How To Read Science News

How To Read Science News


Whoa, guys, I was just reading the news, and
did you know the universe might be a hologram? Humans originated as a hybrid between chimps
and pigs? Everything you need to know about popcorn but were afraid to find out? Could
the Large Hadron Collider spawn a planet devouring black hole? Squeezing breasts can prevent
cancer? Alcohol more harmful than heroin? Woman becomes pregnant in the mouth with baby
squid after eating calamari? fast-lane to autism: living near freeways. Science figures
out how cats drink. Semen is an antidepressant? Oh, quantum physics proves there IS an afterlife. I know what you’re thinking, those sound like
something out of The Onion, but unfortunately those are all real science headlines that
I found, and I didn’t have to look that hard. Some of them are a bit over blown, and some
of them are pushing an agenda, and some are actually just complete BS. Figuring out what’s good science and what’s
bad science when you’re reading science news is one of the best skills that you can put
right here in your thinking machine. It will serve you for your whole life. With that in
mind, I’d like to give you my tips for how to read science news. Is the headline of the article a question?
This one really ruffles my feathers for some reason. Although, it occurs to me that sometimes
we do it for YouTube videos, but it’s different for the news! Don’t start your article off
with a question. I’m here to ask you questions, I am the one who is wondering things, and
you are the one who is going to give me the information. It’s really a very simple deal.
When you start your article with a question it makes me wonder if you even know what you’re
talking about. What’s with all those weird quotes people use in the headlines? Zebra
stripes mystery “explained”, like was it actually explained or was it like “fake” explained
or was it a fake zebra? I don’t understand the quotes. After considering #1, maybe it’s just best
if we skip the headline altogether. Yeah, skip the headline. Do you know the difference between a press
release and journalism? Really, do you? One is hopefully fact-checked, and balanced, and
analyzes both sides of the story, and the other one, is well, it’s marketing material.
There’s a lot of websites out there that package press releases to look like real news and
it’s important that you know the difference. Press releases aren’t untrue by design, but
it’s important that you take them with a big grain of salt. I mean you wouldn’t go to a
car dealership and take the salesman’s word for everything. You’ve gotta go home and do
your research. I just want to reiterate, because I see this
stuff shared all the time, press releases are not news! Look for “warning words”. there are the words
that will tell you if there’s bit of uncertainty in the article or maybe they don’t know quite
as much as they’re letting on. Link, correlation, possible, study suggests, or my favorite,
“scientists were baffled”. Scientists are baffled all the time, but they don’t write
research papers about it and they certainly don’t sit around with reporters going “you
know I was just totally baffled right now, do you wanna write an article about it?” Is the scientific method being applied? Take
tie to check if what you’re reading has been peer-reviewed. Or was it presented at a conference,
or is this just some scientist talking on a street corner? While far from perfect, our
peer review system for publishing science is far from perfect, it’s worked out pretty
well considering, and good journalists and good writers, they’ll treat a research finding
like a hypothesis, and they’ll scour that work and the work of others for data that
supports or refutes it. They’ll look to outside sources as sort of controls. Good science
writing applies the scientific method. Ask yourself, does someone stand to gain financially
from me reading this article? If you’re reading that news on any commercial news website with
advertising or subscriptions, then the answer is yes, somebody wants you to read that. That’s
not necessarily a bad thing, people need to make money to support their operations and
pay their writers, but that desire had better be outweighed by the desire to inform you. Did the person who wrote the article actually
do any research of their own. Are there quotes from the actual researcher? Or did it say
