What's Your Opinion?

You will recall that a couple of weeks back I had a personal letter from Melissa Rogers, CEO of Shoo!TAG, in which she took me to task for ‘defaming’ her product, and asking why I believed there was no scientific support for it. I clearly outlined my position to her in a manner that I thought didn’t leave much room for interpretation. After receiving her reply this morning, though, I get the distinct impression that she didn’t actually read my letter, so much as skim through it in the way that I assume she approaches scientific literature. This is the sum of what she wrote:

Although I respect the right to your opinion, we obviously do not agree.  My question is:  What would you do, if you discovered you were wrong?

Dear Ms Rogers,

The entire problem here is that we’re not talking about an issue of opinion. You have made claims that challenge fundamental precepts of science as we currently know it, and you have said quite plainly on your web site that your product uses these novel scientific discoveries to repel insects. By doing so you are not putting forward an opinion that I am merely countering with some contrasting opinion. What you are doing is quite deliberately declaring that you have scientific substantiation of the principles by which you say Shoo!TAG operates. Scientific evidence and opinion are two very different things. Indeed, the scientific process is specifically designed to weed out the influence of opinion.

I believe that you understand very clearly that you need more than just opinions to make Shoo!TAG sound credible to your customers. You want to make it appear that you have science behind your claims, because you know, as we all do, that science works. The trouble is that, although you know lots of scientific buzzwords like ‘quantum’ and ‘electromagnetism’ and ‘fractals’, you don’t really understand much about these things, nor indeed, about the scientific process itself.

On your website, you use every opportunity to attempt to give Shoo!TAG scientific validity, even if it means distorting the truth. You use lots of scientific sounding language, you have a ‘Technology’ page (formerly called ‘Science’) where you talk about your ‘lab’ and ‘experiments’. You have implied repeatedly that you have endorsements by legitimate scientific institutions (which is demonstrably not true), and you publish scientific-looking documents with lots of tables and statistics. Your patent application has pages of technical-sounding language which is plainly contrived to give the impression that there is something scientific going on (when really it makes very little sense to anyone who does understand science).

The primary difference between opinion and science is that an opinion is, by its nature, a subjective stance. Science tries very hard to iron out all subjectivity and make an assessment of facts that can be agreed upon by anyone who cares to observe that assessment.

Let me try to explain this difference with some simple analogies:

In the 18th century, a mathematician named Daniel Bernoulli outlined a principle that showed that in a fluid flowing over an object with differing surface areas, a pressure differential is created on one side. This quite simple observation went on to have profound effects for our modern lives, perhaps the most well-known being the invention of the airplane. The Bernoulli Principle is what keeps aircraft in the air. Now it doesn’t matter what your opinion of Bernoulli’s discovery is; it will work for everyone in exactly the same way. Even if you hold an opinion that Bernoulli ‘just made it all up’, it will still work anyway. Bernoulli’s Principle is a sound scientific idea to which millions of people entrust their lives every day. And it is independent of opinion or belief.

Now let’s consider some colours: twenty shades of some dark red colour, say. We can show those colours to a hundred people and probably get a hundred different opinions on which of those shades might be called ‘purple’ or ‘crimson’ or ‘red’. And we could show them to people in China and Spain and Canada and get more opinions still. But if it came down to whether you would stake your life on the opinion of Gladys Blackshaw of Manchester, England, of whether the card she had in her hand was red, crimson or purple, you simply wouldn’t do it. Why? Because opinion is highly subjective and we don’t trust it for important decisions.

This is why humans came up with the idea of science in the first place: it is the most reliable way we know of assessing the world. What this means is that your opinion or my opinion or anyone else’s opinion is entirely irrelevant when it comes to your claims for how Shoo!TAG is supposed to work, because the only correct way of establishing the validity of your claimed results is with science.

You ask me what I would do if I discovered I was wrong?1 Well, the only way that I’m going to ‘discover’ that I’m wrong is if you can demonstrate some good science behind your product. The onus is not on me to prove that I’m right – I’m not the one seeking to sell a product based on remarkable new scientific principles. It’s YOU who are obliged to show the world that you’re right – YOU are the one making money out of this scheme. You have a responsibility to back up your claims. As I have said repeatedly, you can easily bring real science to bear on Shoo!TAG, should you have the courage to do it. It’s not even particularly hard science, as these things go. If you genuinely believe in your product, I simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t seek this kind of widely accepted corroboration. The really impressive thing about proper science is that if you really can scientifically demonstrate the astonishing results you say you can get, I (and everyone else on the planet) will have no choice but to accept your evidence, because the science will bear you out.

