Snake Oil

I was standing in line at our local Sports Chalet to buy new pedals and handlebar wrap for my aging Panasonic bicycle when I noticed a cardboard display stand featuring Matt Kemp, the star player of the LA Dodgers.   On the stand were an assortment of plastic bracelets and pendants, the brand name of which suggested would improve my athletic performance.  Even my best efforts these days can hardly be called athletic but I was still curious, especially when the woman in front of me read the information on the box and dropped one of them into her cart.   When I reached the display, the first thing I noticed is that the plastic bracelets sold for $29.99.  Now, I wear a a yellow plastic Livestrong bracelet I purchased when several friends were dealing with cancer.  Price?  Ten for $10, with plenty of profit to support the Lance Armstrong Foundation.   The display stand in front of me offered not a clue regarding the cost or exactly what the bracelet was supposed to do.  It did, however, show Matt Kemp wearing one.  Perhaps, I, too could play for the Dodgers.  I did some research when I got home and found that the bracelets contain a two-sided hologram programmed in a way that mimics Eastern philosophies.   Hmmm.

Younger readers may not be familiar with the term snake oil salesman.   The term comes from the nineteenth century when traveling salesmen would sell useless liniments as cures for all sorts of aliments, often using cohorts planted in the audience to praise the claims for the concoction.  It was the nineteenth century.  People weren’t well-educated and science was producing The Origin of the Species and the first vaccines.  Aspirin was patented in 1899.  Here we are in 2012.  41% of Americans hold post-high school degrees and 55% of people in Orange County have attended at least some college.  Information regarding almost anything is readily available … all that is required is a little patience and a desire to know the truth.  Scientists have apparently discovered a fundamental particle of the universe, the Higgs-boson, which gives the energy of the universe mass … creating matter.  And the woman in front of me is dropping a holographic bracelet in her cart. Go figure.  Of course, there have been copper bracelets, magnetic bracelets and titanium bracelets.  Walk down the cosmetic aisles and look at the claims made on various skin care products or check out the natural supplement counter.  Google crystals for health.  We may have come a long way, Baby, but Snake Oil still sells.

I wonder why.  Maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are and/or we are inclined to believe what we want to believe.  Some of our political choices in the last decade would seem to support this explanation.  Some of us practically worship our celebrities and celebrity endorsements provide the cohorts planted in the audienceEt tu, Matt Kemp?  Perhaps regular folk (non-scientists), after years of listening to scientific mumbo-jumbo they don’t understand, are unable to identify pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo when they read it.  After all, is it that far from a genuine headline like Higgs Boson Particle Discovery May Help Reveal Dark Matter Secrets and, Don’t be seduced by the Dark Side, Luke?   It hasn’t helped that science has blasted certain techniques, like acupuncture, as pseudo-science only to be forced to admit there might be something happening here based on results.  Personally, I believe that humans have an innate need for a spiritual connection, one that goes thirsting in our increasingly secular, jaded society.  That’s why references to Eastern Philosophies, Mayan prophecies and ancient potions sell Snake Oil.

So, what do you think?

** You probably notice I’ve been … if you’ll pardon the expression from a spiritual-but-not-religious curmudgeon … religiously avoiding the name of the product.  The company’s website offers numerous warnings about derogatory references to their product, even though they’ve been forced to admit that the product is useless in Australia. I’ve got no real grudge against them … in the end, the hologram bracelets are jewelry we wear to mimic our athletic heroes.  If there’s a placebo effect that makes us play better, what the hell.  If you want to know more, try Wikipedia.

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3 Comments on “Snake Oil”


  1. Finaly you reveal your true faith…..Curmudgeonisum !

  2. las artes Says:

    A prime indicator of snake oil products are that they rely on a new principle that gives them their efficacy. This “new” principle may be entirely fabricated by the manufacturer or have a shred of truth based in current science as its nucleus, but is so permutated that there is no truth in the claim. A clear explanation of the scientific principle, its discoverer, where it was published and how it relates to the product at hand is rarely available.

  3. Derek Zenith Says:

    i don’t recall that Buddha was all that into holograms.


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