Sometimes, when things are bad enough, we'll cave in and buy into concepts and products that we otherwise wouldn't have. As one example, hurt bad enough and you'll try just about anything to ease that pain. And unfortunately, common sense isn't nearly as common as it should be and we are none of us as skeptical as we could be. Except for those Missourians, of course, who live by the motto, "Show me." I'm honestly not too sure of that, though, as "showing" people works all too well or those power bracelets and other pseudoscience-based products wouldn't be so popular. Brian Dunning, following on the coattails of skeptics before him, has devised a 15 point checklist of questions we can ask when our common sense has deserted us or, even worse, has us convinced that the bra genie will fix all our back fat problems.

Checklists are handy-dandy things to have when you wander off into woo-filled stores like Drug Emporium or Wal-Mart. Yes, even your favorite chain store is filled with unproven, untested products like these:


Without something like Dunning's list, buyers are at a serious disadvantage. Certainly some of his checklist questions won't be particularly helpful while standing stuffy-nosed and miserable in front of the medicine aisles in Walgreens, where the woo mixes with the real deals, with nothing to tip the foggy-headed buyer off. After all, when you just want someone to put you out of your misery, are you really going to ask question number one: "Does the claim meet the qualifications of a theory?" (Dunning). Do you really give a flying fig? You just want to breathe and do so now.

Dunning's second question, "Is the claim said to be based on ancient knowledge?" is more likely to be relevant in natural food stores where all natural, ancient remedies are a dime a dozen. Scratch that. They may be everywhere, but they aren't a dime a dozen; they're expensive money drains that leave the buyer with emptier pocket books and the hope that the placebo effect will kick in (and viciously reinforce the buying cycle). 

After having rummaged through the local stores for cures to your misery, you sit bleary-eyed and ready to hurt someone, staring at your tv as informercials begin to air. And this is where Dunning's third question is invaluable: "Was the claim first announced through mass media, or through scientific channels?" If you're watching it on an infomercial, do you really think science has weighed in on it? If Chuck Norris is selling it, really?

Having recovered enough to go to the local peddler's market, you're still under the weather and you see a vendor selling salt lamps and magnets, both of which promise to cure everything from MS to allergies. This is where Dunning's sixth question is a real keeper: "Does the claim sound far fetched, or too good to be true?"

All fifteen of Dunning's questions are ones we do not, unfortunately, ask ourselves before we plunk down our hard-earned dollars on something that promises smaller waistlines or improved joint functioning or shoes that will make us lose weight or mystical, magical rubber bracelets with holograms in them that make you invulnerable and invisible. So, don't be a sucker, print these fifteen questions out and tape them into your wallet next to your credit card so you'll think twice the next time some huckster promises to cure your warts and make you grow two inches taller with the same product.

Works Cited

Dunning, Brian. "How to Spot Pseudoscience." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 6 Apr. 2007. Web. 12 Sept. 2011.
*Originally written to demonstrate to students how to write a response paper to assigned readings, the students were first shown the rough draft, which appears on the class blog and my personal blog. This will demonstrate a revised essay for them. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak. :-)