TIPWG Newletter May/June: Six tips to help you detect fake science news

In an article first published by Prof. Marc Zimmer in theconversation.com and later republished by the Washington Post, chemistry professor, Marc Zimmer discusses his top tips for detecting fake news, as he finds himself frequently asking “is this science or is it fiction”.

Tip one: Seek the peer review seal of approval
Journal papers are how scientists let the world see their research, editors at these journals submit manuscripts to external referees who have expertise in the field, for review. These reviewers can suggest whether the manuscript is rejected, published or sent back for amendments/additions – this process is known as peer review. Each year roughly 1.8 million papers are published in around 2 800 peer-reviewed journals.

The peer-review process takes months, to get the word out faster, scientists sometimes post research papers on what is called preprint server – these often have “RXiv” – pronounced “archive” – in their name. Although these articles have not been peer-reviewed and so are not validated by other scientists, they do, however, provide an opportunity for other scientists to evaluate and use the research as building blocks in their work sooner. When it comes to preprint articles, if it has been there for months and hasn’t been published be sceptical, question where the research is coming from and be vigilant for predatory journals that do not peer-review and instead charge authors a publication fee – these should be treated with strong scepticism.

Tip two: Look for your blind spots
Beware of biases, especially those in your thinking that might predispose you to fall for a particular piece of fake science news. People tend to give credence to news that fits their existing beliefs. This tendency helps climate change denialist and anti-vaccine advocates believe in their cause despite the scientific consensus against them. In particular, the tendency to fall for sensational statements over unexciting fact-based headlines. This is why people often are drawn to the overhyped findings stated by politicians over the caution of scientists.

Tip three: Correlation is not causation
A correlation between two things does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. There may be a correlation between drinking red wine and living longer, however, that could be a result of red wine drinkers being more affluent rather than the drink itself. This is often a flaw found in “nutritional news”.

Tip four: The study’s subjects
Was the study placebo-controlled – meaning the participants were randomly assigned to get the treatment or to receive a placebo they believed to be real. In a forestry context, was there a controlled trial? The best kind of trials are double-blind, as they remove preconceived ideas of the researchers too, by neither the researcher nor subject knowing who had the placebo.

The trial size is another important factor, the more people involved the greater the statistical confidence in the research findings.

Tip five: Science doesn’t need sides
This is important. While political debate and media interpretation tries to provide objectivity offering each side of the story equal time to share their views. The science behind both side’s arguments may be far than equal, so handling each side equally actually undermines the science.

Tip six: Clear and honest reporting might not be the goal
To ensure an audience, those telling the story may be wanting something exciting and novel, as a result, accuracy may not be a high priority. While many science journalists are doing their best to accurately cover new research and discoveries, other forms of media may not be as good. Sadly, science media is often better classified as entertaining rather than educational – so if you hear something is too good to be true make sure you do your due diligence and research it thoroughly using accurate and reputable sources.

Photo Credit: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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