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Sorting science from speculation: Handy guides available

In “How to: Read science news” (Boing Boing , April 30, 2012), Maggie Koerth-Baker unpacks some healthy skepticism, introducing scientist/science writer Emily Willingham,

Emily Willingham is a scientist who blogs about science for the general public. Over at Double X Science, she’s come up with a handy, six-step guide for reading science news stories. These rules are a great tool for peeking behind the curtain, and learning to think about the perspective behind what you read. In the post, she explains why each of these rules is important, and then applies them to a recent news story about chemical exposure and autism.

3. Look at the words in the articles. Suspected. Suggesting a link. In other words, what you’re reading below those headlines does not involve studies linking anything to autism. Instead, it’s based on an editorial listing 10 compounds [PDF] that the editorial authors suspect might have something to do with autism (NB: Both linked stories completely gloss over the fact that most experts attribute the rise in autism diagnoses to changing and expanded diagnostic criteria, a shift in diagnosis from other categories to autism, and greater recognition and awareness–i.e., not to genetic changes or environmental factors. The editorial does the same). The authors do not provide citations for studies that link each chemical cited to autism itself, and the editorial itself is not focused on autism, per se, but on “neurodevelopmental” derailments in general. More.

Health sciences are hardly the only area where we need to look at the words used in the articles. In a lot of stuff we usually cover at Uncommon Descent News (origin of life, human evolution, etc.), watch out for “may have,” “might have,” “could have,” “would have,” “would have to have” …  in other words, the researchers are only speculating.

See also: Free bunk detector for “evolution” claims from therapists and counsellors

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One Response to Sorting science from speculation: Handy guides available

  1. 1

    But the big problem is that in Biology textbooks, they completely dispense with the ‘may haves’ and ‘could haves’, and state assumption and speculation as fact, e.g. “multi-cellular organisms evolved from single-celled organisms”, or “random mutation provides the variation which natural selection works upon”, or “the building blocks of life were produced in the early Earth’s oceans, and life arose from this prebiotic soup as the Miller-Urey experiment shows” and stuff like that. At least the science news articles are more honest and less dogmatic.

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