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Sports Illustrated and Junk Science

Emmet Ryan took issue to a particular article published by Sports Illustrated. Here, he details his reaction to the ‘junk science’.

On Tuesday Sports Illustrated’s website posted an article about a supplement firm called S.W.A.T.S. Emmet Ryan took issue with their reporting. Here’s why.

In June 2007 I pitched an article to the Sunday Business Post about Steorn, an Irish company that essentially claimed it could produce free energy. How this relates to the work of David Epstein and George Dohrmann is important. The Sports Illustrated duo are amongst the most celebrated, rightly, and experienced sports journalists in the business. On Tuesday their extensive feature on a company called Sports alternatives to Steroids which uses the acronym S.W.A.T.S. The company promotes products which have no medical foundation to aid athletes. Dohrmann and Epstein’s piece was an extensive feature on S.W.A.T.S.’s operation but one that failed to substantially challenge the claims made by the company. When it comes to matters of science, that’s a major omission. When dealing with anything unproven it’s imperative to have a qualified voice to balance matters.

In 2007 I wasn’t two years out of college and struggling to learn how to be a technology journalist. On a subject as prickly as Steorn, finding a voice to counter their claims wasn’t easy but hardly arduous. I swung and missed on three engineering academics before finding one who was available to talk and willing to go on the record. The story, which I co-wrote with Gavin Daly (and is behind a paywall), began in the paper as such:

Dublin firm Steorn suffered a setback last week in its attempt to prove it had found a way to generate free energy.

A planned demonstration, due to take place in London last Wednesday, was cancelled after part of the company’s technology, a device called Orbo, failed to work. Sean McCarthy, chief executive of Steorn, said the company would try to get the device to work over the coming week.

‘‘Even if we get it up and running, it’s not a positive thing that it didn’t work,” said McCarthy.

He said the failure was not a result of internal problems with the device. McCarthy said it failed to work due to what he described as ‘‘immense heat’’ caused by surrounding cameras and lights in the room where the demonstration was due to take place.

McCarthy said Steorn, which employs about 20 people in the Docklands Innovation Park in Dublin, would look for ways to cool the device.

The company aims to broadcast a demonstration of the technology live on the internet before the exhibition in London is due to close on Friday.

Steorn attracted much publicity last year when it placed a full-page ad in The Economist magazine challenging the scientific community to review its claim. McCarthy said that 5,000 people responded to the ad and 22 scientists started reviewing the technology in January.

Steorn’s claims have been criticised by the scientific community, as the concept of free energy breaks one of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics.

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can not be created or destroyed.

‘‘You can’t contravene the first law of thermodynamics,” said Dr John White of the School of Physics in UCD. ‘‘You can’t make energy from nothing.”

White visited Steorn’s facility in Dublin last year to view the Orbo technology, but Steorn did not provide a demonstration for him on that occasion.

‘‘It’s not up to the scientific community to prove them wrong – it’s their job to prove they are right,” said White.

He said he doubted the claims made by McCarthy that Orbo would be capable of producing the results he believed it would. ‘‘If he wants to be the first person to break the first law of thermodynamics, then good luck to him,” said White.

Carswell never asked me to track down academics for the piece because had I failed to do so he knew that I knew the story wouldn’t be published. Without their side it simply wouldn’t be adequate. As a freelancer I also knew this meant I wouldn’t get paid. Despite having only a B in ordinary level Science from the Junior Cert to my name, at no point did this seem an onerous burden. It was my job. I did it.

This is where we get to the work of Epstein and Dohrmann. While not advertorial in its nature, their piece on S.W.A.T.S. sorely failed to bring up enough to challenge the outlandish claims made by a company with no empirical research to support their claims. In the interest of fairness, I made note of every example where the duo brought up information that didn’t cast the company in a positive light. Over the course of the 5,529 word feature:

The column takes 662 words before mentioning one substance, IGF-1, is banned as a performance enhancing drug (PED) with 44 words dedicated to this, of which 29 are dedicated to S.W.A.T.S defending its use.

At 988 words they mention the company is facing a lawsuit. With 45 words used, again the primary focus is on how S.W.A.T.S. has turned this around for the better.

