Saturday, November 22, 2008

Snake Oil Wrestling

"Watch this video demo," said my boss, handing me a slip of paper with a URL scrawled on it, "and tell me what you think."

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to help me express my objections.

Before you click on the link, I should warn you that there is a brief testimonial at the beginning of the clip from a co-author of "Chicken Soup for the Soul." I'd fast-forward through that if I were you. No one who bears any part of the blame for that can possibly say anything worth listening to.

Here are a few of the interesting points I noted:

1. The audience, at least the front part of it, is blocked out. I'm assuming that means someone near the front refused permission to appear in the video.
2. If you extend your arm out, thumbs down, the way this dude insists his volunteers do, and have someone push down on it, you'll notice that it's much weaker than if you turn it palm upward.
3. He always demonstrates his subject's strength first - never begins by making his "weakening" gesture.
4. (If you can make it this far into the video) The timing of the little testimonial box that pops up, covering up the shot of the audience trying his trick on each other, seems rather convenient.
5. The video is too small and low-resolution to be able to tell if there's a difference in the way he grips the wrist.
6. He addresses skepticism from the audience, but only on two specific points: "Do you think it's that I'm not pushing down as hard the second time?" "Do you think it's just the power of suggestion?"

Take a look at the products sold on his site, too. And I think it's interesting that he offers the service of helping you to design an effective website. Ummm...

Here you go. Have fun! And tell me what you think.



At November 23, 2008 10:44 PM, Anonymous Daddy said...

Wondering how the speaker pulled off his demonstration, I started thinking about the fact that illusionists depend on redirecting attention to make their tricks work, and I wondered what the speaker was redirecting attention from.

Then it hit me. The whole magic show is redirecting attention away from the fact that this man doesn't have anything useful to say!

Think about it. What if all that folderol about arm strength were true? What would that have to do with anything related to work?

True, the speaker claims to show that positive and negative thoughts, just like waving his hand in front of you, affect arm strength. Would inability to resist pressure on your arm make you a less effective manager, or less efficient worker? (I doubt we're dealing with stevedores here.)

Then he asks if audience members have worked with people with negative or positive attitudes, and sure enough the negative ones make you tired. If he'd started with that, everybody would have said "Duh!" But instead, this common sense observation now has the aura of profundity because it's caused by invisible energy fields, not by the all the cringing and avoidance of noxious stimulation that carping and criticism engender.

Then, after the speech, people are asked to practice pushing down each other's arms and zipping up their acupuncture medians. While they're doing that, they can't possibly expect the speaker to bother trying to teach them any useful skills. Like, maybe, how do you take a negative experience and recast it so that it doesn't weigh on you psychologically, as the third volunteer supposedly did? That seemed to be left as an exercise for the listener.

As for the magic trick itself, my bet is that it's done with confederates. Pretty easy, if the audience is large enough (surely he charges enough that it has to be) that the people don't all know each other. When you ask for volunteers in this kind of setting, normal people will hesitate a bit before a few offer themselves. All a confederate has to do is to be a little more eager than a genuine seminar participant. The speaker can, as he said he was doing, just pick the first to volunteer. There's no appearance of the preference for particular audience members that would cue the audience to the fact he is selecting stooges. And you notice when the last volunteer, the "skeptic," came up, the speaker wasn't responding to any audience grumbling, but rather suggested the form that skepticism should take and asked for a show of hands. Any choice at all would seem random; all that's required is one more stooge who's a half-way decent actor.

Even if my guess about using confederates is wrong, the point still stands. The magic trick is a gimmick to draw attention away from the lack of content.


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