Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Science Says

Something I've seen more and more in the age of social media are phrases like "Science Says..." and "According to Science...." Headlines like these can include everything from how much coffee you should drink to why you should believe in God to which Pokemon can kill you. If it's not obvious yet, these phrases are complete bunk, and are used to sensationalize and legitimize clickbait, scams, and reactionary drivel.

Now that I'm working in science communication, this sort of misleading hyperbole is even more bothersome. Take it from me, as a scientist and a writer: science never says anything. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to make you fall for something.

Science is a way of investigating the world. It's an action, not an entity. You don't have to have a degree, a lab, or even an education to conduct science. You need only an idea and a way of testing it. Anytime you answer a question by trying different things, you're performing science. Have you ever modified a recipe? That was science. Taught yourself a new bike trick? Also science. Tried out a few different shampoos until you found the right one for you? Yup, science.

It can be tempting to think of Science as an institution, an enormous, inaccessible compound filled with old men in white lab coats dictating to the rest of the world the way everyone should behave. In reality, professional scientists are just people, as flawed as any other people. Some are true geniuses in pursuit of the advancement of knowledge, like Ellen Stofan and Fabiola Gianotti. Some are charlatans advancing their own gain, like Andrew Wakefield. Most are somewhere in between—normal people working hard to gain some knowledge for the world while paying their mortgages and saving for retirement.

What they are not is a unified body. There is no one institution called Science conducting research into the appeal of Indian food and the ideal length of eyelashes. There are, however, hundreds, maybe thousands, of public and private research institutions, each with their own goals and ideals. There are more journals than anyone can keep track of, and pay-for-publication journals are becoming a serious area of concern for those in research.

What does this mean for you?

First, never believe any claim that "science says" something. It doesn't. Science is an activity, not an entity. That would be like saying "sports says" or "gardening says" something. Scientists may say something, but they don't necessarily speak for the entire field, just as one athlete doesn't speak for all of sports.

Second, recognize that anything a scientist says (or anyone else, for that matter) must have the weight of expertise behind it in order for it to be meaningful. It can be tremendously difficult to suss meaningful credentials from shady ones. Some questions can help you determine whether a journal is credible, and you can also check neutral third-party recommendations.

Finally, keep in mind that anything titled "Science Says" or "According to Science" is a journalist's (or worse, a blogger's) interpretation of someone else's research. Reporters with greater integrity use titles like "Researchers Find" or, even better "According to NASA" or the name of another institution. If you want to know the truth, go to the source. Read the paper cited in the article. It can be tough to understand academic papers, but it's even tougher to figure out who to trust to do your understanding for you.

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