Entomology and Critical Thinking

One question I’m often asked is why this Bug Blog is also listed as a skeptical blog.  The connection between skepticism and bugology isn’t always immediately apparent, I guess, but it seems quite logical to me.

There are many, many bogus devices that claim to repel insects, and I think it’s important to name names. There are far too few convictions for fraud in the insect repellent business.  I’ve called out some of these in the past; the iPhone app that supposedly repels mosquitoes, for example, or the Bug Banisher that releases an imaginary “negative ion field.” It seems sometimes like as fast as I can name and shame, there are new and even more silly devices on the market.

Case in Point: shoo!TAG™ insect repelling credit cards

shoo-tag

From their website:

Shoo!tags “utilize an understanding of nature’s energetic principles in combination with physics and quantum physics, as well as advanced computer software”.  What exactly does that mean?  Well, just as the magnetic strip on a credit card is encoded with specific information, there is a three dimensional electromagnetic field embedded in the Shoo!tag.  Shoo!tag uses the energy field that a animal emits, then adds other frequencies that repel insects.  Although they don’t actually kill insect pests, these frequency barriers disturb and confuse the pests.  Essentially, the pests don’t want to be anywhere near the Shoo!tag wearer.  

By now, your BS antennae should be quivering. Frankly, anytime someone uses the word “Quantum”, you should be suspicious. Or when something with no power source claims to generate an electromagnetic field. Reading the disclaimers about why the tags might not work as promised can be rather hilarious:

“Possible reasons shoo!TAG™ may not be working: The tag is near or has been near a strong frequency (cell phone towers, electric transformers, fault lines, electronic home security systems, etc.) which interferes with the coding in the magnetic strip.”

Ah! That’s why it didn’t work–I live in the US where those things are rather difficult to avoid.  According to recent pressshoo!TAG™ is a >$600,000 dollar business. That’s probably because each arthropod needs its own tag. You can’t just buy one; you need a chip for:

  • Mosquitoes ($19.95)
  • No-see-ums ($19.95)
  • Chiggers ($19.95)
  • Ticks ($19.95)
  • Flies (species not specified, but presumably not mosquitoes or no-see-ums, which are, in fact, flies) $19.95

For full “protection” in the woods, that’s about $100, although they do have a Mosquito-Chigger-Tick pack for just $39.95.  Each tag lasts about 4 months, unless you have an especially vigorous energy field.  Oh, and you have to outfit your pets too–the tags above are (literally) dog tags.

That’s a lot of money, and it’s also a lot of risk.  You can DIE from diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes. It’s really not something that lends itself to self-experimentation.

I was all ready to go postal about this when I realized that someone had already done that work for me.  Major props go to Anaglyph for masterful work in exposing just how shabby Shoo!TAG’s claims for their products are.  He’s been writing about this since 2009; you can find an archive of all his Shoo!TAG posts here.  His series of posts is an excellent example of how one person with a blog can make a difference. 

He’s done a great job explaining why the these devices can’t possibly work without massive violations of physics as we know it. Since their claims of magical electromagnetic field creation are bogus, I don’t think I need to bother explaining why the energy field these tags don’t generate….. would not repel insects anyway.

I liked Anaglyph’s recent letter to Shoo!Fly’s CEO so much I’ll reproduce a large part of it here:

My concerns with ShooTag are many: firstly, you are taking advantage of people by selling them something which, although it is not supported by any known science, you continually attempt to frame in a scientific context. In other words, you use ‘sciencey’ sounding terms to attempt to make ShooTag sound credible.

For a start, you offer up ideas such as the ‘trivector’ mechanism, ‘energy’ fields and the vague concept of biological ‘frequencies’ as if they are proper scientifically supported notions, which they are not. At best these things are speculative, but mostly they are just plain nonsense. In addition to presenting pseudoscience as science, you imply that the mechanism of ShooTag is somehow supported by actual scientific concepts of which you plainly have little comprehension, such as quantum physics, fractal mathematics and Schumann Waves.

All these things are meaningless in relation to your product, at least in any way that have attempted to demonstrate so far. You also use the names of scientists like Albert Einstein and Geoffrey West, whose work you clearly don’t understand, in a manner that suggests that their theories offer support of your own speculations (which they most certainly don’t). This is misleading and irresponsible.

In addition to all this, you regularly refer to scientific ‘experiments’ which you say demonstrate not only that your product works, but that it works extraordinarily well. The experiments you reference either show nothing of the sort (such as your ‘Texas A&M Field Trials’ which were scientifically ridiculous), or don’t have substantiation of any kind (like the supposed ‘European Trials’ which you have mentioned on several occasions on the web but from which you have never provided any data whatsoever, or the supposed supporting video from ‘the Japanese Ministry of Health’ which you boasted about on your site but which never materialised there for anyone to see). You also continue to heavily infer that credible organizations are involved with your product (Texas A&M University, Texas State University, the Japanese Ministry of Health, the Finnish Olympic Team) when it is clear that no such endorsements have been made or were intended (as is quite evident from my conversations with the administration at Texas State University, and their requirement that you remove any such TSU endorsements from your site). Excuse me for saying so, but responsible companies with legitimate products do not undertake this kind of deceptive behaviour.

