I was flying before smart phones and tablets killed SkyMall. To me, it was always a Brookstone of the sky – a place to buy over-priced gadgets for increasingly niche purposes. It was fun to page through the catalogs and think of who bought a Sasquatch lawn ornament while ignoring the in-flight movie. Then I got older. I realized that SkyMall wasn’t just selling niche goods; it was selling a lot of pseudoscience. So I took up another hobby – annotating SkyMall pages with science.
I know full well that my effort to insert some science into the pages of SkyMall was ultimately futile. I’d have to mark up literally thousands of these magazines before I made any real dent in public consciousness, or at least whoever had my seat next. In addition to posting my work online, I’d leave the copy for the next traveler. It probably didn’t make any difference. I was just a science vandal.
But I felt compelled to be. SkyMall always had that feeling of “who buys that anyway?” while simultaneously encouraging us to be that who. It was undoubtedly fun to buy a SkyMall product, like being a part of a much less scandalous mile-high club. However, many of those products completely misrepresented human health, biology, and physics.
A lot of this work was just for me. I started out writing about science from the point of view of a skeptic. I wrote explainers for ghosts and water fluoridation and “chemtrails.” So I am always primed for the language that signals a product that is probably bogus. Buzzwords like “ion,” “frequency,” and “natural” are almost always red flags.
Some of the products were just silly, and were obviously meant to be. A bigfoot for your tree or a “velociraptor” for your lawn isn’t exactly harming our critical thinking skills. I annotated them anyway.
Some were simply incorrect about how the human body works, and expected you to pay handsomely for them. This is where I thought the harm was being done.
Others still made claims about the efficacy of supplements and health-tracking products. I said my piece in the pages with a pen.
SkyMall may not be leaving our seats just yet, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. In my mind, it’s devilishly clever to slip exorbitantly priced products that don’t work into a catalog of products we aren’t sure will work in the first place. At SkyMall’s best we can buy an ear insert to eavesdrop on conversations, at its worst we can buy largely untested and unproven pills that are supposed to “give you energy.” It lowers the bar for what we consider healthy, reasonable, and efficacious.
But then again, I’ve taken to ranting in between the pages of a now bankrupt magazine and leaving the result for other airplane passengers. So maybe I’m not all that reasonable to begin with.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor at Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.