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Exclusive: Government Invests Taxpayer Resources In Promoting Proven Useless Invention 22 August 2000 Edition
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Let me start today's column by saying to Jim Anderton and Dr Cullen a great big "I told you so."

Why am I being so smug and rude? Read on...

One of the greatest things about the Internet is the way it allows almost anyone with a few minutes of spare time to do a mountain of research on just about any subject.

Head off to any of the major search engines, enter your query and wham -- hundreds, or even thousands of pages of information for you to paw over in order to check out the facts, identify the scams and increase your knowledge of almost any subject.

Let's take the example of the many dubious fuel-saving devices that you see advertised from time to time -- and in particular, the ones that work by way of magnetism.

I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical when I read of claims that by simply clamping some powerful magnets to the fuel line on your petrol or diesel powered vehicle you could cut fuel consumption by up to 30 percent -- but I thought I'd dig deeper to find out what the experts thought.

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Of course I rang Shell Oil to see what their technical support department said about the claims. I was told that they were unaware of any scientific tests supporting the claims of these devices -- but that they did know of many tests indicating they had no effect on fuel economy or performance.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists amongst us would say "what else did you expect from a fuel company?" -- so I looked further...

I rang David Russell from the Consumer's Institute who appeared very much familiar with the devices and the claims. He said these magnetic fuel saving devices had no effect and that whatever savings people believed they were achieving were more likely a result of modified driving habits.

Still not convinced?

It doesn't take much digging online to discover that the US FTC has already done the tests and classified these devices as "found not to increase fuel economy." Check out 4  this page for their findings (along with lots of other gas-savings scams).

A quick scan through the archives of the sci.chem newsgroup also shows that the claims of magnetic fuel conditioners have been repeatedly debunked by some of the best scientific brains -- with quotes such as "They are fraudulent. They work by removing money from your wallet and making you feel good" being typical of the kind of scorn dished out.

The Australian Automobile Association joined the chorus when, in 1998 it told members

  • "In view of our past experience with this type of product, we are not recommending their purchase by members of the Automobile Association"

  • "There is no evidence that combustion is improved, and we have not seen authoritative independent test results to confirm the claims made regarding fuel consumption, power output or emissions reduction."

Although I was unable to find the original Australian AA report online, I did find what purported to be a copy of it 4  here.

Elsewhere on the Net there is plenty of evidence that the many sites which have popped up to sell these "amazing fuel-saving devices" contain only references to so-called independent tests which have either been performed by laboratories of dubious credibility or which were performed using decidedly unscientific procedures.

So, I think it would be safe to say that only a fool would consider investing either time or money in promoting such clearly suspect devices right?

Well, if you had any doubt about the current government's ability to properly administer a technology grants scheme of any kind, then please -- oh please, read 4 read this and weep!

Now I must make it clear that the government has apparently not provided any funding for Mr Balasingham's device -- but it has obviously invested a not insignificant amount of time, effort and resources in working to connect him with other sources of funding. The cost of that time and effort was paid for by you and I by way of our taxes -- probably by way of the punitive tax on our own, legitimate R&D investments!

When informed that the government was involved in any way with the promotion of these magnetic fuel saving devices, David Russell from the Consumers Institute said he was "horrified." He said that all the government's consultant had to do was ring the AA or the Consumers Institute to check the veracity of the claims being made.

Clearly "the four-hour grilling by ministry consultant Ralph Smale" mentioned in the article didn't include even the most rudimentary checks as to the veracity of the principles behind this so called invention. To have the taxpayer subsidising in any way the production or promotion of a device which has been so widely debunked makes a mockery of Cullen and Anderton's claims that they're able to dish out government funding appropriately under other new economy grants schemes.

Of course the government could claim that in the case of this scheme, it has no responsibility to check the claims made by an inventor or entrepreneur and that such checks would be the job of any potential investor -- but I think that even referring such a patently absurd scheme to anyone risks the government's new initiatives being ridiculed by the investment community.

When Mr Anderton and Mr Cullen announced they were reneging on their election promise to fix up the R&D tax disparity that disadvantages so many NZ entrepreneurs and manufacturers, they claimed that their alternative would be a system of grants. In response, there was a resounding claim by businesses that this would amount to "picking winners" and would be a system open to abuse and fraught with risk.

In the wake of this decision to provide taxpayer funded assistance to a business based on a technology clearly exposed as little more than hype, it is now patently clear that those claims have been borne out and the whole viability of the grants scheme must be called into question.

Why was money that could have gone to fix up a failing health system used to support such a nonsensical idea? Surely a government so concerned with the plight of the poor must have trouble justifying taking tax from a beneficiary and investing it in assisting the promotion of such a lame-brain scheme.

If Anderton wanted proof that his grants system won't work -- I think it's just been delivered on a plate.

As always, your feedback is welcomed.

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Copyright © 2000, Bruce Simpson, free republication rights available on request