It won’t come down to a matter of opinion.

Peter Miller

  1. Asking a question like this is a technique much beloved of those who are unable to argue with evidence on their side. By throwing an open-ended query back at the interrogator the argument is deflected away from the issue at hand, which, in this case, is: What kind kind of evidence can they provide that they are right? What I would do if I am wrong is hypothetical and irrelevant to the usefulness of the discussion unless they can demonstrate that they are actually right. They are making the unverified claims, not me. []

What Shoo!TAG‘s ‘science’ sounds like to anyone who knows real science:


With thanks to Sir Joey for the lolz


Over the weekend, Violet Towne and I visited the Monash Gallery of Art to see an exhibition of photographs by Anton Bruehl. Bruehl was born in Australia, but made his career in New York where he became a favourite of the advertising world, creating photographs for Vanity Fair, Vogue and other high profile magazines. I always thought Bruehl was quite famous, but am dismayed to find that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry. You will almost certainly have seen his iconic photograph of Marlene Dietrich:

I really like Bruehl’s highly contrived and art-directed style and I think it has gone on to inform artists as diverse as David Lynch and Pierre et Gilles. The highlight of this exhibition for me, though, was some work Bruehl did for Vanity Fair, photographing the ‘Fashions of the Future’: clothing visions from designer Gilbert Rhodes. This is Rhodes’ speculation for the Man of the Future:

And here is that very man in the flesh, as realised by Rhodes and capture on film by Bruehl:

Is that awesome or what? The best thing here is, of course, that Rhodes got hardly any of it right. Well, I guess there is still a good part of the century to go, but you know what I’m saying… I suppose there are disposable socks (those ones they give you on planes) and the ‘antenna snatching radio out of the ether’ could charitably be interpreted to be the one in your iPhone, but the curly beard and the baggy onesie tucked into those disposable socks have yet to materialize. As for the utility belt, well, even Batman had trouble making that seem like a good idea.

I quite took to the Man of the Future’s jaunty disregard for anyone’s opinion of his haute couture, but I was rather more enamored of Rhodes’ vision for the Woman of the Future:

Alright! Now we’re talking!

I’m afraid, however, that I was so overcome by the prospect of what we bearded, antenna-sporting, disposable sock-wearing blokes have to look forward to in the next few years that my hand was shaking rather a lot when I tried to snap a shot of Rhodes’ and Bruehl’s vision of said woman.

It seems that, for a year or two at least, chaps, we’ll just have to live in anticipation.

By way of explanation for the non-Australians: earlier this year the northern parts of the east coast of Australia were devastated by rain and floods, significantly damaging the large banana crops that are grown there. As a consequence, the price of bananas has more than tripled throughout the land, and they have become something of a luxury item in recent months. Pic comes courtesy of Cissy Strutt who snapped this in her ‘hood.

Mild themes? What the fuck does that even mean? It’s so brainlessly stupid that I have to figure that the people on the censorship board just felt compelled to make something up to justify an already levied PG rating.

Here’s a conversation that formed in my head on viewing this:

Parent: Son, I’m afraid I can’t let you watch this DVD.

Junior: But Dad… it’s compulsory for my history class!

Parent: I’m sorry, it’s rated PG. See this label? It has Mild Themes.

Junior: But what kind of themes Dad?

Parent: Themes. They’re themes. Not strong themes, but themes all the same. I don’t want you seeing anything involving themes. It starts with themes, and before you know it you’ll be onto concepts and hypotheses. You’ll end up as some kind of philosopher. Or worse, a scientist. I know how these things go.


*Meaningless Censorship



Or, How To Get Product Placement on Tetherd Cow Ahead Without Even Trying

A couple of weeks back I told you the story of the tragic event in my youth that undoubtedly thwarted a brilliant artistic career; namely the loss of my beautiful set of Derwent pencils. To my surprise, the charming Rebecca from Derwent in the UK read that post and kindly offered to send me some Derwents, which I’m pleased to report she did. They arrived in the post a few days ago.

The look of the pencils has changed somewhat – gone are the rainbow hues, replaced with an earthy brown with colourful tips (they’re not really blue like they appear in the arty HipstaMatic1 shot above). I’m pleased to say, though, that the pencils themselves retain their waxy luxury and I aim to take a little outing somewhere over the next few weeks, to sit and draw, something I have not done in many years.

Wherever I venture, you can be sure that this time I will not leave my Derwents on the bus.

Thank you Rebecca, for the lovely coda to my childhood story.

  1. Dang. Secondary product placement! I should be getting kickbacks! []

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