Don't believe everything you read
Sunday, August 04, 2013 10:00 PM
We are being constantly bombarded with scientific information in the popular media, especially on the Internet. I often see incorrect medical information go viral, being forwarded with the click of a mouse before any critical thought by the reader takes place.
Dr. John Roberts is a Crawfordsville physician and one of the owners of The Paper. In addition to his weekly column, he writes a daily health tip that can be found on page A1.
How is a layperson or non-scientist supposed to digest all this information and figure out what to believe? I want to give you some basic tips to use when evaluating what you see or hear.
The most important thing to look for when reading a science article is whether or not the author or source is credible (though this can be tricky - see below). Does the author have the proper credentials? Does he or she have a degree from an accredited institution or are they simply a member of an organization that has little or no credibility in the wider scientific community?
There are a number of other things to watch for. One warning sign is if in addition to presenting information, an article is trying to sell or promote something. If so, your skeptical radar should light up. Honest science is interested in disseminating information for scientific and public discussion - not to use it to sell a product or service.
There are some logical fallacies you need to watch out for when reading articles, but one is particularly common. It is known as the "appeal to authority." This involves the logic that if a person is touted to be an authority on a subject that what he or she says must be true. This is all too common with "Oprahfied" media personalities such as Dr. Oz, and now Jenny McCarthy who will appear on The View.
Never take association with an "authority" at face value - do your homework on the person and make sure their argument is based on sound scientific evidence. Visit www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#H6 or take some time to jump on Google and search "logical fallacies" to teach yourself how to recognize some of these errors in logic.
Authors also may employ the logical fallacy of "quoting out of context." The author may cite another professional person in his or her article as having done research or said something that supports the author's point. The problem occurs when the professional's findings or quotes are taken completely out of context and have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the content of the article in question.
When someone reads that a Nobel Laureate in Medicine made a statement that has some similar language to the point the author is trying to make, they assume the Nobel Prize winner must support the author's point as well - don't fall for this slight of hand.
Another common tactic to watch out for is an author who fails to provide a specific citation to a scientific study supposedly supporting his or her claim. The study may be named or eluded to, but by using only vague references. This would not stand up in a peer-reviewed scientific publication.
If an author is going to use a study to support his or her position, the citation should include, at a minimum, the author(s) and where it was published. This allows the reader to go to the original study to see if it truly lends specific support and that the author did not cook up the association. Always try and find the original article before it passes through multiple filters in the media or Internet.
One final category of things to look out for is anecdotes and testimonials. One of my favorites quotes is, "the plural of anecdote is not data." If an author is making a scientific conclusion about something, it must be based on rigorous scientific evidence, not word of mouth support. If the author refuses to produce rigorous scientific evidence to back his or her position, that should raise an immediate red flag to take any conclusions with a huge grain of salt.