Sometimes you don't need to be a brilliant scientist to detect a whiff of bullshit when it appears in newspapers under the guise of health advice. Take this article in the Mail:
The intro appears to be saying: people have looked at the evidence around some of these remedies, and tested them, and found they're not as good as you might think. So why not try these untested and unproven remedies instead!
For a start, is this even news? Well:
That report from USA Today, you'll have noticed, is dated 2006. But the Mail appears to be regarding this as a current story, and has decided the best way of informing its readers about what's really effective in fighting a cough is to decide that they'd like to hear about herbal and homeopathic remedies instead, with unproven claims parroted unquestioningly by the writer. Is that really what readers want? Well, who knows, but:
Here are five options to soothe nasty coughs
would seem to imply that these aren't just pretty liquids in bottles with herbs in them, or water-memory stuff, or whatever, but things that will/might/could soothe nasty coughs. Despite that, the packaging on the remedies is a lot more coy, only saying "based on traditional use only" in the case of the Kaloba Oral Drops, "apparently used by Zulus for thousands of years as a remedy for upper respiratory tract infections". Well if that's not nailed-down proof that that'll soothe a nasty cough, I don't know what is. Hey, and it's only a bargain £14.99 a bottle, so why not get five?
You can see the level of probing journalism that's been applied to these remedies by the objective and sceptical reporting of their effects:
That honey one doesn't even mention anything about coughs. Still, it's only a bargain £7.82 for a bottle, so it's worth stocking up with a dozen to see you through Christmas and the New Year.
Finally there's Seagate Olive Leaf Throat Spray, at a cheap-as-chips £5.71 for 30ml:
a combination of three natural antibacterials: olive-leaf extract homeopathic remedy Baptista tinctoria and Xylitol
So artificial sweetener, water, and a bit of leaf extract. I suppose you pays your money, you takes your choice: but the Mail have unhelpfully not pointed you in the direction of any choice, preferring to state unchallenged the claims made by these remedies without wondering whether they do any good (or harm) or not. Who wants to ask those awkward questions about things? Certainly not journalists.
I know there's a school of thought that says that journalists, not being scientists and having probably done inferior humanities degrees at former Polytechnics for god's sake, are confused by things like this and are a bit bewildered by it, so you can't blame them too much for getting it so wrong. I disagree with that kind of pomposity for a start, but I have another problem with it. You don't even have to be particularly bright or inquisitive to see that something's up with this, with the unquestioning presentation of unproven claims, with the legitimisation of stuff that perhaps doesn't always deserve to be legitimised, with the offering of stuff that's unproven as an alternative to stuff that has been tested. That runs contrary to any sensible journalistic instinct.
And besides, we all know the best thing for a cough is a large glass of whisky. (It might not make the cough any better, but with a bit of lucky you'll be too pissed to care.)