something like “according to the press release”. More importantly, are there quotes from someone
besides the researcher? Now some science is so complicated that it can help to have someone
just explain it to you, and that’s actually my favorite kind of science to both read about
and write about, but that should never be all that they do, they should still apply
a critical eye. Honestly, if someone just rewords the press release, they are the WORST. Is the story about a new breakthrough, OR
is the story trying to scare you? The media has always been obsessed with these kinds
of stories because they know you’re going to click on them. But their ratio of truthiness
to hype sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Frankly, most stuff isn’t as scary as it’s
made out to be. But some stuff is scary, like antibiotic resistant bacteria, knowing to
tell the difference between hype and reality is pretty hard. On the other hand, breakthroughs
are pretty rare, which is why we give big awards for them and stuff. Here’s one: Possible cure for cancer found
in mice. Now, curing cancer in mice isn’t the same as curing cancer in humans, so is
that a breakthrough, ehhh? We’ve cured a lot of cancers in mice, and unfortunately not
so many in humans. Now maybe one day one will lead to the other, but for a lot of cancers
your best bet is to turn into a small furry creature. Remember, when it comes to scare
stories and breakthrough stories, just because a lot of people have read something, doesn’t
make it any more true. Does this story fit in nicely with commonly
held beliefs or stereotypes? Ok, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but does it fit in
a little TOO well with commonly held beliefs and stereotypes? Recently a paper came out
about mapping brain connections in male and female brains.And they found some differences,
which is fine, but then they applied those differences to things like men being better
at reading maps, or women being better at organizing the house or something. Be wary
of papers that want to fit a scientific story into a nice neat social construct, because
that’s not how science works. This also works with science that challenges previously held
beliefs and stereotypes, because a lot of times controversy can make an easy substitute
for accuracy. It’s like that old saying “does this sound too good to be true?” because a
lot of times well, it is too good to be true. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it
isn’t true. You should approach every story with a balance of curiosity and skepticism,
as Michael Shermer says “you should have an open mind, but not so open that your brains
fall out”. The internet is big and its accessible, and
its given us access to more information than we ever thought possible, and that’s clearly
a good thing, but it also means that anybody who wants to donate 2 cents can pop that in
the piggy bank of human knowledge. As traditional media continues to cover less and less science
than ever before, this is clearly a very good thing. Or it can be a bad thing, for all those
reasons that I talked about before. Unfortuantely, the S&%t flows uphill, as they say, and the
more that writers, journalists, facebook pages and tumblr pages get things wrong, then society
loses trust in science as a whole, it’s like a modern version of the boy who cried wolf. Chances are, you’re not an expert, and journalists
aren’t experts either, it’s just that the good ones operate under a set of guiding principles
that let them become temporary experts, and find real experts when that doesn’t work.
Some people are way better at this than others. I’m gonna put a list of my favorites down
in the description, people who are good at getting things right, pointing out what’s
wrong, and being entertaining while they do it. Please feel free to leave your favorites
down in the comments. You know every science story should really
end with something like ‘Now we just have a tiny bit more information about science,
but we’re gonna have to do a lot more experiments to figure out if any of it’s really true,
and come to think of it, nothing in science is ever really proven true, it’s just continually
supported by new evidence, and actually maybe it’s best that we don’t draw any life-changing
conclusions from all this and we just enjoy the process. Yeah, let’s do that.”

