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This week I’ve found myself becoming quite frustrated with the way alternative ‘therapies’ are being presented in the NZ Herald. Two of the three described to date are – as described – essentially massage therapies (as Michael Edmonds has noted here) & hardly need the overlay of pseudoscientific claims (unless, perhaps, to gain wider acceptability?). The third, so-called hirudotherapy, has the potential to do real harm – as Siouxsie and I have both pointed out – and lacks any evidence for several of its claims. And I’m left wondering why the journalists concerned don’t appear to be querying any of the claims made for & about these various modalities.

Which leads me to think that Steve Novella‘s BS** detector needs to be very widely read & discussed. There’s a full article about this in last September’s The Skeptic magazine, but the key points are summarised below. Useful in science classrooms – heck, in any classroom! – and in newsrooms as well. As Steve notes, “raising the red flag or activating your BS detector doesn’t mean it’s going to be BS in the end”, but what follows is a a list of questions that we should all ask when presented with a new claim where we can’t be sure whether or not it’s actually legit:

  • How extraordinary are the claims?
  • How many different conditions are claimed to be treated by one modality?
  • What is the mechanism?
  • What is the plausibility?
  • Is the treatment generally accepted or promoted by a single individual or group?
  • Are there claims for a conspiracy of suppression?

It would be a useful ‘nature of science’ classroom exercise to revisit the Herald‘s articles with these questions in mind.

** BS = bovine excrement

Steve Novella (2011) The BS Detector. The Skeptic 31(3):11-15 (the magazine of the Australian Skeptics, www.skeptics.com.au)