The Pseudoscience of SkyMall
The suspiciously advanced technology available in your airplane seatback pocket.
The reviews are all sharply divided—either the results match up with what your dog sort of looks like even though it’s not the breed mix the shelter and vet told you (five stars!) or the results are ludicrously wrong and they may as well have told you he’s one-fourth Sleestak (one star!). So, is this science? Are the dissatisfied customers just too stubborn? Did they compromise the samples (not difficult considering dogs lick and chew everything)?
Because I don’t know the first thing about DNA testing, I asked Alain Viel, senior lecturer in molecular and cellular biology at Harvard, whether or not this was baloney. Viel told me that only one breed’s genome has been fully sequenced (a boxer), but that it is still possible to compare genetic markers from different breeds. That’s apparently what this kit does, and the company claims to have completed 19 million genetic marker analyses. Still, Viel’s not sold.
“From what I read, the results obtained with this type of kit are not very reliable,” he said, “probably due to the high rate of cross-breeding in the dog population. You probably have a better chance [of determining genetic makeup] by looking at the dog and trying to figure out what breed the parents are.”
He also pointed out that if you have a purebred dog, you can use genotyping to verify the pedigree, much like a paternity test. Interestingly, Wisdom Panel states that its test should not be used on a purebred dog and states that the test may not correctly identify a pure breed for several reasons, such as if the dog is not from the continental United States. That sounds suspiciously like a ready-made excuse just in case someone tries to test the accuracy of the kit using a dog with known parentage, but then, I’ve always been a bit of a cynic.
So for mutts with unknown parents, you’re going to have to just play the guessing game. Luckily, that’s what you enjoy doing, anyway. According to my friend Kammy, a former dog-walker, even her clients who got the test results and believed them would still continue guessing. “People don't seem to tire of speculating,” she said. “So now the tests are available, and theoretically they don't have to speculate anymore, but it turns out they enjoy the speculation too much to give it up just because the question has been answered.”
If you were planning to spend $74.99 on the test, I suggest instead you send me a picture of your dog, and for $14.99 I’ll guess the breed mix. For $19.99 I’ll send you a nice certificate, and for $24.99 I’ll just list whichever breeds you want it to be.
If you’re playing Imaginary SkyMall Sweepstakes, I’d say go with those things that keep your fitted sheets in place on your bed. It’s about time someone solved that problem.
Look, this one will actually work for some cats if you try hard enough, but please, just don’t. Don’t do this to little Peeps. Look at the hatred in this cat’s eyes. Is that the life you want for Peeps? Climbing up onto that cold porcelain and pooping into it like some kind of animal? No, of course you don’t. Instead, opt for the wall-mounted cat tree because that looks like fun and PETA probably won’t come after you.
A review of 16 peer-reviewed papers in 2000 found that not a single one of the ultrasonic devices tested had an effect. An additional review in 2007 also found that newer ultrasonic repelling devices were … newer. And completely useless at repelling mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, the number of fraud convictions for those peddling these devices has been small, mainly because there isn’t much public outcry.
They’re about equally effective at driving away rodents, according to tons of studies. Here’s just one review of the literature that found only “marginal repellency effects with six commercial ultrasonic devices,” and even then it didn’t last long—the researchers found there was “rapid habituation (i.e., no significant repellency effects beyond 3 to 7 days of exposure).”
In other words, the mice hear the ultrasonic squeal, are annoyed enough to cut back on their activity for a few days, and then they get used to it. That may explain why this pest repeller and all other similar devices are buried in one-star reviews on Amazon from people reporting experiences such as finding a mouse literally standing next to a detector while casually eating a cupcake.
If you’re looking for something to rid your house of pests, your best bet is to resort to good old-fashioned murder. If you’re playing Imaginary SkyMall Sweepstakes, definitely go with the Lord Raffles Lion Throne Chair on Page 91, because nothing says “class” like an ornate replica Medieval throne from an in-flight catalog. Or maybe the Bigfoot, the Holiday Yeti Holiday Ornament, depending on your personal tastes. Totally your call.
Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick Network, which consists of seven blogs focused on science, skepticism, and secularism. She also cohosts the weekly Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast.