Guess What? Pseudo-Science Isn't Good for Dogs or People
When I first wrote about No More Woofs, a project by a bunch of Swedish techies calling themselves the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery to create a translator for dogs, two things were pretty clear. First, that it was a scam; and second, that they’d get every penny of the $10,000 that they were asking for on IndieGoGo. My second prediction has already come true, and then some. The No More Woof project not only made the initial $10,000, but exceeded it. As of this writing, the project has collected $15,857, with 47 days left to go before it reaches its deadline.
And as for my first assertion, I stand by it: The No More Woof device is the most transparent kind of technological snake oil, designed to exploit people's love of their pets. I’m willing to bet that no one who gave money to the campaign is ever going to see a return on their investment. There are far too many hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is developing the ability to come up with specific, reliable interpretations of thought based on brainwave measurements.
If it turns out that the NSID can deliver the device, it wouldn’t just be a boon to pet owners; it would be a revolutionary leap in neuroscience and our understanding of neurolinguistics. What they’re talking about doing would be a Nobel-quality achievement. They would need a lot more than $15,000 to accomplish that.
I don’t blame people for being vulnerable to snake-oil pitches like No More Woof. Science and technology has brought us unspeakably amazing things. Scientists and fantasists from 50 or 60 years ago would have scoffed at the possibility of things that are so commonplace now that they’ve become banal. At the beginning of the twentieth century, time moved mechanically and consistently; Einstein came along and made it into something relative to the observer. When computer scientists created ENIAC in the late 1940s, it took up several rooms to make calculations that are extremely basic to the operation of my phone. And as anyone who watches police procedurals knows, we’ve moved beyond fingerprints to being able to identify a person from a strand of hair or a drop of sweat.
Add into the mix the love that people have for their dogs, and the appeal becomes almost irresistible. When you’ve become used to science making the miraculous into the everyday, why shouldn’t it be possible for someone to create something like the No More Woof?
The same love for our pets that leads us to convince ourselves to believe in dog translation devices should also lead us to temper our wishes for reason. As pseudo-science goes, the No More Woof is a fairly obvious example, but it’s also a fairly benign one. Most people are just going to lose $20 to $50. But there are plenty more examples of how people’s love for their pets is regularly exploited by charlatans and con artists.
I have a particular hatred for psychics. No matter whether they claim to be able to read human beings or pets, they have one thing in common: They always come at people when they are at their most desperate, when they need someone to give them some kind of hope. Any kind. I don’t blame people who are hurting and afraid for reaching out for a last chance. But I do blame psychics who take that fear and hurt, and exploit it to extract large amounts of money using methods familiar to even the most third-rate magicians.
Similarly, reiki has become popular among pet owners, even though it’s little more than faith healing wrapped up in East Asian patter. Even the best reiki “healer” does nothing more for a sick dog or a sick person than they would get from being petted and talked to affectionately.
In a way, the No More Woofs project is valuable, because it offers a really good example of how to apply critical thinking to pseudo-scientific ventures so that you don’t get conned. The first thing to ask is, “How much is it promising?” Basically, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Sometimes, real tech does sound too good to be true, almost to the point when it starts turning up on store shelves. But that’s where the second question comes in: “Can they show results that back up their claims?”
This was a huge red flag when I first viewed the No More Woofs pitch video: they don’t seem to have so much as a working prototype. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” The claim that they’re going to produce a device like the one in Up is a pretty big one. Anyone pushing that claim needs to be ready to back it up with something solid, not just pretty words.
And finally, the big one: “How consistent is this with what we already know and what we already can do?” Psychic powers and reiki violate not just everyday common sense, but current knowledge about neurology, physiology, and physics. Proof of either would revolutionize multiple fields of science from the ground up. The technology behind No More Woof is slightly more plausible, but not much. As I said in the beginning, it would revolutionize what we know about the brain, and the technology we use to study it. That’s huge.
We love our dogs, but our love should always be realistic. Falling for scams like No More Woof doesn’t help either dogs or their owners, and sometimes, it can be extremely harmful.
Do you think No More Woof and scams like it are dangerous, or simply a source of entertainment? Let us know in the comments.