This post has been updated.
What happens—what should happen—when you lose faith in your product? When you come to see that the product you’ve been selling all this time isn’t really what it’s been cracked up to be? Is it wrong to keep selling it? How bad does the product have to be for it to be wrong to keep selling it? How strong should the evidence be?
The question came to mind when I read recent reports accusing Dyson Airblades hand dryers of spreading germs at an apparently horrifying rate. Now to be clear, there are reasons not to overreact to the hyperbolic headlines. The stories you’ve read about Airblades are based on one study, conducted under lab conditions that might not reflect reality [see update below]. But what if—what if—the reports turn out to be fair and accurate? What if the highly artificial scenarios used for the lab tests turn out to be validated by field trials? What if Dyson Airblades really are spreading filth? Should Dyson simply say “Oh well, so much for that!” and stop selling them?
The question of losing faith in your product also comes to mind with regard to various “complementary” and “alternative” healthcare products. Most people who sell such products, and most health practitioners (homeopaths, naturopaths, therapeutic touch practitioners, and so on) surely do what they do out of a genuine belief that they’re helping their patients. They believe they see positive effects. But the evidence generally doesn’t support that belief. Now, most practitioners and sellers simply never come to accept that fact, and so they go on selling and prescribing products that are physically incapable of doing what they claim they do. And though I’m a strong critic of such practices, I do have a degree of sympathy for the person who has spent, say, 20 years believing that homeopathy really works, and “seeing” it help thousands of people (a fact that can readily be explained by the operation of a whole range of well-documented cognitive biases). When such a person starts to realize the 20-year error they’ve made, they must find themselves in a rather awkward situation.
Some might ask whether the seller’s faith in the product really matters all that much. Isn’t the customer always right? Isn’t the customer’s opinion the one that matters? Yes, mostly. And so there are times when it’s absolutely OK to keep selling your product even after you’ve personally lost faith in it. Imagine you’re in sales for Coca-Cola, and you find yourself developing a taste for Pepsi. The fact that you prefer Pepsi doesn’t make it wrong to sell Coke. Your customers are buying based on their tastes, and de gustibus non est disputandum.
But that’s about questions of taste. What about questions of objective reality? Some products, after all, just don’t work. Selling only products that work is required by the basic ethical and legal requirement of “merchantability.” If you sell me a chair, it needs in fact to be capable of functioning as a chair. If you sell me a gizmo to attach to my car’s engine that you swear will provide better performance, then it had better actually provide better performance: me having the “feeling” that the car is now performing better isn’t enough.
And so some cases are pretty clear. Once you understand—really understand—the weight of evidence against most complementary and alternative medicines, it immediately becomes ethically imperative to stop selling them. And if Dyson finds its product really is spreading germs at an unconscionable rate, then it will be duty-bound to stop selling the product, though surely the restaurants and public buildings that are the company’s main customers will make that choice for them.
In the end, what’s required are vigilance and good faith. Anyone who sells a product is obliged to go to reasonable lengths to ensure their product works, and to grapple with credible evidence to the contrary. A sincere belief in your product is nice—it helps you get up in the morning and look yourself in the mirror—but it’s not enough.
UPDATE: While the point of this blog entry wasn’t to criticize Dyson, using the Dyson Airblade as an example might have the unfortunate side-effect of lending credibility to the reports cited. Dyson has made a convincing rebuttal to those reports on YouTube.
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