Context. Detection of magnetic fields has been reported in several sdO and sdB stars. Recent literature has cast doubts on the reliability of most of these detections. The situation concerning the occurrence and frequency of magnetic fields in hot subdwarfs is at best confused.
Aims: We revisit data previously published in the literature, and we present new observations to clarify the question of how common magnetic fields are in subdwarf stars.
Methods: We consider a sample of about 40 hot subdwarf stars. About 30 of them have been observed with the FORS1 and FORS2 instruments of the ESO VLT. Results have been published for only about half of the hot subdwarfs observed with FORS. Here we present new FORS1 field measurements for 17 stars, 14 of which have never been observed for magnetic fields before. We also critically review the measurements already published in the literature, and in particular we try to explain why previous papers based on the same FORS1 data have reported contradictory results.
Results: All new and re-reduced measurements obtained with FORS1 are shown to be consistent with non-detection of magnetic fields. We explain previous spurious field detections from data obtained with FORS1 as due to a non-optimal method of wavelength calibration. Field detections in other surveys are found to be uncertain or doubtful, and certainly in need of confirmation.
Conclusions: There is presently no strong evidence for the occurrence of a magnetic field in any sdB or sdO star, with typical longitudinal field uncertainties of the order of 2-400 G. It appears that globally simple fields of more than about 1 or 2 kG in strength occur in at most a few percent of hot subdwarfs. Further high-precision surveys, both with high-resolution spectropolarimeters and with instruments similar to FORS1 on large telescopes, would be very valuable. Based on observations collected at the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, Chile under observing programmes 072.D-0290 and 075.D-0352, or obtained from the ESO/ST-ECF Science Archive Facility.