How to Spot Pseudoscience on the Internet




We live in an age of unprecedented access to information. While this generally is helpful, it also poses a threat by way of the distribution of misinformation. It’s easier than ever for an individual or even large companies to make up some bogus scientific claims for monetary gain. In this article, we’ll be exploring an example of such a case — a very real company using fake science to sell products — and how you can spot such ruses for yourself.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that many companies peddling pseudoscience on the internet don’t have truly malicious intentions. They aren’t trying to steal your identity. They aren’t trying to rob you of your entire life’s savings. Some even believe in the claims they list. Most often, the goal is to sell a product.

There are numerous categories of pseudo-scientific claims designed to sell products. Sometimes a company may exaggerate the effectiveness of its products, while another may entirely invent bogus claims. The company we’ll be looking at, called energydots, is an example of the latter.

energydots is a company selling expensive stickers designed to do everything from “retune the energy around you” to “harmonize the spatial energy” around the product. We’ll be focusing on the smartDOT which offers protection against ambient electromagnetic radiation in the form of a small adhesive disk for the low price of $40.

the smartDOT

Let’s begin by enumerating the hallmarks of pseudo-scientific products. While these examples may be specific to the product in question, they are generally applicable to all kinds of products.

1. Targeting a Real Fear

Big scary cell tower

Just as the best lies contain a kernel of truth, the most successful product scams prey on real scientific concern. Much of the energydots website is devoted to espousing the dangers of electromagnetic radiation. Even in the regular media, countless articles bombard the public with messages about the dangers of cell phones, routers, and other devices emitting radio waves. The truth is, however, that the scientific community is still uncertain that such radiation has a negative effect on one’s health.

Websites such as energydots’ claim that electromagnetic fields are the cause of ailments like headaches, insomnia, and nausea. It’s no coincidence that these are also common maladies that every individual will suffer at some point in his/her life. I’ll mention fake scientific studies more later, but for now just recognize that smartDOTs are “designed” to address a problem that hasn’t yet been scientifically validated.

2. A Solution That’s Too Good to Be True

energydots’ SPACE PYRAMID — yours for only $195

smartDOT is programmed to harmonize or retune the EMF frequencies from the electronic equipment you use regularly. Each cell in our body acts like an antenna, an extremely sensitive transmitter of electromagnetic radiation; the body will thus ‘pick up’ and react to any such field to which it is exposed. Retune these fields and enable the body to relax!

The energydots website goes on to claim that you can place a smartDOT on any device that you think affects your health and it will fix the problem. Clearly, a device that actually did what energydots claims would have to be specifically tailored for the device in question. I can envision a jammer that deconstructively interferes with waves of a specific frequency and phase, but such a system would have to be very carefully set up and calibrated.

In other words, there’s simply no physical way that a smartDOT can do what energydots claims given the composition of the smartDOT. energydots says that their smartDOTs utilize the same magnetic technology as credit cards to “reprogram” the electromagnetic radiation around you. The magnetic strips on credit cards can encode information in tiny magnets, not seriously alter electromagnetic radiation.

The magnetic pattern inside of a smartDOT

Interestingly enough, there does appear to be a magnetic pattern inside the smartDOT. I purchased some magnetic viewing film that allows one to visualize the magnets. The pattern of magnets in a smartDOT is shown above. This may look cool, but it is useless. Electromagnetic waves such as those emitted by your cell phone are not perturbed by weak magnetic fields, despite the word “magnet” being in the term.

3. Fake Scientific Studies

“Science”

Much of the rhetoric on the energydots website doesn’t claim to be entirely scientific. This isn’t really the dangerous part — individuals are getting increasingly better at recognizing what is just an opinion. For example, the “how do they work” page for energydots simply lists a bunch of terms without providing much supporting evidence.

The dangerous content is so-called “scientific studies” that support the effectiveness of smartDOTs. We have been trained to recognize studies as factual, as most follow very strict guidelines for how research can be conducted and how conclusions can be drawn. The studies shown on this website are very far from factual.

