How to Read Science-Based News

Posted by in Lessons Learned

jungle of science-based newsEvery day, we are bombarded by news, sometimes of a dubious nature. Science-based news is no exception. In fact, you may find it increasingly difficult to navigate through the jungle of misleading information, pseudoscience, and fake experts. Welcome to the jungle!

There Is No Proof

The first thing to understand is that proof does not exist in the scientific literature. If you see any website, commercial, or blog post suggesting that science has proved something, you know that what follows is misleading at best.

Rather, what science does is explain observed evidence. A theory explains what the evidence shows and stands the test of time over repeated challenges. It is not an idea or anything else approaching a suggestion. And the fact that science uses theory in this way is a reflection of how it works.

Science-Based News and Causation

This is where it gets tricky. Researchers gather data and evidence via observational studies and randomized controlled trials. Studies can use past or present-day data. Scientists observe rather than control what’s going on.

With a randomized controlled trial, it’s a whole different ball game. Randomization attempts to remove biases that may sway data. It also tries to control for other things that may influence data. It’s a way to ensure that what you see is what you get.

Researchers cannot find causation with observational studies because other factors could be influencing the results. They can only provide correlations. And as any statistics student will tell you, correlation is not causation.

The Best Choice

You might be thinking why don’t scientists conduct trials only and skip this study business? There are several reasons. First, there’s cost. Randomized controlled trials don’t come cheap.

Think of having to recruit a number of volunteers and then controlling for any conditions that could interfere with the results. And don’t forget you need a lot of volunteers to make the results meaningful. You get the picture.

Then, there’s that ethics thing. You can’t exactly recruit volunteers to figure out how many packs of cigarettes a day causes lung cancer the quickest. Some things will always remain untestable in humans.

Now, when you see science-based news, look for the source of the data. If it is a study, it is not causation. Only a randomized controlled trial can make those claims. Then, when you see the likes of Dr. Ornish claiming that a low-fat diet is best, you know that the suggestion of proof is misleading.

Shifting Through the News

That’s why you need to find the source of the news. It’s also important to pay attention to the language. Look for the red flag words like proof. And finally, don’t fall for anecdotal evidence. It is not proof in any shape or form. It is like an observational study with no attempt at impartiality or control.

It’s difficult to hear the truth through all the noise of misinformation sometimes. Your best safeguard is a close read of the science-based news. Then, you may find the truth that lingers within. As the wise Benjamin Franklin observed,

Half the truth is often a great lie. Chris DR
photo credit: Jungle via photopin (license)