Science, Now + Beyond

How to form opinions on scientific issues without making an ass of yourself

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to only seek information that confirms something they would like to believe.

Scientific information on the internet is in abundance.

Some days the internet tell us coffee is good for us. Other days, it tells us that coffee will be the next cause of the apocalypse (kidding). Someone will post an article on Facebook, and then very few will actually fact check it. It is an endless cycle that may make some throw up their hands and say, “I give up. Science is too difficult, and it is changing all of the time.” Well, major reality check: yes, science is changing all of the time, like many other things in life.

However, to help us out when navigating this daunting area, here are some tips to help you hone your analytical skills and critical thinking when it comes to any scientific topic!

1. Use those clicking powers and find the original study

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[Image Description: A gif of a woman clicking on a computer] via Giphy
Did you see that new article about why sisters can make men better human beings? It is extremely interesting, but let’s not forget the hours, days, and maybe even years of painstaking research that went behind it. Believe it or not, someone spent time thinking and re-thinking a lot about this. Do yourself a favor and read the original work they published (or maybe it is still in draft form).

2.  Read the whole study if you can

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[Image Description: A gif of John Oliver on his show talking about the Time article that mistakenly reported that smelling farts can prevent cancer.] via Giphy
Note the phrase: if you can.

Unfortunately, one of the ugly things about good scientific information is that it is not always easily accessible. However, more and more scientists and academics are realizing the injustice of this, and journals are moving towards becoming less obscenely expensive and more open access.  If the whole study is not available, at least read the abstract.

Check out the sample size, for example. Is it obscenely small or unrepresentative? Psychological studies especially have this issue as they usually only use students. Here’s a great guide to help you decode a scientific paper.

3. Ask if the results have been replicated elsewhere

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[Image Description: A gif of an anchor walking into a hospital room and talking about the support of many studies for immunizing chilren] via Giphy
This one is extremely important.

Science is changing every day and new ideas pop up constantly. While new ideas are awesome, it is important to not jump a bandwagon. Read the news, and then wait to see how other scientists have attempted to achieve the same results down the line.  Scientific rigor depends on replication or at least attempts at it. We would not be safely taking medicines we barely think twice about without multiple trials. Replication may not always be possible, but in situations where it is, do keep this in mind.

Here’s a prime example of solid scientific evidence based on a great body of studies: smoked meat is cancer-causing (also known as carcinogenic).

4. Bias, bias bias!

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[Image Description: A gif of Cartman being shooed away by his teacher because the scientific study did not go as planned.] via Giphy
Unfortunately, studies can never be perfect.

While most scientists would love to achieve optimal conditions to collect their data, the mere fact of being human in a world with financial and even political constraints bring some bias. Although biases are not always intentional, the essence of them is a particular outcome that the researcher may desire, which can be problematic when selecting a representative sample, for instance.  And it is not surprising, given that scientists and academics have the pressure to publish “positive” results in order to gain a reputation. That does not mean that you should completely throw away every study you read, but it is important to be aware.

Here’s a great guide to types of biases that can come up in studies.

5.  Read what other scientists and researchers are saying about the topic and research

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[Image Description: A gif of a woman with her phone saying she will look something up.] via Giphy
Surprise, surprise. Scientists agree and disagree with each other.

It may be very easy to get caught up with that great talk you found on Youtube or on Ted that is making you feel starry-eyed. However, always consider alternative approaches to those, along with the criticisms. There is again nothing wrong with being optimistic about a new scientific idea. However, one of the biggest mistakes people make with information, in general, is to only seek information that confirms something they would like to believe. Which leads to the next point.

6.  Ask yourself when you are only Googling information to verify preexisting beliefs

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[Image Description: A gif of Neil Degrasse Tyson with the word science coming across the screen.] via Giphy
This is extremely dangerous. I REPEAT. Extremely dangerous. It is intellectually lazy, and to never let your ideas be challenged is in itself unscientific.  Science is filled with new discoveries, and new discoveries can either confirm old ones, expand on them, or make them irrelevant. The spirit of science is questioning, and this is what keeps scientists continually excited and in awe of the world we live in.

So, off you go as you read scientific news with a new eye and a critical lens!