In short, you want everyone, particularly your prospective customers, to think that ShooTag is validated by science and approved by authoritative institutions, yet you have nothing to support your claims other than self-generated hyperbole and subjective customer testimonials. No science.

Oh, SNAP.  That. Was. Awesome.
And there’s more–read the full letter for a masterful spanking of a woo peddler.

Why am I telling you about this in a rather longish post? I discovered that Shoo!TAG donated $30,000 worth of their “units” to a children’s bible camp in Zambia in April 2011.  And they sent tags to Haiti after the earthquake (through a bible missionary chiropractic group. Talk about insult to injury!).  Shoo!TAG issued press releases about all this, and I strongly suspect they also took a nice tax write-off on their used (not even new!) plastic bits as well.

What they are doing is just….vile.  I can’t think of a more descriptive word.  Sure, these tags seem like innocuous pieces of crap that will part gullible people from their money.  It’s all fun and games until someone dies of malaria, yellow fever, or lyme disease, because they thought hanging a credit card around their neck would protect them.

The problem is, to whom do you report people selling this kind of woo to?  There has to be a way to make an obviously fake device like this go away.

Well.

The Federal Trade Commission has prosecuted people selling deceptive devices before, but they sure don’t make reporting easy. Their Complaint Assistant is mostly focused on online fraud and identity theft.   The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a possibility, but again, shoo!TAG™doesn’t really fit into any of their categories.

When you look at the FDA Guide to reporting problems, the categories for human health problems don’t quite fit.  It’s easier to report shoo!TAGs for veterinary use than for people.  Since heartworms,tick paralysis, and equine encephalitis are just some of what users of these tags put their pets at risk of catching, that’s not entirely a bad thing.

A quick search of the EPA registered pesticides database produces no results.  These tags almost certainly fall into the category of “Minimum Risk“:

Minimum risk pesticides are a special class of pesticides that are not subject to federal registration requirements because their ingredients, both active and inert, are demonstrably safe for the intended use.

Since shoo!TAG™ is plastic and don’t do anything, I’d say they’re inert, alright. But “minimum risk”? It turns out there is some special language about that exemption:

“EPA…concluded that public health products must be supported by evidence that they are effective against the target pest.”

AH HA!  If you dig a bit farther, you can find the contact info for the EPA Ombudsman’s office, and aform to report an environmental violation.

And here is where I go all PollyAnna on your asses.
I believe that social media has the potential to truly change the way the world works.

One of the things bloggers can do with their bully pulpits—no matter how modest– is fact-check claims that businesses (or politicians!) make, and call readers to action.  While blogs and Twitter and Facebook can disrupt our lives, they also make it possible for people to draw attention to things that just aren’t right.

As blog readers, you can respond and spread that fact-checking in ways that warm the cockles of my misanthropic little heart.  Let’s harness our community power. Who knows someone at the EPA enforcement division?   Minions, mobilize!!

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15 thoughts on “Entomology and Critical Thinking

  1. Thank you. I have followed up on this. I entered the website address where the driving directions were supposed to go.

    I also boosted this on my livejournal, though I imagine most of my friends already read your blog if they know what’s good for them.

  2. Most definitely shared. And don’t even get me started on the various bed bug products out there. They are all crap with little to no scientific data to back them up. Some can even lead to causing greater infestation problems. There was a recent report of a woman who, thought it would be a good idea to set off a bazillion or so bombs in her home. Well, it wasn’t and she died. Of course we cannot blame the company for the mistakes of crazy (or simply desperate) people, but they do have a responsibility to create and distribute products that are effective. The bombs do not work. Even if that woman had not died, she would still have a major bed bug infestation.

  3. Thanks for the props Bug Girl. One great point you bring up that I mean to examine myself at some stage is the way this kind of thing slips through the cracks for regulation. Through this saga I’ve discovered two things about pet products: the first is that being a manufacturer of pet ‘stuff’ of pretty much any kind is a licence to print money, and the second is that regulations on woo for pets is scant. Shoo!TAG has been on sale in Australia (where I live) for some time now and my conversation with our regulatory body for such things, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, has been frustrating. For them, something like Shoo!TAG is low on the priority list and given the sheer amount of fraudulent practice that they investigate, I guess I sympathise with that view.

