You have probably heard the expression “extreme claims require extreme evidence.” It’s a good rule of thumb for making your way through modern information overload, but it has the drawback of sometimes ruining a good story.
Today’s ruined story starts with my excitement over a small New Hampshire company selling what could be one of the most astonishing products ever to come out of this state. Alas, it ends with evidence that is underwhelming rather than extreme.
The product is called the Food Freshness Card and is made by Rick and RJ Hassler from Gilford. They’ve been selling it for at least a year.
The $75 card, they say, has been printed or etched with patterns that produce some sort of waves that can inhibit mold and bacteria in all directions, keeping food from spoiling quickly. The company says it generates energy that can alter biological processes nonstop for years at a time with no power source. Just stick these 6-by-6-inch cards to a wall or lay them on a shelf in your pantry, and nearby fruits and vegetables will last longer.
Food spoilage is a massive global problem so this could be a zillion-dollar product, one that literally saves millions of lives. Awesome! But what’s the evidence?
The company’s press materials are vague, as are the press materials of many firms. They say the card is printed with holograms “programmed by longitudinal electromagnetic waves” of the sort first described by Nikola Tesla. “Our patented process allows us to modulate these longitudinal electromagnetic waves … to target specific strains of bacteria and mold which can inhibit their growth.”
The company presents anecdotes from a few customers, but anecdotes aren’t worth anything, especially when measuring something subjective like freshness. This is why I declined their offer to try a card myself. Without long-term testing including controls in multiple situations to factor out variables like humidity, temperature, age of product when bought, light levels, etc., my observations would be as useful as any other anecdote – that is, not useful at all.
The company website includes a video that they claim shows food lasting longer near the cards, but company-generated testing of a company’s own product should not be given much weight.
All in all, I would have ignored the whole thing except for two pieces of evidence.
The most important is that the company said the kitchen at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts ran a two-year test and measured some truly impressive benefits.
“Prior to the installation of the 36 Food Freshness Cards, monthly spoilage was approximately 3% of produce and bread purchases, and averaged over $500 per month. After 2 years of the installation of 36 Food Freshness Cards the average was only $38 per month, saving over $11,000 for the 2 years.”
Wow! That is real evidence, so I looked for more details, like where and when the test was done and under what conditions.
Bridgewater State University’s kitchen is run by Sodexo, a national food and facilities management firm. It didn’t respond to me, which is not unusual with really big corporations.
So I called the university, hoping they would rattle Sodexo’s cage. I pointed out that their name was being used as indirect advertising, sending them a link to the company’s description of the test on its website.
Last week a Bridgewater State assistant vice president, Eva Gaffney, passed on this statement from Sodexo: “Sodexo is not affiliated with this product and we do not endorse the study or support the products’ claims.”
She also pointed out that mention of the test, which was formerly prominent on the Food Freshness Card website, had disappeared: “I noted that the company did pull the Bridgewater State University logo, the Sodexo logo and any mention of Bridgewater State University.”
That’s quite true – all gone. So much for that evidence.
The other item of interest is that the Food Freshness Card received a Gold Medal at the 2019 Edison Awards, which honors “innovation and excellence in the development of new products and services.”
The Edison Award has been around for three decades and has a steering committee loaded with impressive folks, like the director of Business Model Innovation at Intuit, the director of Innovation Park at the University of Notre Dame, and the manager of New Enclosure Technologies (whatever that is) at Apple Inc. If they say the Food Freshness Card is worthwhile, that should be significant.
So I contacted the Edison Awards and found that, as I suspected, they don’t actually test any products. They accept claims and supporting evidence as being true, and judge whether it would be innovative, mostly based on the company’s responses to a questionnaire.
The Edison Award isn’t actually evidence that the Freshness Card works, merely that it would be innovative if it did work.
This, by the way, is common for product-related awards. Few organizations have the time or money to set up tests for the many products clamoring for recognition, so they judge the concept rather than the execution. That’s why you shouldn’t pay too much attention to them.
To find out more about the Edison Awards I talked to one of the steering members, who also helps judge submissions. He’s Stephen Carr, a professor of Materials Science & Engineering, and Chemical & Biological Engineering at Northwestern University.
It’s impressive that Carr called me back, by the way; a real tribute to his openness. Most people in that situation would have ignored me, hoping I’d go away.
Carr said he didn’t remember how he voted on the Food Freshness Card but agreed with me that the technology was, at the very least, “surprising” and “a stretch.” The lack of a power source struck us both as a real stumbling block, one that I think moves it from the “unlikely” category into “borderline impossible.”
So why did it get the award if it’s so very, very unlikely to work? Two things probably contributed, Carr said.
One is that the card exists. It is for sale and has been bought by real customers, according to the company. “It was in the marketplace and they don’t go into the marketplace unless there’s something,” he said.
The other was the patents, which are “a form of vetting and a form of validation” although he acknowledged that “it’s not proof.”
“I have seen more than one patent in other technologies where the science is basically wrong,” Carr said.
After Carr looked at the main Freshness Card patent he told me, “This is a patent I cannot fathom.”
So there you have it: An extreme claim that, unfortunately, lacks extreme evidence. Another good story ruined by facts!
As an addendum, I realize there’s a problem with this approach. It took me a couple of weeks to unravel what seemed like good evidence, and I did it as part of my paying job. That’s not very realistic for most of us.
So what should we do when we see an eyebrow-raising claim that presents good-sounding evidence when we suspect the evidence might be less than it seems?
You don’t want to just knee-jerk reject everything that doesn’t feel right to you. That route leads to vaccine denial and other society-wrecking idiocies.
So I’m afraid the main lesson here is a cliche: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”