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.
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.