    But you did put your finger on the crux of the matter: the tags are being sold to people now, and waiting until someone puts their faith in Shoo!TAG and contracts Ross River virus, malaria or West Nile before acting is not good enough. In my opinion it is simple for the regulatory bodies: if someone claims efficacy through science, and say they have scientific evidence to support their claims, they should be compelled to provide that evidence for the regulators to examine. If they can’t, they should be prosecuted for misleading claims.

    For a little while I was under the impression that the Shoo!TAG people were just misguided fruitloops, but it has become clear to me over the least few years that their modus operandi is to employ deception and outright lying to sell their product. I believe there is no doubt that they clearly know that there is no science behind what they sell, and further, that they don’t want any of their customers or potential customers to get wind of that fact. I support your call for people to tell their friends via their social networks, that, if they care for the wellbeing of their pets, they should avoid this product. If people feel motivated, they should also challenge Shoo!TAG to provide the science they say they have.

  4. I think the key problem with this sort of thing is this: There is a lot of money available for the lying scamsters that create and peddle this garbage, and they can whip up a new one in a few hours anytime they want a new cash stream. On the other side, there is pretty much no money in proving that they are fraudulent scum and shutting them down, and so we can only have people able to discredit them in their spare time with no reward other than satisfying their own sense of justice.

    Is there some way that we could make debunking these scams even a hundredth as profitable as running the scams themselves?

  5. Please let me know when you figure out how to make that happen!!

    I do think that bloggers/tweeters can play a role by simply making the scam known. There have been several good examples of bloggers bringing attention to bad behavior of both companies and people that resulted in change. And the more we talk about it, the more likely it is to pop up on google when someone wonders if they should pay $30 for a magic credit card tag.

  6. I understand your outrage – I’ve fed far too many mosquitoes in my life, worked for several years on controlling mosquitoes, and taught Med-Vet Ent for 15 years – so I have an above average understanding of the problem of repellants that don’t work. BUT, I’m unconvinced by your hypothesis: “I believe that social media has the potential to truly change the way the world works”. Isn’t Sh..!TAG still in business? The company website is still up and they want to be your friend on Facebook. The ‘Green Guide to an Eco Summer ‘ Blog supports them. They have an amusing video on YouTube. They have a 30 day guarantee! They have a “shoo!cycle program” – they will recycle your used tags if you send them back to the company after 4 months!! I have to stop now or I will run out of exclamation points, but I think this company will be able to use the social media better than any grassroots project you may initiate (much the way the establishment uses their pet media to control the news).

    If you’ve watched the video on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2SdjR2e1HA), I’m sure you know these people are pretty slick and have the apparent support of a Texas A&M associate professor of engineering with an interest in ‘biomedical electronics’ (according to his web page) [NB - not the same prof as the one in Anaglyph's letter, so that makes two]. The ‘experiment’ in the video isn’t replicated (and the expert doesn’t seem to understand how chemical repellants work), but the video is pretty good theatre. And this guy is a ‘philanthropist’ (although I suspect the donations are tax deductible and good advertising). Moreover, the world is awash in insect repellants that don’t repel (including DEET-based products – they do not repel, they hoodwink arthropods into thinking you aren’t food).

    In one sense, you have to admire these people. I suppose this is more in the pyramid or copper bracelet tradition, but the simplicity of this scheme reminds me of pet rocks. It also reminds me of the aphorism PT Barnum is best remembered for (even if he didn’t say it). I don’t think you can fight this with Facebook indignation.

    Rather than lobbying EPA (a gift to us from Richard Nixon), I think you’d have better luck using the social media to find a lawyer to look for people that bought the product and now have West Nile, tularemia, Ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, or any of the other suite of diseases one can get from not protecting themselves from biting arthropods. That’s the American way.

  7. It’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve had a few people comment on various Shoo!TAG posts, that they’d read what I’d written and changed their mind about purchasing one of the silly things. I consider any result like that a win!

  8. @Dave: The supposed ‘support’ of Texas A&M University and the claims of the impressive results from the experiment overseen by the philanthropical Dr Rainer Fink were comprehensively redacted from the official Shoo!TAG site after I examined their baloney science in this post. The claims then reappeared a few months after, with the Texas State University imprimatur. Neither Texas A&M University or Texas State University were involved in any way with these trials. Using a modus operandi much beloved of the ShooTaggers, thin threads of connection were spun out into full-blown endorsements and hyperbole. The facts of the matter are that Rainer Fink is a professor at Texas A&M, and Ken Mix, who was involved with both ‘experiments’ is an assistant professor at Texas State. That’s all.

    Even though the Rainer Fink video is still on YouTube (and elsewhere if you know where to look) it has been scrubbed from the obvious places in the Shoo!TAG world. I can’t say this for sure, but having gathered a great deal of familiarity with the way these people operate, I hypothesize that someone from Texas A&M told them to remove it from their site, and they acted literally on that instruction. They’re really good at weasel tactics.

