Chief Science Correspondent
Last April, Salisbury University Flyer writer Mike Fitzgerald wrote an article entitled “50% of US believes in medical conspiracies.” In the article, the Fitzgerald discusses an inclination in which citizens will turn to half-truths in scientific knowledge over the actual documented results.
He writes, “Conspiracies are a complete abandonment of the foundations of scientific methodology and ideology, and these people instead pride themselves for maintaining their own supposed explanations, despite a clear ignorance and neglect of the reliably accurate findings under such frameworks.”
The issue is that non-experts will often attempt to understand science through the bias of either their own ideologies, or through the media. This is completely understandable; we all tend to use our own understandings of the world as context for new ideas.
These aren’t beliefs; they are facts that have been confirmed again and again by scientists. No, scientists are not perfect. And sometimes their findings may be wrong. But why is it that we are so willing to discredit
these professionals, using the opinions of non-experts?
“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The really striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
– Neil Degrasse Tyson
The longer we argue over whether these findings conform to our own personal (and often partisan) world views, the more we limit ourselves from actually gaining new scientific knowledge.
It’s time we all took personal responsibility for our scientific educations.
It is for this reason that I adamantly believe every person should read scientific articles. Not just the news articles from Science Daily or Scientific American. Not just the memes from the science-lover groups that we
"like” on Facebook. (Although those are all great places to start)
The only true way appreciate science is to learn from the scientists. There’s no way around it. The best way to do this is to speak with scientists in person. So if you have the chance, attend a lecture. Or better yet, go to a science café, where scientists discuss their research with non-experts in a casual setting.
But if those options are not readily available, the next best option is to read scientific literature.
If you’re a college student, chances are you already have access to millions of scientific articles. As a former student within the University System of Maryland, I had access to almost every journal in the world, either on
an immediate or waiting basis. (If I found an article that was not already downloadable online, I could request to have the PDF sent to me within a matter of days)
If you don’t have institutional access, your options are somewhat more limited. There are some full-text articles out there for free through databases such as NCBI, but it may be difficult to find a specific one
if you want to access a particular study. I highly recommend purchasing a subscription if you can; Science is
a great journal to start with because they often gear their articles to a somewhat more general audience.
As a college student who has struggled with many scientific papers over the past four years, here are some dos and don’ts I’ve gathered for making the most of an article:
1. DO start with the Introduction
Scientific papers are generally organized into the Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion. (Although this can vary with different publications) The Abstract gives a general overview of everything in the paper. However, the Abstract tends to use broad technical terms without defining or explaining them, often leaving me confused. I usually choose to read the Abstract last as a way to assess how much I understood from the study.
The Introduction, on the other hand, provides a context for the study. This is where you’ll find definitions, descriptions of prior research, and basic information on the area of study.
2. DON’T be afraid to back up
You’ll probably have a few questions after reading the Introduction. What does that term mean? What does that protein do? Why do we care about this animal’s genome? After reading the Introduction, I’ll often turn momentarily to softer, easier to understand sources. Wikipedia is my guilty pleasure for science background research. I would also recommend googling the authors of the study; they may explain their research further on their personal webpages. Better yet, someone may have featured them in a news story.
It’s ok to look at other people’s interpretations of science research as long as you do the heavy work as well. After all, you may learn something from the paper that the Washington Post missed.
3. DON’T read the Methods right away
I hesitate when giving this advice, because understanding how the experiment was performed is critical to really understanding, and critiquing, a scientific study. But they can also be very overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a strong background in their field of research. When I try to read a paper straight through, this is usually the point where I get lost. I didn’t absorb much of what I read and I spent a lot of time trying to understand something for which I had little context. It can be very frustrating, to say the least.
I recommend going back to the Methods after you’ve fully read and analyzed the rest of the paper. Then really take your time with it. Look up certain materials and processes as you go along. If you have questions, I strongly recommend contacting the author of the paper through email. I’ve done this several times, and I’ve found them to be very helpful.
4. DO focus on the Discussion first. Then go back to the Results.
In some papers, these two sections are combined into one. If so, it’s easiest to just read them together. But if they are separated, I find it easiest to skim the Results section, then move straight to the Discussion. This is where you’ll get the big picture: what the results mean for their analysis and why they’re important. Then, go back to the Results and see the numbers that were collected. Check and see if what they found matches their conclusions. I’ve found this is a great way to assess a paper thoroughly and critically.
5. DON’T give up.
It’s very difficult to read technical research when you don’t have a strong background for the discussion. But if you want to critique a scientific finding, this is the only way to do it – from an objective standpoint. Want to criticize natural selection? Try actually reading the research. Science is not perfect, and it should be critiqued. But without analyzing scientific research properly, there’s no way to actually know if the objections are credible.