Tips & Tricks: How to find the science hiding behind sensationalism

It’s nearly impossible to avoid headlines on “groundbreaking research”, what some “shocking new study” reveals, or how quantum physics proves that people in love have similar brainwaves.

No, I haven’t come across an article on the quantum mechanical minds of star-crossed lovers, but I bet if I wrote one about a study that never took place it wouldn’t take long for me to read about it in blogs, discussion forums, etc. For those who don’t read science articles, their sum total of “what’s happening in science” comes from the headlines in Facebook links, Twitter feeds, etc.

Unfortunately, those who do read the articles often aren’t much better off.  Even worse, the problem is not that you’re going to be lied to- it’s when, how, & where.

That’s what this Tips & Tricks guide is for: how to get closer to the truth with minimal effort. Whether a report in some magazine or newspaper’s science sections or some online article, it doesn’t take much to find out how much is fact vs. fiction.

Tip 0: This one really isn’t a tip, but a preliminary distinction: some sources are just generally better. Magazines like Scientific American are devoted to popularizing science. Their consumers are those interested in science. A newspaper is not. Guess which one is more likely to provide you with a description of research that never happened (at least not as described in the article)? The newspaper. Journalistic integrity and “balanced” reporting is great for politics, social issues, etc., but it doesn’t hold for reporting science research.

The Takeaway: No matter how reputable your source for news in general is, don’t trust that reputation to extend to science popularization.

Tip 1: Terms of Truth & Phrases of Fiction

You turn the page (or click the link) and GASP! Here’s a “scientific breakthrough” that “startled scientists since it appears to contradict the fundamental ideas”[1]…. Right. If an experiment actually did contradict “fundamental ideas” hopefully it’s because the researchers messed up. Why hopefully? About a century ago, there were a few unresolved minor details in physics, but basically we knew everything there was to know. The “scientific breakthrough” that resolved these “minor details” we call quantum physics. Yes, it startled scientists. That’s because it basically contradicted physics (hence “classical physics”). The “fundamental ideas” it challenged were little issues like “realism” and “empiricism”.

Scientists work within frameworks (we often call these “theories”). Everything from how we interpret the results of studies to how we come up with research questions result from these frameworks. So that article I quoted? We can see how startling the findings were without going past the 2nd line of the abstract: ”it has long been known that [what we found was nothing new]”[2]  Not only were the results predicted, but similar studies existed already.

Of course, it’s hard to grab someone’s attention with descriptions like “new research differs slightly from previous studies with predictable results”. What’s important is that you understand which phrases indicate fact, and which fiction. Finding descriptions/terms like “breakthrough”,  “challenged long-held theories”, “took the science community by surprise”, “never before”, etc., are giveaways. The more shocking and unprecedented an article describes research, the more you can be sure they’re distorting the truth. On the other hand, if an article describes a study in the context of previous research, findings, and/or predictions, it’s more likely to be accurate.

The Takeaway: Shocking is sensationalism not simplifying science. The more of the former, the greater the fiction.

Tip 2: If you can read an article, then read a paragraph that’ll give you more.

There’s a reason for popular science media. Technical literature is….well…technical. It’s boring, it requires background knowledge, and much of the time you have to pay for it. On the other hand, distinguishing between simplifying vs. sensationalizing doesn’t help you get the facts. Even if you went online to read some other articles you might not get any closer to the truth. Luckily, for any published study there’s already a short, free, relatively simple, and comprehensive summary: the abstract.

If you’re interested enough in an article you just read on e.g., the brain or nanotechnology, then hopefully you’re interested in knowing how much of what you read is true. The abstract of most studies will tell you more about the study than any article and do not usually require any technical expertise to follow. There’s no point in being fascinated with an article on artificial intelligence if it’s mostly lies. If your goal is being entertained, just read science fiction.

The Takeaway: Follow the steps in Tip 3 and read abstract. The abstract tells you more with less and with greater accuracy.


Tip 3: Abstracts- because scientist want to skip the good parts too

Do scientists read more than the abstract? Of course they do…sometimes. If specialists never wanted to skip the technical stuff we wouldn’t have abstracts. Read an abstract and there are plenty of experts who know as much about that study as you. The real difference is knowing how to find them.

This is where tips to identify good online sources come in. A website can link you directly to the study (even if only the abstract is available for free). They can also link you to the homepage of the research group the article concerns, or other useful information. Here, though, we want to know how to quickly find the abstract.

Any article will give the name of at least one of the authors, and usually what lab or university they are affiliated with. You can definitely find the study using this information, but it takes more time. So here are some ways to find the abstract depending upon what info you have.

1)      If you have the name of the study, just go to your search engine and type it in (if it’s too generic a title, put it in quotes and/or add the author’s last name).

