Doing the Laundry: an Exercise in Skepticism

Laundry

Josie is also a mom. (Photo credit: Holly and Mc)

A couple moths ago I moved into a duplex with my brother and sister-in-law. Alex and Josie are great people, and adjusting to life in a shared living space has been relatively easy. During my first week as a co-tenant my towel was still folded in a box somewhere, so Josie kindly lent me one of her’s. The first time I use it I remember thinking it felt strange, as though it had been hand-washed, or rinsed with soft water. Of course, I didn’t comment on this.

My suspicions were further aroused, however, when David and I had our first laundry day. Instead of being directed toward detergent, I was shown a couple of plastic, green, not quite spherical objects that were perforated with little holes, and sounded like maracas when shaken. “What are they?”

“They’re laundry balls. They’re  filled with special minerals that clean clothes just as well as detergent,” said Josie. She was clearly pleased with them, a good sign considering this particular brand of laundry ball had cost her $50. “Look it up!” Josie seemed confident, but I couldn’t shake my misgivings.

My first reservation was just how easy it seemed. Miracle products are usually either scams or breakthroughs. Breakthroughs are often heavily commercialized, and although someone was obviously selling them, I’d never heard of the laundry ball. My second misgiving was the word ‘mineral.’ Saying that something ‘has minerals’ in it is about as specific as saying something ‘contains chemicals.’ Everything (material) can be reduced to its chemical makeup, including ‘minerals’ which may be defined as anything mined from the earth that is neither plant nor animal. Minerals may be as precious as platinum or as mundane as pumice. Quartz, asphalt, and coal are all minerals, but none of them have detergent properties that can be activated by grinding them into pellets and tossing them into my laundry. Further, vaguely qualifying a mineral as ‘special’ does nothing to demonstrate its usefulness.

Josie invited me to research the product online, so I used the universal superpower that is google and found out within twenty minutes that not only is the laundry ball a scam, but that several laundry ball companies have gone out of business due to lawsuits and fines related to false advertising. If you want more information on why every type of laundry ball currently on the market is ineffective (essentially gravel and magnets trapped a giant tea diffuser), compare this model to the following links:

biowash-ball

biowash-ball (Photo credit: Inhabitat)

Independent Blog Posts:
Ecoballs — Are They for Real?
The Straight Dope: Do laundry balls really work?

Basic Scientific Problems w/ the Claims of the Laundry Ball:
Laundry ball (overview from wikipedia.com)
The Electromagnetic Spectrum (nasa.gov)
Water-related pseudoscience, scams, and quackery (chem1.com)
Magnetic Water Treatment and Pseudoscience (chem1.com)

Protip: Be suspicious if the most readily available product reviews are all sponsored, published by companies that benefit from its sales, or written by bloggers who were given free samples.

What is most interesting about this story, however, isn’t the scam, but that Josie and Alex, and even my partner David–all intelligent, practical, college educated individuals–were convinced that a useless product was ‘the new green solution,’ and had been using it for months without realizing their investment was having little to no effect.

When I talked with David about it later he pointed out the key circumstance that enabled them to be taken in: they all wanted to believe the laundry balls were working. It appealed to their frugality (a one-off payment of $35-$75 versus 1-3 years of detergent and water heating costs), health consciousness, and environmentalism, thus it only took a little bit of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to win them over. It’s natural for our hopes and desires to obscure our better judgment. Our egos can also hinder reason; the appeal of discovery–the opportunity to be a purveyor of privileged information–often draws us into accepting ideas that should make us raise our eyebrows.

To me, the incident with the laundry balls is an example of why skepticism is important. Not only can it help people avoid wasting their money, but imagine what a predisposition toward curiosity, inquiry, and investigation would do for the effectiveness of the consumer dollar. How would society change if more people demanded the products they buy, the actions of their leadership, and their own daily decisions be supported by logic, evidence, and critical reasoning? What if we put our trust in what is proven and pragmatic, instead of what is immediately convenient and captivating? I think our lives could only improve if we did.

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