth Paragraph / Third Bullet Translation: “By the way, lots of other kewl skools also license this stuff, why don’t you go bug them? We’re just doin’ what everybody else is.” Follow-up: “Oh, everyone else is jumping off a cliff? Sure! I’d love to!” Yeah, that’s pretty much what it boils down to, a very very Skeptics 101 fallacy of Argument ad Populum (AKA Argument from Popularity). As a fellow skeptic pointed out in e-mail to me, this is actually an opportunity for CU-Boulder to take the high road and show these other schools that they are giving their name and logo to this company. As opposed to taking what many may consider a coward’s approach: hiding behind these other schools and jumping on the “everybody’s doin’ it!” bandwagon.

Sixth Paragraph Translation: “By the way, the space bar on my computer isn’t working. But isn’t it cute that there are some of you trying to pursue this? [Insert some trite compliments.]” I don’t think much more needs to be said about this paragraph but I in my infinite verbosity will, anyway. If what preceded it had been different – perhaps owning up and taking some responsibility – then this paragraph would not have come off quite as patronizing as it does. It also was interesting that a Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU-Boulder with a student-staff-administration population of well over 40,000 wouldn’t check over his e-mail to look for mistakes as simple as missing spaces between words.

Seventh Paragraph Translation: “For all those reasons, we’re not doing anything about this.”

Final Thoughts

Mr. Hilliard’s e-mail, whether intended or not, and whether ignorantly or not, is naïve in the middle and patronizing at the end. He seems to not realize – or hopes that we don’t realize – that people aren’t going to think of these as “novelty items” in the same way they are going to buy a golf tee as a “novelty item” or a CU-Boulder logo-infused shot glass as a novelty item. Any normal person is going to (1) see a CU logo and (5) assume CU is endorsing it, skipping all those intermediate steps Mr. Hilliard seems to think will lead them to a different conclusion. No one is claiming that a CU-logo-branded mug is going to imbue your morning coffee with extra energetic forces to get you through the day, and because of that charge you an extra $20. But that’s the basic claim of PowerForce – a fairly meaningless jumble of words sewn together like magnetic poetry on your refrigerator.

Rather than actually stand up and admit that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed, this latest e-mail adds yet another layer of naïveté on CU-Boulder, this time in the office (via the Director) of Media Relations. It now seems that this issue has been studied (re: “members of the senior administration staff have carefully reviewed your concerns”) and they are happy with (a) actively promoting a pseudoscientific product, (b) being associated with a company that – to anyone who knows the basics of human physiology and/or chemistry and/or physics and/or critical thinking – is making things up, and (c) allowing that company to market products with the University’s logo and name.

We also have the Director of Media Relations and Spokesperson for CU committing at least three formal logical fallacies: Inconsistency, False Equivalency, and Argument ad populum.

Yet again, I would call on all of you to contact the administration and let them know what you think. Alternatively or in addition to, you might do so at some of the other schools that license PowerForce, especially if your own school is swept up in this.

I also encourage you to get the word out. WordPress in the last several weeks added the common “sharing” buttons that let you tweet/facebook/digg/reddit/stumbleupon/wordpress my posts to let others know about them. Even if you don’t want to get directly involved by contacting school administrations, I encourage you to pass this post along via any or any combination of those links that are pretty easy to use. Someone among your hundreds of Facebook friends or Twitter followers may decide to send a message along to the administration.

Edited to Add: Rachael, the respondee, has posted her reply to the correspondence I copied above on her own blog. I recommend you read it. I found it humorous that in both of our follow-up posts, we switched around where originally I was the aloof, polite, rational one and she was snarky, and for this follow-up I was more flippant while she was more diplomatic.

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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