These days a wealth of information is available at our fingertips. Any Google search on a topic is bound to return thousands, even millions of results. In an age of information excess, how do we choose what to focus on? How do we know what to believe? There’s a reason why most of us don’t believe the tired old headlines calling for Brad and Angelina’s divorce when we stand in the checkout line at the store: experience has taught us these sources are not reliable. On the internet, anyone can write about science and medicine regardless of their expertise or intentions. Therefore, as we do with tabloids, we should distinguish between the BBC and The National Enquirer of science news and blogs.
Most of us don’t have the time and knowledge to examine all scientific data on a particular subject. Instead we rely on journalists and bloggers to do it for us. These sources are great: they process complex information and summarize the important points for us to learn. However this can sometimes lead to problems, such as faulty information, generalizations about findings, or reporting out of context. They can also introduce their own biases and perspective to influence the interpretation of science. Therefore it is important to become a critical reader in daily life in order to sort the good from the bad information.
News reports about scientific findings can sometimes be exaggerated. How many times have we read that “Drug X will change the medical landscape!”, only to find out that it was carried out in mice, or only applied to a small number of patients? Often times, we never hear about it again! I find it disheartening whenever news reports generalize and take findings out of context, because I feel it will ultimately disappoint those hoping for a cure for cancer when the miracle “breakthroughs” fail to occur.
Here are a few questions you should ask yourself when reading about scientific studies:
(1) Is there an agenda behind the source?
What is the author’s goal? It could be to simply educate on a topic, or it could be to influence our opinion or to sell their story. For the latter, authors sometimes will appeal to our emotion through their language. Highly controversial topics such as vaccines or climate change will contain many such examples, where authors resort to more than just facts to try to change our minds.
(2) Is there a potential conflict of interest?
Is the article promoting use of a specific product or technique? If so, what are the funding sources? Are there any conflicts of interest? Recently, one of the top climate change deniers, Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, a Harvard educated scientist was found to have hidden the fact that he received millions in funding from the fossil fuel industry (1-3). In light of this new evidence, how credible do you think his published articles are?
(3) Is the author appealing to your emotions?
Finally, the use of absolute terms or passionate language should be a red flag to you when reading about science. For example, “This groundbreaking new study will revolutionize…” is not language used by scientists. Instead, they are generally more cautious about making big claims regarding their research and will often use words such as “suggest”, “may”, and “potentially” to describe the significance of their work.
Being an active reader means probing the text for more than just the information provided. A critical approach when reading about science will help us find potential weaknesses and help us distinguish true scientific facts based on evidence, from scientific claims that have little or no basis. Truly understanding scientific data can sometimes be very challenging. It is no wonder the media sometimes gets it wrong! Now that you know what kind of fallacies occur in science reporting, are you wondering how come scientists seem so sure of their results? Then stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where I will explain the types of things researchers do to make sure their results are correct and reliable.
This article was written by Natalia Ruiz. Natalia obtained a Master of Science degree from the University of Toronto studying the most aggressive and metastatic forms of breast cancer. To find out more about Natalia and her research check out her bio on the Members page.