Stanford Magazine and a veneer of science: helping the world buy "human pheromones"

Wow.  This ad for “Athena Pheromones” definitely caught my eye in Stanford Magazine in the September-October 2010 issue.   So I decided to scan it in and share.

The whole thing is, sadly, pretty lame actually.  These “pheromones” come from the Athena Institute, which they say was started by Winnifred Cutler who was a post doc at Stanford.  They claim, on their web site and in this ad, that she “Co-discovered human pheromones in 1986” and use this to I guess imply that whatever potions they sell must therefore work the way they claim.

Sure, the claims they make for what the potions they sell are not as outrageous as many things relating to sexual interactions.  In fact, they are pretty tame:

  • But 10X does this with the special power of human pheromones. 
  • Men who used 10X in their aftershave experienced increased romantic attention and affectionate behavior from women.
  • Some men report 10X improves their business relationships.

But what annoys me about this is the attempt to use science smoke and mirrors to support the claims.  As far as I can tell, they are using a series of tricks to make you think that this stuff really works.

First, they seem to be overinflating the scientific credentials of the founder of the company.  Sure she seems like she might be a decent scientist.  But they give her credit for the discovery of human pheromones.  And the evidence for this discovery is a bunch of news coverage from 1986.  But it seems from looking at the literature, not too many other scientists refer to these papers as having discovered human pheromones.  So my guess is one creatively written press release led to a lot of press and now, 24 years later they are still trying to ride the wave of publicity from the news coverage.

Second, they do some creative writing to make it seem that the scientific evidence of the effectiveness of the pheromones that they claim to include in their potions is overwhelming.  But upon closer examination, the work they cite is pretty minimal.  On one page they cite a poster abstract from a meeting in 1998.  On another they reference a 2002 paper by what appears to be an outside group that did a controlled trial of sorts – so at least there is some science here.  But it is pretty minimal.  Amazingly, and very annoyingly, if you want to read more detail about these studies they tell you: “to order reprint of full study click here)  and then you have to pay to get reprints.  
Third, and most troubling, is that it is very hard to figure out what exactly is in the little vials they sell for hundreds of dollars each.  Is it the same thing in the papers?  What is the concentration?  Is this homeopathic pheromonetherapy?  They say it is a trade secret – which does make some sense if it is real – but it is hard to evaluate without such information.

They must hope that we make the following connections (1) founder is a pioneer in scientific  studies of human pheromones (2) they have shown that some human pheromones really have effects (3) they sell vials supposedly with human pheromones -> therefore anyone interested in attracting more “mates” should buy the vials, since they must work. 

Many other aspects of the site are like this – referencing science, giving some sort of faux science veneer, but the science is actually pretty limited.  Not that I am saying human pheromones do not exist – most likely they do.  But is there something in these vials that is an effective human pheromone?  And if so, how much exactly do you get for $100?  My guess is, the true answers to these questions would lead most to stop buying this stuff.  

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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