100 thoughts on “How To Read Science News

  1. Opened up one of your links (the-scientist.com), first thing I read "A new analysis suggests that placental mammals………"
    Made me laugh a little ^^

  2. Your first point reminded me of an old Times headline which was "Is evolution false?" When you turned to the article, taking up half the page was "No" followed by why.

  3. So what are your thoughts on magazines like 'Popular Science'? I enjoy reading the articles but I never see anything from it applied into everyday life. I guess most of it just isn't practical, but that's only my guess. I don't know.

  4. sometimes when you do videos you sound kind of dull, (I'm referring to the way you speak not the subject matter of course!) but I thought you sounded really engaging in this video

  5. Your quote from the end is amazing. I want it framed on my wall and written at the end of every science news story ever.

  6. Yes, the real problem is when "… society loses trust in science as a whole".

    Here's a couple of my favorite science-news fails that I've blogged about:
    * http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/2013/10/rats-oreos-and-drugs.html
    * http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-maillard-overreaction.html
    * http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/2013/12/baking-with-splenda.html
    * http://thephysicspolice.blogspot.com/2013/11/mice-like-it-hot.html

  7. how to read science news, and also why to never get your science news from the Daily Fail or Huffington Post

  8. "When you see a claim that a common drug or vitamin 'kills cancer cells in a petri dish', keep in mind — so does a handgun." — XKCD 1217, "Cells"

  9. Nothing is ever true and we shouldn't take and life changing conclusions from this? Hm, like putting pills in our mouth? or driving over bridges built based math and physics? Or crossing the street regardless of how close or how fast that apparently nearby oncoming truck is? This is classic dogmatic science insisting that we doubt everything except them when they tell us they are tell the truth this time, and 'we really mean it now.' OK. The seas are rising. I would be happy to take Al Gore's oceanfront property off his hands for 10 cents on the dollar. Hell; I'm willing to eat the loss. Inconvenient, but true.

  10. Radiolab, a podcast which is the most amazing fusion of science, philosophy and journalism, absolutely recommend 

  11. Also a point he didn't add,"Does the writer actually understand statistic?"(I know it sound a bit belittling, but really very few people understand subtly such as statical bias) For example the headline 25% of Americans believe the Sun goes around the Earth(Even DNews). When I read this, I notice there was not any uncertainty give with the 25% figure. Every stat needs at least 2 number, the measurement and the uncertainty. So actually looking at the study to see where this figure came from(Science and Engineering Indicators by the NFS they make one every 2 years), it turns this study was use to measure peoples attitude towards science. The survey was only one part, and was taken from an early study in 2006. What 2006 study was tracking people answering true false question over the years, and the conclusion is it seemed most people understood the earth goes around the Sun. Why did the study not mention the 25% in their conclusion. Because yes that was the average value, but they had no way of understanding biases in the question. How often does somebody mark the wrong answer by mistake, or misread the question, thought it was a trick question, or didn't even read it and just answered? Their methodology had no way to study this. So what was the point? Those mistake  I mentioned are called systematic errors, the differ from statically errors as they not due to random chance and can not be controlled by increasing sample size. And they are much harder to understand, but a simple method is doing a time series. The asked these same question for 10 year to different samples. They Earth around the Sun always scored about 75% correct, but whether or not be people we evolved from another animal decreased by 10% over that same time period. The real conclusion is that less people in America believe in Evolution then 10 years ago, and we use the other question as a control(Basically error related to the questions themselves like how often someone makes a mistake, or how the question is worded should be the same year to year, and actual change we see from year to year would more likely due to people level of understanding or belief). So basically one piece of data, that was used as control and never meant to tell us anything of American actually understanding of science, was turned into the headline. Which posted everywhere even time magazine website.

  12. Funny I would bump into this video today. A large Norwegian newspaper posted an article today with a headline sounding something like this "- Ebola is starting to look like The Black Death (Some doctor)". This doctor was commenting on the disbelief, blame and lack of trust in authorities that is going on in Liberia, and how that was slightly similar to the state of Norway during the black death. The journalist however, had added a huge factbox describing the symptoms and death toll from the black death, based solely on this non-medical quote. Taking informal quotes about the social situation out of context, then using them to try to make something sound like a medical opinion, should really be punishable by large fines. Why? Because a large percentage of people reading that article is now extremely scared thinking that ebola is just like one of the most deadly outbreaks in the history of society (no need to point out that people have speculated about the possibly similar types of viruses in these diseases, but that was not mentioned in the article). I guess fear gets clicks. 

    Not exactly the types of articles talked about in this video (but probably in the same ballpark), but need to get some steam out either way. :p

  13. on #2, journalism has basically no integrity anymore since getting more people viewing your stuff is more important to journalists than actually reporting anything factually. its incredibly hard to find legitimate news and although certain journalists are more trustworthy they all fall prey to the hype.

  14. Honestly, I don't think there's any good way to read science stories except to already have a background in real science knowledge. If you want to tell the difference between the BS and the truth then you're simply going to have to hit the books. Learn some physics, some chemistry, and some biology. At least the basics. Once you have the basics established you'll at least know whether a claim is completely outrageous or if it at least has the possibility of being true. The deeper your knowledge in any given subject, the higher your accuracy will be in judging stories about that subject.