Just afterwards they mention science scoffing at S.W.A.T.S.’s claims. No mentions of any enquiries with scientists.

At 1,297 words, the snake-oil specialists Power Balance are mentioned. Immediately afterwards, the article mentions how S.W.A.T.S. doesn’t compensate athletes like Power Balance did.

At 1,816 words, Again a mention of their products not have scientific back-up. An American Cancer society study on deaths from related technology brought up. The first bit of substantial science in the piece, receives 92 words.

At 1,976 words, finally 140 words dedicated to counter-points from scientists.

The first page of web version finishes with S.W.A.T.S. a co-founder quoted as saying “What we’re looking for is for [science] to prove that it is not real.” – Considering what Dr White said to me in June 2007, this sets off a few alarm bells.

At 2,323 words, there is mention of FDA letter to a S.W.A.T.S. executive saying his claims broke the law. 23 words are devoted to this.

At 3,448 words, they finally return to the lawsuit regarding PEDS, 381 words.

At 4,107 words, A mention to how the “Internet” ensures they can’t hide from the lawsuit. One sentence. Followed by S.W.A.T.S. asserting that it’s free advertising.

While Epstein and Dohrmann didn’t feel the need to put the views of scientists front and centre, in the time between my finishing work Tuesday evening and getting home (which included covering another event in-between) I managed to get hold of one more than willing to discuss the company’s claims.

“S.W.A.T.S.’s claims are total nonsense, and worse than that, unimaginative nonsense – Cell phones operate on microwave frequencies, but the idea they’d get ’stuck in your body’ is an utter misunderstanding of basic physics,” says Dr David Robert Grimes, a physicist at Oxford University.

“Besides, microwaves have been all around us since we arrived on this planet, and they’re generally biologically harmless, and not very energetic – One photon of visible light carries roughly 2.5 million times the punch of a puny microwave. If those big American football players are afraid of microwaves, they’d sure as hell be terrified of sunlight”

Dr Grimes doesn’t base his arguments on theories or unsubstantiated claims. He’s a scientist. Peer-reviewed research is his standard.
“The entire S.W.A.T.S. catalogue is essentially a modern version of snake-oil selling, using buzzwords divorced from their correct context, which mean precious little more than bulking up a sales pitch,” says Dr Grimes.

“Negatively charged water is possible, but it certainly doesn’t work as they claim. ‘Beam ray’ is redundant as all rays are a beam already, and the casual accusation of big pharma conspiracy is lazy and transparent,” he says.

“If Key and his boys had lived in the 19th century, they would be going around towns on a wagon selling miracle elixirs and health potions. It astounds me that anyone would take this seriously.”

The problem of course is that an awful lot of professional athletes take these claims very seriously. Epstein and Dohrmann saw video footage of University of Alabama players meeting S.W.A.T.S. representatives before their BCS title game win over LSU in January 2012. Several players in the NFL have also used their products and former players are quoted in Dohrmann and Epstein’s pieces espousing their virtues. Even Vijay Singh, winner of three majors in Golf, has paid the firm for its services.

Dohrmann and Epstein’s column is baffling to read, particularly given the experience of the duo. The only reasonable conclusion to make is that they sought to ensure S.W.A.T.S. was represented fairly in the piece. That’s good journalism. The problem was they didn’t do enough to present the counter-argument. It’s a problem Dr Grimes is all too familiar with.

“There has always has been a major problem with uncritical reporting of pseudo-scientific claims – partially because the science is often hard or unclear, and partially because people find it difficult to distinguish between what is valid scientific reporting and what is dubious story or anecdote,” says Dr Grimes.

“Frequently media reports get major details wrong, and completely misreport the issues they’re writing about. A more sceptical attitude to outlandish claims would be a start, and journalists will find that most scientists are more than happy to consult on their expertise.”
For the record, Steorn have yet to prove Dr White wrong. The following sentence appears in almost all our columns, it seems particularly apt with this one.

Sport Is Everything. Emmet Ryan.

You can read more of Emmet Ryan’s articles via his website Action81.com.

About Emmet Ryan

Emmet Ryan is Editor of Action81.com, where he writes the Tactics not Passion column on Gaelic Football, and author of the book Tactics not Passion. You can follow Emmet on twitter via @Action81.