Thursday, 12 November 2009

Snake Oil

I suspect that 'miracle' products have been around since the dawn of mankind; ever since one human discovered how gullible some of his fellow men could be. The advance of human science and knowledge, far from putting an end to such scams, has served only to give more complex and credible pseudo-scientific 'explanations' as to how the products work.

One of these little miracles, which has been around in one form or another since the 1920s, is the fuel-line magnet. At its simplest, it involves attaching very small (and invariably very expensive!) magnets to the fuel line on a vehicle, which, it is claimed, improves fuel consumption. How? Well the latest explanation is that the magnets somehow 'align' the hydrocarbon molecules and make them burn better or more completely. It's bunkum, of course, and has been well-refuted on many occasions (here are two simple responses), including by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has evaluated a number of specific products. The Advertising Standards Agency has also forced at least one company to withdraw the claims that they have made for their products.

The obvious question, of course, is if these devices work as well as their suppliers claim, why is there no motor vehicle manufacturer, anywhere in the world, which fits them as standard? Apparently, it's because there is a giant conspiracy between motor manufacturers and oil companies to suppress the introduction of devices which would reduce fuel consumption. And I suppose it's therefore equally obvious that motor manufacturers would sooner spend millions on research into new ways of meeting tighter environmental controls on fuel consumption than fit a 'tried and tested' device as standard. And the moon is made of blue cheese.

Companies selling this sort of device seem invariably to be of the 'network marketing' type, and Trading Standards Departments up and down the country are concerned about the validity of claims being made. Standard advice seems to be that the best way of saving money with these products is to keep it in your pocket.

One company selling these devices is called Magno-Flo, and I was somewhat surprised yesterday to discover that Carmarthenshire County Council have been trialling the product on 22 vehicles. (I'll bet that it wasn't a 'blind' trial, let alone a 'double-blind' trial. The placebo effect is an extremely powerful phenomenon.) So pleased are they with the outcome that the Policy and Resources Committee has decided to recommend them being fitted on more vehicles, 'where appropriate'. The county runs around 700 vehicles in its fleet, and at £300 a throw, that's a potential £210,000 of council tax-payers' money for 1400 very small magnets. Nice work if you can get it.

Better yet, the council has become the first (and so far only, as far as I can establish) public authority anywhere in the UK to give a formal endorsement of the product, which the company is using on its website. I wonder whether the department concerned has consulted with their colleagues in Trading Standards? Somehow, I doubt it.

The race is now on to see which local authority will be the first to endorse snake oil as the cure for all ills. Carmarthenshire County Council must start as an early favourite.

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