By Sylvia Lorico
In the era where the term “fake news” is becoming a popular term, it can be easy to scrutinize the news and wonder if what you’re reading is real or not. But can the same be said for science news?
Science itself is a field based on truth and objectivity. We would hope that the information we’re fed through news sites is evidence-based and not ideologically-driven.
Unfortunately, the reality is, most science reporting is either filled with jargon, over-hyped or sometimes just plain wrong.
So, how do we know if what we are reading is true? Here are some tips to evaluate the creditability of the next science story you read.
Beware of click bait
You know those headlines. The ones that are designed to make readers think that some absolute truth has been discovered, or some life-changing science will happen. Headlines like “8 Terrifying Things That Will Put Your Life Into Perspective” may be alluring but are you really missing out on some life-changing science by clicking on these articles?
Most times than not, click bait titles are overhyped. They tend to draw conclusions based on one or two studies, which does not provide readers with a realistic view of their potential implications.
The closer to a primary source, the better
I like to think of information that is passed along like a game of broken telephone. The more it goes through the chain of people, the more distorted and ridiculous it becomes. This can easily be said for facts and information.
Try to find articles that are as close as possible to the primary research. Articles written by academics or have direct interviews with relevant researchers are more reputable. In fact, see if the article itself links to the original study so you can read it yourself and draw your own conclusion.
What’s their source?
One popular but unreliable trend is for science journalists to turn to big names like celebrities and CEOs for information and advice. This can lead to more clicks, but should we really be trusting medical advice from celebrities? Is the CEO of an oil or gas company the best person to ask about climate change science?
Public involvement in science isn’t wrong but sources who have not been trained in sciences shouldn’t act a spokespersons for the scientific community. They tend to lack evidence or are biased towards their respective industries and causes. Look for pieces which contain primary sources or articles that interview relevant researchers.
Check your own source
Just like any type of news, there exists a fine line between journalism and propaganda. It’s not uncommon for science journalists to use popular ideologies to support facts or vice versa.
Certain news sites can twist the truth in their favour or over-exaggerate reality for some extra views. Fox News and Huffington Post are a few mainstream sources guilty of this. For quality science reporting that delves into technical details, The Atlantic or Science are generally reliable.
Want science reporting that is creditable yet easy to understand? Vox or The Guardian tend to break down tech or science news in digestible bits any reader can understand.
Is it almost too unreal?
Science is awesome. It’s helped us find cures for diseases, explore more of outer space than we could imagine and saved lives. But like click bait headlines, some writers over-sensationalize their topic with fluffy anecdotes and awe-inducing descriptions that just drown out the hard facts.
Don’t fall for dramatic pieces that stuff their facts with sensationalized language with very little regard for the hard facts. Always examine the primary source before drawing any sorts of conclusions. Ask yourself: Does the study relate to the topic directly? How many studies have been published that indicate similar results? When was this study done?
Use your own judgement
You might not be a professor or an industry professional with a scientific dissertation, but neither are most science writers.
If something doesn’t make sense to you, trust your gut. Odds are you’re not the only one with questions. Critical thinking is essential in science so if something sounds doubtful, challenge what you read.