How to identify fictitious science stories and read news as a scientist

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When fake news, misrepresentations, and alternative facts are everywhere, reading the news can be a problem. Not only is there a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and other scientific topics spreading across social networks, you should also carefully read scientific articles, even famous publications.

We have already seen headings suggesting that coronavirus vaccines are inevitableScientists are desperately trying manage expectations that it takes more than a year for vaccines to be usable. So, how do we approach scientific news as a scientist to see the past as a sensation and find facts?

IN recent trainingcolleagues and I analyzed 520 science articles and media articles who reported their findings. We wanted to follow how scientific knowledge is presented, how it makes its way from researchers to the general public through the media.

We found that scientific knowledge is sometimes reproduced, but most often rethought and its meaning is often lost in translation. Based on this study, we think that there are some key things that news readers can do to determine when a science is reported misleading or inaccurate, and get what the facts actually show.

In our study We have seen that content conversion can occur in several ways. The main focus of the research often changes in such a way that it is assumed that the results can affect people, even in cases where this was not the purpose of the study. For example, studies on rats are often relevant to humans.

A purely technical language can be changed not only into more general phrases, but also into more expressive or sensational descriptions. Charts and graphs are replaced by images, due to which articles seem more related to human experiments or applications, even if they are not.

One example we looked at in detail was the 2016 Mail Online report, which states brain implants may soon help us grow superhero night visionThe report says that "scientists used brain implants to give rats a" sixth sense "that allows them to detect and respond to a usually invisible light source." He added that this will provide an opportunity "for the adult brain to adapt to new forms of input and open the opportunity to give people the opportunity to receive many superhuman feelings."

Really exciting revelation. But if it was such an innovative and effective development, why did so few other news publishers cover it?

The study on which the story was based was originally published in Journal of Neurology a group of scientists from Duke University Medical Center in the USA. They studied how it is easy to change the sensory processing of adult rats by implanting a brain device in order to teach them how to locate infrared light sources. Surprisingly, implanted rats learned to do this in less than four days.

The scientists who conducted the study suggested that their results could have important implications for basic neurobiology and rehabilitation medicine. But the Mail Online article took this to another level and interpreted it as an opportunity to give people a series of superhuman feelings.

Experiment previously reported in New Scientist, which turned out to be the main source of information for the report published in Mail Online. New Scientist The article focused on rats, but stated that the study paved the way for an increase in the human brain. The article uses images representing the control of the human mind. For Mail Online, it was a less perfect leap to report research as the movement of people toward superhuman abilities.

All this makes ordinary readers try to understand what is exact and what is not. This requires them to read as a scientist – but without the same preparation.

Steps to read like a scientist

So how do we read this way? Based on our research, we have put together six steps to help you critically read when working with scientific information.

  1. The first thing to do is just to know how important information in the source can be rethought, altered, and even completely ignored depending on what the journalist understands or decides to present. This is a bit like a phone game or a Chinese whisper.
  2. In particular, you should beware of large or unexpected claims that may be exaggerated (for example, give people a “sixth sense”). Such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  3. Check how accurate and straightforward the details presented in the research article are. To say that the experiment proved a concrete fact is much stronger than saying that it suggests that something could happen in the future.
  4. Look for a link or a link to primary source in the report you are reading, as in this text. If it is, then most likely the journalist read the original study and realized what it was doing and what wasn’t.
  5. Try to check if the arguments in the article come from the scientists who did the research, or from the journalist. This may mean searching for quotes or comparing with the original research work, if you can.
  6. See if there are similar stories in other places. If only one news release highlights an “amazing breakthrough,” it may be time to apply a little more skepticism.

Developing these skills can help you determine which sources you should and should not trust, and how to determine when even usually authoritative sources sometimes exaggerate or misinterpret things.

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How to identify fictitious scientific stories and read the news as a scientist (2020, March 19)
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