  15. It is called clickbait. To draw your attention, just why annoying ads blink and make sounds. Which is why I use Adblock Plus. Too bad it doesn't work on clickbait.

  16. I just had an idea. If anyone know if a similar concept exists, or have been tried, please do tell:

    Similar to trustpilot, it would be a service that would tell you if a news source was factual, skewing facts or completely non-scientific (maybe other subcategories, such as "satire", "opinion" etc.). I'm thinking there should be two main factors:
    1. An overall rating of each site over a period of a year or so (number of errors). Even 1 error would weigh heavily, to encourage correction of all errors.
    2. Reports on individual articles.

    It would be a (highly visible) plugin that online news sources could put on their sites to show that they are trustworthy. And on the top of individual stories to make sure that what you're reading is correct.

    Not everyone could make a rating of an article, but everyone could click a button that indicates that they are suspicious about the article, which could help direct the reviewers to errors. To be able to review an article, you would have to demonstrate your ability to research scientific journals properly. I don't know how this could best be done. It's probably the most tricky part.
    My first idea of an automated thing was to make a long test where you should demonstrate the ability to read scientific papers, find journals that counter each other and maybe also your own opinion. But I don't know how much is necessary.
    I'm just thinking some sort of filter to get mostly credible people in. It should also be enough people to be incorruptible.
    Otherwise you could just use the regular educational credit system, where you show your educational performance, work in the field etc.

    To make sure as many reporters as possible are credible, I'm thinking reported errors could be accessed on each individual news article, and then you could see other people's error reviews, and report faulty reviews. Having several faulty reviews could make your reviews less credible or something. I'm not sure, but there's probably experts on how to make stuff like that work well.

    But in the end, it would make the ignorant reviewer able to quickly see if they could trust what they read, and give news organizations a big incentive to be accurate and factual. Plus, the incentive for news organizations to implement the plugin in the first place, would be that it gives them trust and popularity, as long as the "newstrust"-plugin could always be counted on.

    It's probably a legal battlefield, and wouldn't be easy to build up, but I think it could work.

  17. Note that the same journalists and publications publishing those pseudoscience stories are the same ones sensationalizing both global warming scaremongering and global warming denialism. If the story purports to be based on some new finding from a peer-reviewed paper, it would probably be best to skip the sensationalized press article and see check out the original paper, or at least something in the scientists' own words.

  18. This brings to mind DNews. They do appear to be mostly trustworthy and unbiased (very important), but I've seen a large shift from "here's some cool facts" to "you care about this". What I mean is that I remember lots of videos on space exploration, then they gained a lot of subscribers and it switched to videos about sleeping, diet and things that you use/experience everyday. Which makes sense, because most of the people I know would click on a video about diets opposed to finding a neat space "rock". 
    This somewhat creates a snowball effect, with the short of it being give the people what they want, and people want what you offer (due to lack of choice or knowledge of other choices). There's some terms slipping my mind, but basically channels like DNews think they know what consumers want based on the many subscribers, and why fix what isn't broken?
    Also, History Channel. (You know what I mean).

  19. Weird…Lottsa followers to previous videos really need to see this one. Bottom line, if you have not gathered real world data yourself, designed and executed an experiment, quite simply got off your…Then it's all just hearsay or heresy. You don't know.

  20. I'm more concerned why are some scientific papers so hard to access. I'm doing some reaserch for a class presentation and I found title of a paper that I'm interested in reading (not just some summery on a website) and I found that I can buy a journal for $40 or have to log in on a different site to read it for free (site has ads on it…). Why?! They've got a grant for study, haven't they? Shouldn't the findings be free and easy to access for all? Just upload a pdf or word or whatever on some free site instead of hiding it behind a pay wall or registration. I could understand why would I have to pay for a printed journal, but PDF?! What the hell?

  21. When I read an article—for any field—if I'm skeptical of it, I like to scan the comments. Chances are, people much smarter than me have already debunked the nonsense. It doesn't always work. An article on an Apple fansite about how great Apple is will likely only have comments from people who like Apple, and are prone to support the company, even when they shouldn't.

