Call me skeptical…

I came across this interesting device and had an instant gut reaction..  “Of course a stupid water bulb doesn’t repel flies, this is a scam!”…

deep breath…

OK that is terrible skepticism.  Actually, it’s cynical and it’s just what skeptics hate being called.  It’s also something that happens much too easily – I’m pretty convinced that ghosts don’t exist, there has been no compelling evidence, ever.  But every time I hear a story of a haunting it is far too tempting to just think of a few plausible explanations and dismiss the case without a closer look.  And when we do this we give fodder to the credulous investigator who will throw it back in our faces faster than a spirit-orb zipping across a room.  Discovering a real ghost for the first time ever is pretty nearly impossible; yet the answer isn’t always the most obvious hypothesis and you can stumble upon a zebra every once in a while.  The point is that investigation is the only real way to remain skeptical.

So in order to avoid arm-chair skepticism I will attempt to purchase and test this device.  I have contacted the artist and request more information and a price (“artist” makes me worry).  Barring sticker shock (of course someone could donate for the cause) – I will submit this to a decently rigorous test as soon as I gather enough flies.

The a priori assumption is that the scattering of light created by the water sphere will scare away flies because they have very “sensitive eyes” and the movement of the light will keep them from landing (movement=danger).  Not a crazy thought, at the very least this device does not claim to emit any “energy” or “waves” or any other “b.s. stupidity”.  When first approaching claims like this it is very important to ignore anecdotal evidence.  In this case, that claim is that this is the “traditional way to scare flies away in most of the food markets on urban Mexico” (spelling error not my own).  An argument from popularity and tradition ads zero evidence to efficacy of the device.  I suppose widespread use is most likely gullibility spread on the back of a meme.

It is also critical to consider the prior plausibility of light being an effective deterrent.  Flies have evolved in an environment that abounds with distractions and dangers – not to mention water.  The eyes of a fly (I will assume Musca domestica for purposes of this experiment) are highly sensitive to movement and the reaction time of a housefly is famous.  I will go ahead and assume that flies encounter scattered light as part of daily life.  Wouldn’t being under a bush on a breezy day – especially if that bush was wet – generate roughly the same effect?  It seems unlikely that a common occurrence in nature would induce an escape response the same way a dangerous object would.  I conclude the plausibility of this device is low, however not totally impossible.  Certain light effects may just mimic enough physical movement to scare off a fly.  However is that light delivered by this object.  For example, maybe a flashlight or laser is effective but not scattered light, in that case this device would just be a scam (if not just an object of art).  On top of the light assumption, the user also assumes that the light is scattered not only evenly across a surface but densely enough to actually scare enough flies to make this effective for keeping your food fly-free.

Considering the above: I predict that the scattered light created from this bulb will not reduce the number of landings or the duration a fly spends on a surface (especially one with a food lure).

Now to design the experiment…

UPDATE: The artist returned my message and the device is 120 euro + shipping from europe.  Too much for me…

8 comments to Call me skeptical…

  • Luisa

    120 euros…?! Heck, just fill a sandwich bag or freezer baggie with water and hang ‘er up. It worked for me in Guanajuato [where it's not unusual to see a baggie full of water hanging in a (screenless) window to keep flies from entering the kitchen], and I’ve used the technique here in SoCal to keep flies off the back porch. I like to think it’s working, anyway…

    That water bulb is real purdy, but too rich for my blood.

    • Yea thats the exact thing this is based off of, I always wondered why there were weird bags of water hanging from taco stands in Mexico! I encourage you to stop using it one day and see if you are actually suddenly inundated with flies. I think there must be a bit of this that is psychological – you might take the bag down and suddenly notice a fly you otherwise would have dismissed.

      It is an interesting piece of art, but I’ll have to test the theory with the water bag instead!

  • If you really want to make one of these to test, might I suggest hollowing out a light bulb? Seems like the same basic shape. Its a pretty easy process too,

  • Biobob

    if you wanted something a little more robust than a light bulb, visit your local lab equipment emporium and browse the distillation, florence, erlenmeyer, etc glassware. Finding something like this for a few bux each should be no problem., and you can probably borrow something from the chem dept.

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