Guest essay by John Davies *
Being able to evaluate the evidence behind any scientific claim is important. Being able to recognize bad science reporting or faults in scientific studies is equally important. These following points may help you separate the real science from the pseudo science.
Speculations from any research are just that – speculations.
Look out for ambiguous, obfuscatary or weasel words & phrases such as …
– can, clearly, could, conjectured, considered, expected, may, might, perhaps, possibly, projected, robust, unprecedented
– “Experts suggest…” “It has been said that …” “Research has shown…” “Science indicates …”
“It can be argued…” “Scientists believe….” “A high level of certainty” “Models predict….” etc,
…as any real evidence, for the conclusions being claimed is doubtful.
Sensational Language & Headlines
The media will ‘Never let facts spoil a good story’
Words like – Unprecedented, unparalleled, unmatched, extraordinary, groundbreaking, phenomenal, apocalyptic, bizarre, cataclysmic, catastrophic, devastating, extreme.
Phrases like – ‘Since records began’, ‘The majority of scientists concur’ ‘Never on such a scale’: are used to convey a message, not necessarily the truth or facts, they rely on the reader having a short memory or being too lazy to check. ‘Unprecedented’; now often means…not within the last 9 months !!
Headlines of articles are regularly designed (with no regard to accuracy) to entice readers into reading the article.
At best they oversimplify the findings, at worst they sensationalise and misrepresent them.
E.g. – ‘Margarine makes mayhem in Maine !!’
Correlation & causation
Be wary of confusion by assuming that correlation equals causation.
See some entertaining examples – http://tinyurl.com/oqhw24g – 6 min.
Correlation between 2 variables doesn’t automatically mean one causes the other; there could be many other causes.
E.g. – Divorce rate in Maine has a 99% correlation with the consumption of margarine. http://tinyurl.com/qb4n9mf
(So is eating margarine, the cause or result of divorce ?…or are there other reasons ???)
News articles often distort or misinterpret the findings for the sake of a good story, intentionally or otherwise.
If possible try to read the original research paper; rather than relying on ‘quotes’ from a news article (by a pressurised hack journalist on a deadline, who is trying to build a story to fit the catchy headline), roughly based on a poor press release.