The Pseudoscience of SkyMall
The suspiciously advanced technology available in your airplane seatback pocket.
Here’s the game I play as my plane taxis to the runway: I have won the greatest sweepstakes ever and I am allowed to choose one item from each two-page spread in SkyMall, the free catalog that lurks within seemingly every seatback pocket on every plane in America. I take this very seriously—on the garden statue spread (Pages 74/75 in the recent holiday issue), I ponder whether I’d go for “Bigfoot, the Garden Yeti” (“Sorry, [American] flag not included”) or “The Zombie of Montclaire Moors” (“life-size”). Spread 40/41 is a lot easier: the $69.99 "One Of A Kind" shirt, which is one shirt made of 10 different shirts; a Frankenshirt that embarrasses even the male models who are paid to wear it. As the copy suggests, I would wear it to frat parties, bachelor parties, and stag parties.
When playing this game, you may find that the most difficult spreads to evaluate are the ones that include SkyMall science, which you may be skeptical of since it appears to be several decades ahead of regular science. The pages of SkyMall are positively packed with lasers, gadgets, and helmets that bear more than a passing resemblance to Doc Brown’s brain wave-analyzer, like this iGrow Hair Rejuvenation Laser or the shUVee Shoe Deoderizer. These items may be tempting, but dare you include something in your imaginary sweepstakes that might be, let’s say, less than effective? Fear not. I’m here to help.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of suspiciously advanced technology in SkyMall—these are highlights from the “animal” category, which should give you a good idea of the wide spectrum of weirdness contained within the catalog. I hope it’s enough to help you out if you’re playing Imaginary SkyMall Sweepstakes or if you’re actually, you know, buying something.
This shirt tightly hugs your beloved fuzzy companions to make them less anxious. While you may be suspicious of its efficacy, I can say that I have anecdotal experience that supports this: I bought a shark costume for my cat, Brendon, and when stuffed inside the little terry-cloth hoodie, he immediately tips over and starts purring. This is either a sign of deep relaxation or a clever survival strategy.
There’s not a whole lot of scientific research out there to support the idea that pressure-wraps calm dogs and cats, or any other animals, for that matter. You may be aware that Temple Grandin helped develop a “squeeze machine” to decrease anxiety, particularly for people with autism and for cows about to be turned into hamburgers. Grandin reported that most people in a very small study found her machine relaxing, and a few other studies have also shown that the machine may cause a slight reduction in tension and/or anxiety in some people. But those studies involved relatively few subjects, and some showed a pretty tiny effect. Plus, those studies were about the efficacy of a large machine that applied constant and even pressure—not a smart little jacket with Velcro closures.
That said, some of the reviews of the Thundershirt are encouraging. Here’s my personal favorite five-star rating on Amazon: “The thundershirt has kept our cat from licking the hair off her belly, at least the part that is covered by the shirt.” You can’t argue with results like that.
If you want to buy something for your anxious pet, I personally think you’re better off with the shark costume, which I found in a sale bin for $5. It apparently does the same thing as the Thundershirt but it looks way funnier. If you’re playing Imaginary SkyMall Sweepstakes, I suggest you instead go for the Wine of the Month Club (also on Page 3) because obviously, it’s wine.
So you adopted some poor little wretch from the local city shelter, and now Nubbins is healthy and happy and the whole world loves him. Everyone wants to know what mix of breeds he is. “He’s probably a border collie with a little golden retriever thrown in, but who knows?” You laugh and shrug good-naturedly.
But you’re better than the average dog owner, and eventually you find that mere speculation isn’t enough. You need science! You dutifully swab the inside of Nubbins’ mouth and send the sample away. In four to six weeks, you hear back: Nubbins is part Icelandic sheepdog and part chihuahua. Your mind reels. How did Nubbins’ parents ever meet? Was she doing a semester abroad in Mexico? Did he move to Reykjavik to spend his days relaxing in volcanic pools? Was their love forbidden?
No. It cannot be. You rush to Amazon to add your scathing one-star review to a growing pile of negativity toward Wisdom Panel, the makers of the kit.
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.