  22. Check out Potholer54s channel. This topic is one of the greatest problems we have in science…. the delivery system of what the information says or implies. Here are some informing videos to help you discern real science and the twisted way the media uses information wrong.  Potholer54 is a VERY thorough science journalist.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07NMglQX6gE  "Quotes and cutaways"
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdnZ1l5TxJk  "Why the media screw up science"

  23. Fun Fact Joe Hanson

    My first Best Friend ever was a Hanson, Kieth Hanson JR was his name and you two look identical. LOL Unfortunately, my friend was never big on Science and ended up getting into drugs. Needless to say, we had to part ways… so yeah… You remind me of an Old Friend and I also enjoy your lessons on Science, very much… Thanks… Old Friend XD

  24. What's with all those weird quotes that people use in their headlines? Followed by the headline Look For "Warning Words."
    Just thought I'd point that out 😉

  25. How I read science news:

    1. Skim through to see if I find it interesting
    2. If yes, look for references
    3. If references exist, read the original papers

    I often find that I enjoy reading the peer reviewed papers more than the science articles.

  26. Brilliant video! I'm going to share this around, because a lot of people aren't really aware of the importance of filtering information sources carefully. Oh, and well done for looking at the camera this time. It works WAY better, even with the jump cuts 🙂

  27. Joe seemed kind of negative in the video… I miss his "nice guy" attitude. Hopefully I'll see that in the next video!

  28. Just need to contribute something. Whenever you hear a person say anything with the word 'excited' in it, such as, 'I'm really excited about _____', and he/she doesn't look excited, whatever they're saying is almost 100% likely to be bullsh!t. I was told this by a mentor about 40 years ago when I attended a seminar and the company was presenting an initial public offering of their stock; they folks presenting the information were all 'very excited' about the company's upcoming product releases. They were bankrupt one year later. Since then, every time I have seen or heard someone saying how excited they were about something, that word has always indicated that the person is lying. People who are excited don't tell you they are excited; they act like it. If they have to tell you they're excited, they're trying to con you out of something, most likely, your money.

  29. I shared this video to my friends under the following caption:
    New breakthrough study suggests the media uses this trick to "fool" men, and scientists are baffled why it doesn't work on women! But does it really work?

  30. There is a topic which sometimes become hard to debate against people claiming it: "That groups is a sect"; now despite the fact the term sect has been used by the church for generations to accuse any form of organized thinking that defies or threats their doctrine; its very hard to demonstrate someone that this claims are just boloney, because the bibliography you can find is heavily affected by catholic opinion, authors, pages, and replicated blogs everywhere, of course all of it without bibliography and appealing to occultism, and even nazis, fascism and any "terrorific" term they can use, miss-informating people; do you know any good objective sources where one can find tools to debate this kind of claims?

  31. Google news and weather for me, the number of articles is limited to less than ten each days but the thing is that for each news you can chose your source and read several of them

  32. This, my friends is why you skip the news and press papers and just read the conclusion it’s just so much more helpful

