I have decided to write a piece on how to read articles on science. Because, quite frankly, most (but not all) science journalism sucks. The more mainstream the website / newspaper / TV the news appears in, the more the contents are awful and removed from reality.
It doesn’t matter what the topic – climate change, GM foods, vaccines, or ‘gee whizz we’re going to the stars!’, journalists by and large are science and maths illiterate, and will usually get it wrong. Even the good ones are prone to exaggeration and hyperbole.
The thing is, it’s really, really easy to make sure you’re getting the truth. And this is how to do it:
1. If the article doesn’t state who did the research, where they did it and when, stop reading. Its probably at least 2nd-hand reporting. Probably 3rd or 4th hand. And it’s already sloppy journalism. Find yourself another article.
2. If the article does tell you who, where and when, but doesn’t give you a link or citation to the actual published journal article. Stop reading. This is sloppy journalism again.
3. If the article claims to be exclusive, or based on leaked information. Stop reading. If the information isn’t available in a peer-reviewed journal that the general public can access (probably for a fee), then it’s not science.
4. A minimum standard for an OK journalism article on science, is who, where, when + citation to published peer-reviewed journal articles. It won’t necessarily be 100% accurate, but it’s meeting minimal standards, so there’s probably some truth to the article.
So, how do you get good information on science?
1. Use papers and websites with some credibility in science. Websites like Science Daily, Psychology Today, or magazines like New Scientist, Scientific American , or even Nature and Science etc. This is your start point. Do not trust these sites to be 100% accurate!
2. Find the name/s of the researchers. If the article doesn’t link to their website, do a google search of their name. All researchers maintain at least a webpage, usually hosted on their university’s website. Most researchers will have a list of papers, usually linked to online versions. Sometimes they’ll maintain a blog, or have a blurb on their website about their research. This information is usually better than any news article. They may even have links to other news articles on their research, as well as comments on it’s accuracy!
3. It’s actually pretty easy to gain access to journal articles. All abstracts of articles are available for free to the general public – use a Google Scholar search for the article. Most researchers also have pre-publication versions of their articles available as well. A pre-publication version usually only differs in the letterhead, and maybe a few typos from the published article. But the science is the same.
4. Check out pre-publication websites like arXiv.org, for recently accepted journal articles that haven’t yet been printed.
5. For access to the published articles, if you are feeling particularly nit-picky, why not rock up to your local university library? University libraries maintain huge archives of published articles – and you can access them too through the library and the library’s computers! If you really want to do it from the comfort of home, why not pay the ~$50 to ~$200AUS per year membership to a university library? This will give you access to every single printed book and article available in any university library in Australia, as well as home log-in access to every journal to which the university subscribes. If it’s a big university, there won’t be much missing!
Hopefully, this will help give you some tools to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff of science reporting.