Evaluating Reported Science / by Erin Wade

On the most recent episode of Last Week Tonight John Oliver tackles the problem of science reporting in the media. It's an incredibly important issue, and he manages it quite nicely.

We are, in our modern world, surrounded by the products of science. I'm writing this post on a technological miracle, and making it available to you on a worldwide network that would have been impossible to imagine a century ago. We live longer, we are healthier, we are safer than any generation that came before us. It's really not possible to overstate the benefits we've received from science.

Despite all of that, the actual process of science is often very difficult for people to understand. When science is portrayed in stories, whether books, television, movies, or what have you, the necessity of storytelling presents it as a dynamic, active, and rapid process. It's not. The reality is that real science is slow, methodical, plodding. It's fascinating to the people conducting it, to be sure, but it's not something that makes good fodder for entertainment.

The entertainment portrayal of science seems to interact with a growing tendency for researchers to report information partway through the scientific process. If I've begun a study and I find something interesting, a press release on that effect may bring attention - and possibly funding - to help me continue my study. Research funding is a challenging and competitive process, and one can see why researchers would look for every opportunity to get their particular project out in front of others.

The difficulty is that the interaction here leads to the portrayal of information in the fashion that John Oliver so deftly demonstrates. Each study that's discussed gets similar air time and treatment as another, with little to no evaluation of the relative merits or applicability of the research. And this is problematic at best.

For professionals that work in any healthcare-related field this often means spending time explaining to clients, patients, and concerned family and friends why the thing they heard or read about does not mean they should suddenly go out and change their diet to include eating 473 grapefruits each day, or begin sleeping hanging upside-down in their closet.

Overall, this trend suggests a need for ongoing educational focus on critical evaluation of information. This isn't a new idea, and it's certainly not one I'm coming up with on my own. As those links show, there is considerable thought and effort towards teaching students - starting in adolescence - how to evaluate information they find online.

This is excellent, but I strongly believe there needs to be more. Evaluating information online is only a part of the picture. It's clear, as time goes on and information becomes more pervasive and readily available, that the relative value of memorizing facts has declined, and understanding how to get the information you need is the more relevant skill. Again - this isn't my revelation, instructional processes have been acknowledging this for some time now.

Children should be taught, perhaps starting in adolescence, and repeatedly following, how the scientific process actually works, and how to critically evaluate scientific research. This should include at least the following questions:

  • What was the design of the study? Did it include controls?
  • How many subjects were studied?
  • Who were the subjects? Humans? Animals?
  • Was the sample representative? If so, of whom?
  • Has the study been replicated? If so, how many times, and was the same effect found each time?

Science is, by its nature, long, slow, and methodical. Significant findings, when they occur, should be replicated by additional studies before results are ever felt to be a real phenomenon. The genie appears to be out of the bottle with respect to the infusion of incomplete scientific information in the media. Given this, our kids need to be able to realistically understand when they are receiving useful, actionable information.