Mark Cuban of TV’s Shark Tank Calls Out Quackery

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Sept. 3 2013 8:00 AM

Reality TV Gets One Right: Shark Tank Calls Out Quackery

skeptical hippo
I am, too.

Photo by MotivatedPhotos.com (though it's a meme and this ma ynot be the original site)

Reality TV is generally lambasted for its over-the-top silliness and for elevating shallow ambitions. But sometimes it gets things right.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Shark Tank is a reality show on ABC, and it has a pretty interesting premise: Budding entrepreneurs have to pitch their product ideas to a panel of billionaires. The “sharks” grill the hopeful contestant and decide whether to invest in the product.

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I’ve watched it now and again, and it’s fun and interesting. But in 2012 they had a contestant on the show that I really wish I had seen at the time.

The guy’s name was Ryan Naylor, and he was selling a product called Esso Watches. These silicon watches have, he claimed, “negative ions” infused in them.

When he said that, I laughed out loud. That claim is utter nonsense. Right away, it’s impossible; if they had a net negative charge, they’d discharge it right away. That’s how electricity works. They’d either do it in contact with the air, or with your body, or with your clothing. The only way they could maintain an electric charge is if they had a battery giving them the power needed to recharge themselves.

He also made claims about being bombarded with positive ions, how negative ions protect us, and more. It’s all basically nonsense.

The beauty of this, though, was when Naylor stood up in front of the billionaire panel to try to sell this idea, and Mark Cuban wasn’t having any of it. Mediaite has the video:

Wow. Cuban is essentially right in all his claims. I might quibble over calling this a scam, in that it’s possible Naylor honestly thought his product had health benefits. But in the end the watches do not, can not, do what he claims.

This is really just the same warmed-over nonsensical claims made by other companies that sell this kind of gimcrackery. They claim it restores your body’s energy, or balance, or some whatever. The funny thing is, whenever you actually, y’know, test these claims, the merchandise doesn’t actually, y’know, work.

My friend Richard Saunders with the Australian Skeptics did a fantastic job showing this a while back, debunking the Power Balance bracelets. He even did so on the nationally broadcast TV show Today Tonight:

Note that this balance demo is the very same one Naylor used in his pitch. I’ve had Saunders do this demo on me, too, and it’s pretty funny. You’d swear it’s real if you didn’t know better (though it’s harder to think the person giving the demo can believe it’s being done honestly). Many of the companies that sell this quackery have been under a lot of fire; Power Balance was cited with making misleading claims, for example.

However, these products make a lot of money due to a gullible public. Power Balance bands sell briskly and are endorsed by a lot of university athletic departments. This, despite having no actual evidence supporting them beyond the placebo effect.

So perhaps Cuban made a mistake; I’m sure that Naylor could’ve sold a lot of these watches. Apparently, though, he didn’t: Esso Watches no longer exists, the name was changed to TAGI, and the website uses a passive voice to talk about negative ions: “Professional athletes can be spotted all over television wearing Negative Ions to boost their game.” Note how that sounds like an endorsement, but isn’t quite enough of one to get them in hot water with the FTC.

It was refreshing to see someone called out for selling a useless product like this (well, if it keeps time I suppose it does have one use) and done so unequivocally. If only more critical thinking were employed in this way, the world would be a far, far better place.

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