    I agree that this kind of thing can’t be tackled with just indignation. My initial post on Shoo!TAG was really just a kind of fun dissing of what I thought was a nutty idea. What became apparent quickly afterward, though, was that there is a streak of nastiness and contempt in these people and they way they conduct their business. My object, then, with the ShooTag saga, was to provide some alternative Google hits for people who were suspicious of this product. The results have been encouraging. We now have a Rational Wiki entry for Shoo!TAG, and it has been featured on the JREF blog. Not only that, there is an ongoing conversation in the comments on the TCA Shoo!TAG posts, often with concerned pet owners, about the irresponsibility of these swindlers. Some of these people have started contacting various regulatory authorities. All those things mean that the antics of Shoo!TAG don’t go unnoticed.

    I like your idea of attacking the issue from a legal angle, but being in Australia, my hands are tied. They do sell to Australia, but my conversations with the ACCC here indicate that it’s going to be a pretty tough call to effect legal action against a US product that has, for all practical consequences, no actual harmful effects on your pet. Arguing a case from the angle that it’s deflected harm (ie, it might stop a pet owner from practising proper care) is complex and probably not something most lawyers would care to tackle for a pet product. As much as I love my pets, the bigger concern here, is, of course, that the product is now being pitched to humans, and I think that’s where you might get some legal traction. I continue to investigate that possibility.

  9. These devices do function flawlessly in being able to separate deceived and otherwise clueless folks from their cash. I’ve been through the same arguments for years with FDA, EPA, CPSC, FTC, and others. Unless the manufacturers or marketers make specific claims that their device will somehow mitigate a vector-borne infection, FDA and EPA will remain disinterested. Pity. Unless the device harms someone, CPSC may log the complaint, but not much will happen thereafter. FTC? Good luck with them. I anticipate that the only effective remedy would be if a person contracted dengue (or similar) while relying upon this product, then finds a pit bull lawyer who will try to separate the manufacturer from his/her funds (but those will likely be cleverly sacked away to be untouchable). Caveat emptor.

  10. Caveat emptor indeed, Richard. However, the greater point of Bug Girls’ post was to say that we in the blogosphere can go some way towards providing accurate appraisals of products like Shoo!TAG and allow buyers to make better choices on how they spend their money. Indeed, Shoo!TAG is a great example of this: aside from the ShooTagger’s hyperbole and solicited testimonials, there is virtually no information about the product on the web other than what I’ve provided. So if it was not for my resolute call for Shoo!TAG to ‘show us the science’, the only results you’d have ever seen if you searched ‘Shoo!TAG’ would have been all these impressive-sounding claims, tests that looked like they were endorsed by universities and government departments, and glowing customer testimonials. They shouldn’t have that kind of leverage in my opinion.

  11. anaglyph,
    Agreed on most of these issues. The reality is, however, that members of the general public won’t do their homework before they swipe their credit cards. Think of all the stuff hawked in august publications such as SkyMall. Consumers are impressed by the claims, think these must be true (otherwise they’d not be allowed to say such things) and then they buy the product. I’ve actually had major retailers tell me that such products must work. Why? This is a free-market economy. If the public didn’t think the stuff worked, they wouldn’t buy it, or they’d return it. I even had folks from EPA and FDA say essentially the same thing.

    I once demonstrated to a major retailer that a key chain solar-powered insect repelling device that ‘was a big mover at the cash register’ had no functioning electronics within the case. As we stood there, two customers bought the item in question. Go figure.

    So, we may influence a few folks by exposing reality in our blogs and other outlets, but it doesn’t likely make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. Oh, as far as the false endorsements, I’ve been victimized by that countless times. I’m amazed at what I supposedly said or wrote about specific products.

  12. Yeah, it’s only a small thing, I concede. It is gratifying, though, when someone finds my blog and leaves a comment to the effect “I was going to buy one of these things but I read your stuff and didn’t”. I figure for every one who comments, maybe ten or a dozen more have done the same thing without bothering to say anything. Maybe. Whatever, thirty bucks saved for some diligent people.

    The other thing (which may not be completely apparent from the outside) is that I am really bothering the Shoo!TAG people. They have substantially changed their website from the way it first appeared, with many of the most egregious claims gone now, as well as most of the official-looking endorsements pulled down. I think I may have even started to effect their moral position (although whether any such qualms might overcome their cash cow is fairly speculative). The way I figure it is that if each of us chose one of these swindlers and dogged them down, we might have an overall effect.

    Of course, the only way these problems will be diminished in any significant way is through education. I and many others actively campaign for increases in rational thinking skills at elementary levels of education, in the hope that we can foster a generation better equipped to deal with this kind of crap. Maybe we’re pissing in the wind (as we like to say down here – I don’t know if you have that) but the alternative is just to throw up your hands and let them win. That’s never gonna happen for me.

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