Products, Science & SkepticismPower Balance  Science or Scam? 

-Words by Ru Hill
Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

During today’s 2010 RipCurl Search event there were a lot of adverts for ‘Power Balance’ products. This time legendary Hawaii surfer, Bruce Irons was endorsing the bracelets and so we thought that the incredible claims made by the company warranted some objective investigation.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Carl Sagan once pointed out that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. For example if a friend tells you that there is an ice cube in the road, you would probably believe them but if they told you there was an iceberg in the road, you would want to see for yourself. So first we need to establish the claims made by Power Balance. Are they extraordinary and how good is the evidence to support them?

Their website says that the human body has an ‘energy field’ and that this energy field can be affected by a hologram. Not only that but the hologram affects the energy field in a way which increase a person’s balance, strength and flexibility. These are actually game changing claims which throw out the window the entire foundation of medical science. However, to be fair, this doesn’t mean that the claims are not true. It just means they need to produce better evidence than the body of evidence which already exists to the contrary (which, in this case, is massive).

Strangely then that there is no evidence at all on their website, apart from the anecdotal reports on their testimonial’s page. “What’s wrong with anecdotal evidence?” I hear you say. The quality of the evidence depends largely on the size of the study group. The bigger the group, the more useful the data. An anecdote is effectively just an uncontrolled, unblinded study group of… one. Not the kind of thing which rocks the scientific community. That’s why it’s irrelevant that Bruce Irons says it works for him.

So Power Balance products fall into the same category as physic reading, homeopathy and faith healing. There’s no plausible mechanism going on and no good quality data to support the claims being made. When the user has a positive experience, the product gets the credit. If the user does not, then they either believe that they need more of the product or that they would have been worse off without it. It’s a win/win for the guy running the scam. In one form or another, it’s a scam which has been around for thousands of years and has fooled a lot of people into doing some very silly things. It’s just as well we’ve got the good ol’ scientific method to help us navigate the nonsense.

Not convinced? Australia’s Today Tonight program got uncharacteristically scientific and performed a blinded test on the Power Balance bracelets and as soon as no one knew where the hologram was (surprise surprise) it stopped working.

The defense offered by Power Balance’s proponents is the classic logical fallacy of “Argument By Volume” (i.e. lots of people think it, therefore it must be true). An argument by volume makes no sense as many people in the world hold contradicting beliefs and so logically huge numbers of people can be (are often are) wrong about stuff. Since we’re getting into logical fallacies, another one worth noting is the “Argument From Authority” (i.e. Bruce Irons says it so it must be true).

Does it work then? In a word …no. There’s no magical shortcuts I’m afraid. You’d do far better to spend $30 on Taylor Knox’s surf exercises DVD than flush away $60 on a Power Balance bracelet. So it was a disillusioned Ru that sadly took down the Bruce Irons poster from the wall of the Surf Simply offices …still not to worry there are plenty more surfers in the sea.

While researching the Power Balance bracelet, we stumbled across this hilarious poem about pseudosciences by Australian comedian Tim Minchin and we thought you might like it too. Enjoy…