Epidemiological and clinical research, usually the studies that attract the most attention from the media, are complicated, and the average reader may not have the chops to cut through the jargon and comprehend the statistics-speak. See Susan Keown’s story on understanding statistics, numeracy and risk models.
Health and science journalists can do this for us, turning scientific papers into understandable news stories for the lay reader. But general interest media outlets like newspapers and broadcast news have cut back on their science reporters and reporting. And while many science-focused content providers have sprouted up, they are competing for the same eyeballs and ad dollars as sports and lifestyle outlets — which can lead to shallower dives into the latest science.
Meanwhile, the volume of research papers is exploding, with something like 3 million papers published in 2018 alone.
How can the public tell whether good science has fallen victim to an overblown headline or questionable science has gone viral due to clickbait-y coverage?
“The first thing people should do is read the story, not just the headline,” Etzioni said. “Then you should find the study and read that [editor’s note: if you are able — many have paywalls]. Then you may want to go online and see if you can find studies that disagree with it. You may well see that there are just as many studies that find the opposite results. At that point, you might decide to throw up your hands, but don’t. This is the process of science.”
Etzioni said other important questions to ask include How big is the study? How long do they follow the people for results? How do they measure the things they’re seeking to measure? And, are there any conflicts of interest?
Readers, particularly patients trying to better understand medical research, can always rely on sites like NIH.gov or the National Cancer Institute’s cancer.gov for good solid information. But readers should also consider the following questions when reading health and science stories (and the studies they’re based on):
- Substantial undocumented infection facilitates the rapid dissemination of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) – Science Magazine
- England coronavirus testing has not risen fast enough – science chief – The Guardian
- Coronavirus Tests Science’s Need for Speed Limits – The New York Times
- Trump Falsely Distorts New York Times COVID-19 Science Story – FactCheck.org
- This is the brightest supernova ever seen – Science Magazine
- Coronavirus Today: Science will save us – Los Angeles Times
- Italians stuck at home are measuring light pollution for ‘science on the balcony’ – TechCrunch
- ‘Oumuamua might be a shard of a broken planet – Science News
- College of Arts and Science converts thriving academic programs to departments – Vanderbilt University News