  33. Man this video is important. Maybe consider just reuploading this video once a year or so. Or if The Algorithm punishes you for doing it, just do some small tweaks to the script each year and reshoot it. I don't think anyone interested in the theme behind this channel (promoting a positive attitude towards knowledge and learning) would ever mind that modicum of redundancy once a year.
    In my school system, we were taught these lessons at least every other year; and sometimes multiple times per year through the lens of different class subjects. Yet I frequently hear from people of all ages who say that they were never explicitly taught these skills in school. I don't doubt that many of those people did experience lessons on this topic, but either forgot, weren't listening, or the lesson wasn't taught in a way that reached them, but ignoring that, I still suspect that some school systems genuinely just don't focus on this skill for various reasons (e.g. 'Too busy teaching kids to pass the standardized test', 'too busy teaching kids the bare fundamentals of the 3Rs.' or 'our school board never added it to the cirriculum and my lesson plans are already packed as it is'), and while I think it is important to make certain this lesson is a high priority in all schools–public, private, and home-schooled–reinforced throughout each student's K-12 education, I fully appreciate that "fixing" education in this wold is a Hard Problem. As such, I think for now, the important thing is just to get this message out there to people through every medium and as much media as possible; make the lesson unavoidable in modern society.
    Children who grew up raised by parents who understand these techniques and how tremendously critical they are find themselves at a tremendous advantage in this world. For us lucky ones, we grow up with guidance on how to spot the dirty tricks of rhetoric and it becomes second-nature. But those who have disadvantaged or uneducated parental figures can often find this toolkit of critical thinking techniques to be very foreign, unless they get quite a lot of practice and guidance. I think we can greatly improve this in our society over the course of even less than a generation, and the return on such a dedicated investment in our society would be absolutely immense.
    I realize this is a 5 year old video, and chances are no one will chance to read this comment. But I feel strongly about this, and it felt nice to put my feelings into words. Personally, I've been regularly sincerely urging John Green and Stan Muller over at Crash Course that they greenlight, produce and prioritize a series on Crash Course Rhetoric, as such a course would do so well to adress these issues. Rhetoric was once part of the Trivium, the three courses all students were required to complete before they were allowed to study the liberal arts (in the classical sense of the term). Rhetoric was up there with Logic and Grammar. Grammar lets us communicate on the same page and understand eachother. Logic allows us to ensure that a message is clear and unambiguous, and rhetoric allows us both to pursuade an audience, and to detect deceptive techniques used as an attempt to pursuade us. Now, we still teach Grammar quite a lot. And logic is covered in the form of mathematical proofs and application of the scientific method. But the closest I got to learning rhetoric techniques during my school years was a class called "speech and debate", which wasn't taught until 11th grade, and the bulk of it was uselessly covering things like formalized debate structures, and how to prepare notecards with citations on all your facts. No one outside of debate-club members ever need to know the Lincoln-Douglass Debate structure. No one any longer needs to know how not to stray off-topic during their rebuttal period, because tight moderation is abandoned, and modern speakers are well aware that public perception is infinitely more important that adjudication scores. We forgot an entire third of the foundation of classical education, and I believe it is worth restoring it's priority for the sake of improvement of modern social discourse.
    If anyone does happen to come across this bloated meandering rant of mine and takes the time to read my words, then hello! You have my thanks and my respect. Maybe consider sharing this video respectfully with anyone that you think might benefit from criteria on how to evaluate news stories; particularly the youngn's 🙂

  34. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! You're one of the only people on all of YouTube heck anywhere in the world who is actually trying to teach people The Importance of Being skeptical and using common sense when looking at news stories!! Thank you thank you thank you!!!!

  35. I'm still searching for the video with Mitochondria "THE POWER HOUSE OF THE CELL" thingy… I couldn't recall what the video was it… been looking for a week now… Can anyone link me please? I should've binged watched from the start rather than randomly…

  36. Like I think the Daily Mail or the Mail Online should be banned from covering science topics. As part of one of my degree modules I saw an article from them stating that "Global Warming is a myth" because one area of the North Atlantic was cooling down as compared to its surroundings. Unfortunately the article failed to mention where it got its sources from.

    After a bit of digging, I found the paper published in which the article referenced – unfortunately a) the study was funded by the US Petrochemical Industry who obviously have a vested interest in stating that global warming is fake, and b) the paper published never actually came to those conclusions at all. Other research had suggested that the anomaly could have actually been a product of global warming due to the fact that the Greenland ice shelf was dumping a lot of fresh water into that region of the North Atlantic.

    It was an example of poor journalism at its best…. or worst? There is a definite difference to explaining things simply to explaining things misleadingly.

  37. it also helps if several sources have similar findings. like if you look up "Big bird population" on google and read the 50 or so articles on many different websites and news outlets that are unrelated, that show the near exact same information. that is another way to know if its reliable, if its consistent with other sources on the same study or topic. i hope this helps anyone with scientific research.

  38. #8 – A thousand times yes! Does it uphold the current power structure of which the influencers behind the research benefit? Then there's a great chance you should be skeptical.

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