We are definitely living in a post-truth world. It’s not just in the political sphere that we have to be careful of facts and “alternative facts.” It also extends to the scientific world as well. The public is being constantly bombarded with scientific information through popular media, especially the Internet. How is a non-scientist supposed to filter through all this information and figure out what to believe? I want to give you some tips to use when evaluating what you see or hear.
The most important thing to look for when reading an article about something scientific is whether the author or source is credible. Does the author have the proper credentials? Is the person addressing a subject on which he or she has extensive training and knowledge? Just because someone has an advanced degree, it does not mean he/she has the expertise to comment on the subject at hand – it may be completely out of his/her area of expertise.
Does the author have a degree from a well-recognized accredited institution, or are they simply a member of an organization that has little or no credibility in the scientific community?
There are a number of other things to watch for in scientific articles. The first that should raise a huge red flag is if the scientific article is trying to sell or promote something. It is rare for scientists or organizations to disseminate information for the sole purpose of selling a product or service directly to the public (i.e. over the Internet). They generally dedicate their lives to scientific inquiry for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, some can fall into this trap by promoting treatments or procedures that benefit them financially.
There are some logical fallacies you need to watch out for when reading scientific articles. The “argument from authority” is frequently used when trying to peddle a bogus product or treatment. This supposes that since the author is an educated person with a degree, what he/she says must be true. While this may be true, you must realize that it isn’t always (except for this column of course). Never take these things at face value – do your homework on the person(s) and the subject matter at hand.
Authors may also use the argument from authority to reference another professional in their article as having done research or said something that supports the author’s findings. The problem occurs when the supporting professional’s findings or quotes are taken completely out of context and have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the content of the article.
When someone reads that a Nobel Laureate in Medicine made a statement at some point in time 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 detailed citation to a study supporting his or her claim. The study may be named or alluded to, but 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 primary source to see if the findings do indeed lend support and that the author did not make an improper association.
Two final things to look out for are anecdotes and testimonials. If an author is making a scientific conclusion about something, it must be based on rigorous scientific methodology and peer review, not word of mouth support. If the author refuses to produce the scientific evidence to back his or her position that should raise immediate concern that you should take any conclusions with a huge grain of salt.
The recently-released book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Dr. Steven Novella, is an highly-recommended source on how to navigate our post-truth world.