“Retuned” energy fields

This page and its “research” are the real danger. energydots links real-looking scientific studies performed specifically for its products to support its claims. The studies go so far as to include all the elements of a real scientific study, except with no evidence of peer review. Additionally, these studies are listed alongside actual studies performed by real research groups to improve their legitimacy.

The lack of oversight on these studies renders them almost entirely useless for scientific inquiry. Any individual can create something looking like a study in a made-up “Centre for Biofield Sciences” and place whatever conclusions he/she wants in it. Even a cursory analysis of the procedures shows that much of the research utilized bogus “biofield” imaging techniques.

A screenshot of the Centre for Biofield Sceicnes’ website. “harmonious synergy” sounds very scientific

It actually surprised me that The Centre for Biofield Sciences had a real website — however, a cursory examination shows that they use the same pseudo-scientific rhetoric as the energydots website.

Don’t take my word for it — take a look at energydots’ research page yourself and draw your own conclusions.

4. Products That Do Literally Nothing

Lastly, it’s important to perform your own research. Try and find someone who purchased the product and empirically evaluated its claims.

I couldn’t find anyone who evaluated the smartDOT, so I got a review sample from energydots. To test the claims put forth in the promotional materials I wanted to see if my smartDOT interacted in any way with electromagnetic radiation at any frequency. I created a test setup consisting of a Baofeng UV-5R radio as my transmitter and a software-defined radio as the receiver.

My Baofeng with a smartDOT on it

My plan was to transmit FM-modulated voice data from the Baofeng and get a signal strength readout with the software-defined radio (SDR). I would then move the smartDOT around on both the Baofeng and SDR to see if it had any effect on the transmitting or receiving device. In a professional lab this test would be completed using a network analyzer, but I don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on test equipment so I went with my hacky setup instead.

If the smartDOT did anything I would expect to see some change in the signal level recorded by the SDR device.

Some of my test setup in CubicSDR

I ended up transmitting in both the 70cm and 2m ham radio bands. Unsurprisingly, the addition of the smartDOT to both the receiver and transmitter did absolutely nothing. I observed no changes in received signal level with a magnitude above the noise floor regardless of dot placement.

Clearly this is not a comprehensive laboratory-grade test; in the spirit of my article I deliberately tried to show its illegitimacy for scientific conclusion. This test simply represents a more concrete basis for my claims other than “science says this shouldn’t work.” So, if you can’t find any empirical information yourself, do your own tests!

energydots’ Response

I wanted to get energydots’ take on my initial findings before publishing this article. Here’s what I sent:

The research linked with smartDOTs on the energydots website indicates that the smartDOTs “retune” the electromagnetic radiation being emitted from devices around us. To test this, I utilized a 5W RF transmitter to act as a source of electromagnetic radiation and a software-defined radio to receive the radiation and monitor any changes as a result of dot placement. I placed the smartDOTs in different places on both the receiver and transmitter and saw no noticeable change in the received signal. I tried a variety of frequencies, ranging from those typical of FM/AM radio all the way up to the 2.4GHz and 5GHz signals emitted from routers and microwaves.

Is there something I’m missing in the test setup? Do you have any of your own research (peer reviewed, with data available)? I would love to hear your thoughts.

And the response:

We do not use an EMF meter to test or demonstrate our products. We have independent double blind placebo controlled research which clearly shows the effect on the human organism. The reason we don’t use EMF meters is firstly that you cannot alter the ambient EMF i.e. the EMF in the air around you and also and more fundamentally the EMF reader will still read as normal but yet when you test the effect the ‘retuned’ EMF has it has clearly altered. The way to understand this is to understand that the frequencies have been altered at a subtle level. All the research is available on the website: https://energydots.com/

I don’t exactly get what how an EMF reader will “still read normal” when the electromagnetic radiation “has clearly been altered” (among other things).

In conclusion, maintaining a critical stance is crucial when looking at products. Even large and reputable companies can make claims that are simply too good to be true; learn to recognize these and you’ll become a more savvy consumer.

Share this article with a friend or family member who is susceptible to bogus claims and help them become more informed.


How to Spot Pseudoscience on the Internet was originally published in Hackster Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.





Original article: How to Spot Pseudoscience on the Internet
Author: Alex Wulff