2)      If the article gives you the name of the journal that the study was published in, there’s a place for that too, but you don’t need google scholar. Just type the researcher’s last name, the name of the journal, and a few key words (see below). One of the links will be the to the site that publishes the journal and will take you right to the page with the abstract.

3)      If all you have is the name of an author, go to Google Scholar. The dropdown search bar will allow you to enter in the author’s last name (or last names, if you have more than one). Then put in the year. That alone might be enough.

4)      If it isn’t enough, use key words. What they are depends on the study, but the idea is always the same: you want words technical terms that no popular article would use unless it was central to the study (like the abbreviation for some gene or neurotransmitter). You only need one technical term/acronym most of the time, because you can add something like “depression” or “autoimmune” and the name of the author plus the year will get you a link.


Tip 4: Fascinating Fiction

Ever notice that the headlines of popular science articles tend to be about the same things? Have you ever come across an article with a title like From case to adposition: The development of configurational syntax in Indo-European languages[3], “Time‐series analyses of Monterey Bay coastal microbial picoplankton using a ‘genome proxy’ microarray”[4], or “Temporal Variation in Phenetic Affinity of Early Upper Egyptian Male Cranial Series”[5]?

Sure, specialist research is technical. It’s also boring, even to other scientists. A physicist isn’t about to read the monograph cited above. Even if a psychologist can tell you the way the word “series” is related in the above two articles, she or he probably can’t even tell you what field the study concerns.

On the other hand, findings about the brain, health, genes, etc. concern things common to all humans. Science research in theoretical physics and cosmology that sounds like science fiction appeals to us because… sounds like science fiction. Touchy subjects like politics and religion give reporters a two-for-one deal: a report on research showing that conservatives are idiots or religious people are more empathetic means “unbiased”, “empirical” evidence about issues that are guaranteed to upset one group of people as much as they will excite another.

Luckily, the fact that certain topics are “hot topics” can help us in a few different ways. If a research area isn’t typically addressed in popular science literature, it’s because it’s rarely generally interesting. Reports about such research will either be distorted so that they are interesting, or they will be relatively low in sensationalism and pretty descriptive. An article on an archaeological find or “Idioms and the King James Bible[6]” is likely pretty accurate.

The Takeaway: The more a research area is discussed in popular science literature, the easier it is to sensationalize in general.

Tip 5: How to report research without that annoying “research” part

Ever read an article on “the multiverse” and found that you don’t really know anything more than you did to begin with? How about an article on research in artificial intelligence that tells you a great deal about what it will lead to, but not much about what the researchers are doing now? Another way to spot suspect sources is how little they describe the very research they’re reporting on. Technical terms that are widely known (and usually poorly understood) are a typical giveaway. If you find terms in an article such as “superluminal”, “neural networks”, “machine learning”, etc., but don’t know much more about their meaning after reading the article than before, it’s because the article isn’t about science but about sensationalism.

What you want to find are quotations from the scientists that would be difficult for the reporter to take out of context, especially short statements that do not actually describe what the scientist(s) did (e.g., “As Professor Y put it, “nobody had asked it [or done it] that way before’, but thanks to her novel approach…”).  In particular, pay attention to longer quotes from the scientists that describe what they found and did, rather than their reactions to their findings, the implications, or other remarks that are unrelated to the experimental process itself.

The same is true of the article as a whole. The key portions of the article are those that describe what the researchers did and the results, not what their findings imply.

The Takeaway: Reports on research that are heavy on implications but short on explanations are to be avoided. Articles that describe the research and results and explain the contexts of both are generally better.

[1] Spadaro, A. (2013, Oct 04). Molecules created from massless photons researchers provide foundation for quantum computing. University Wire

[2] Firstenberg, O., Peyronel, T., Liang, Q. Y., Gorshkov, A. V., Lukin, M. D., & Vuletić, V. (2013). Attractive photons in a quantum nonlinear medium. Nature.

[3] Bubeník, V. (2006). From case to adposition: The development of configurational syntax in Indo-European languages (Vol. 280). John Benjamins.

[4] Rich, V. I., Pham, V. D., Eppley, J., Shi, Y., & DeLong, E. F. (2011). Time‐series analyses of Monterey Bay coastal microbial picoplankton using a ‘genome proxy’microarray. Environmental microbiology, 13(1), 116-134.

[5] Keita, S. O. Y., & Boyce, A. J. (2008). Temporal Variation in Phenetic Affinity of Early Upper Egyptian Male Cranial Series. Human biology, 80(2), 141-159.

[6] Crystal, D. (2011, Apr 24). Idioms and the king james bible. Times – News.

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