The Solar Eclipse: A Shady Business

  • August 15, 2017

ow much do you value your eyesight? Would you be willing to trust your eyesight to a pair of “safety” spectacles retailing for $1.99?

Oregonians are mesmerized by the solar eclipse that will occur on August 21. Some people will experience the total eclipse from their homes; many other people will have to brave traffic jams to view the solar show.

Experts warn people not to stare directly into the sun, even if they are in the path of a 99% eclipse. That 1% still leaves plenty of sunlight, so staring at the sun even under a 99% eclipse can ruin your eyes. Only for two or three minutes will it be safe to view the total eclipse.

For the past couple of weeks, vendors have been hawking special spectacles designed to protect your eyes while you look at the eclipse. I saw a pair for $1.99 at a chain store. This chain has been in business for decades, and its merchandise is pretty good. But would you really want to risk your eyesight on a product costing $1.99? Would you do so, if there was even a one-in-a-million chance that the glasses were defective or fraudulent? Would your answer change, if these spectacles were being sold by a temporary vendor under a canopy similar to those selling, say, fireworks in late June and early July?

The chain store intends to stay in business for decades to come. Presumably someone in their organization tested the spectacles or got an expert to examine them. Perhaps the chain store has found the producer to be reputable in the past. For $1.99, the store would have to sell hundreds of thousands of pairs to offset even one wrongful blindness lawsuit. The store has a strong incentive to make sure these glasses are effective. Buyers will be depending upon the store‘s diligence and reputation. Still, I would feel queasy using such a cheap product.

In the case of a temporary vendor selling spectacles for $1.99, some of the known reliability associated with the chain store disappears. The vendor may be difficult to contact, if the glasses prove faulty. The vendor may also lack the wherewithal to pay restitution for any injuries.
The producers of these spectacles presumably know whether these are legitimate, science-based gear. If they hope to continue doing business with the chain store (or any other retailers), they don‘t dare sell faulty glasses.

There have been allegations in the local news of people selling phony safety glasses. Let‘s consider the finances of doing so. Suppose you plan to sell such a wretched product. You might make some money (let‘s say a generous $1 per pair profit on a $1.99 retail price), but you‘re unlikely to become wealthy at the level of a Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Fly-by-night vendors might score small gains but are hard-pressed to hit the profit jackpot. Of course, people selling fraudulent spectacles are likely to charge a fancier price than the retail store, so perhaps the $1.99 price should give you comfort. It is simply too much work to sell a lot of fraudulent $1.99 pairs. Indeed, P.T. Barnum, the nineteenth-century impresario, advised, “the most difficult thing in life is to make money dishonestly.”

Most producers would recoil at the idea of selling even scientifically-based but untested eyewear. The possibility of an error would deter them from rushing to sell such a product. Many producers have a well-developed sense of morality, and the possibility of inadvertently blinding people would horrify them. Producers who are inherently unscrupulous but cautious are also unlikely to perpetuate such a fraud; the fear of getting caught deters them.

The very cheapness of the glasses and the fact that a reputable vendor is selling them provide reassurance that these are at least “99.9%” likely to be effective. But that last percent or even one-tenth of a percent remains worrisome.

I‘m not going to be in the path of the total eclipse on Monday, so I have no reason to buy the $1.99 set of spectacles. Perhaps I should have purchased a pair, because as my Mom used to advise, “They‘ll be collectors‘ items someday!”

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by UNIBusiness or the University of Northern Iowa.

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