How to Share Scientific Research Responsibly - THINKERS Notebook

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How to Share Scientific Research Responsibly

"Look, there are scientific studies that say ... "

How many times have you said or written some version of this when trying to explain something you've learned or argue with a skeptic?

If you haven't said it yourself, you've surely heard it or read it. 

And it makes sense!

What better way to lend credibility to a claim than by referencing its scientifically demonstrated validity?

In most cases, it's the way go.

In most cases.

Now let me clear about something right now: the purpose of this week's newsletter is absolutely not to spout any science denying nonsense.

There is a devastating vein of science denial coursing through our society, and it leads to skepticism in places where there should be acceptance, and vice versa. From climate change denial to the anti-vaccination movement,  the denial of demonstrated, replicated, and trusted science is setting us back in ways that are going to be difficult to recover from. 

We have to be willing to accept science that has proven its trustworthiness.

But at the same time, we also have to remember that one of the fundamental elements of good science is skepticism. This is why the very definition of the scientific method includes having a hypothesis and then testing it.

Then, once a hypothesis makes it through a first round of tests intact (or altered appropriately), it must be replicated by others. This helps to eliminate the risk of bias, accident, or poor design "demonstrating" something that isn't actually reflective of a larger truth or trend.

And this is where there is a bit of a crisis in science -- a replication and retraction crisis -- and it's why some of the science denial has been given more credence than it deserves.

From a Big Think article titled "Long-retracted papers are still cited in major journals":

As Szakal notes, a solid grasp of science matters considering research drives policy and healthcare decisions. We can't possibly expect every paper to get it right, but unfortunately, we also have to factor in biased researchers pushing forward their agendas. While the publication of such research is troublesome, Szakal takes particular issue with the authors and publications that continue to cite them after they've been retracted.

This is where we come in.

Most of us aren't out here conducting experiments and announcing findings in scientific journals. But many of us do partake in an online discourse where it's as easy as the click of a button to pass along a bold, compelling, and potentially retracted claim.

How can we be sure that we don't contribute to the problem?

  • Make sure we are following and sharing trusted sources with scrupulous standards.
  • Take extra care when creating a piece of content online to be sure it isn't leaning on debunked claims.
  • Crucially: if a retracted claim slips through, and we find out, act with the requisite zeal to correct the record among our sphere of influence.

We can't ignore or disparage science simply because of the few isolated examples that have created this replication and retraction crisis.

But maintaining a healthy sense of skepticism, and being patient enough to double-check before mindlessly sharing, can help ensure that the general discourse about science is as accurate and productive as possible.

In this week's edition of THINKERS Roundup, you will find three articles about how to be a more astute consumer and sharer of scientific information.

I will also recommend these resources: Zotero (for organizing research) and Retraction Watch.

The structure of a claim can say a lot about the claim itself.

"One way to judge scientific credibility (or lack thereof) is to scope out the logical structure of the arguments a scientist is putting up for consideration. It is possible to judge whether arguments have the right kind of relationship to the empirical data without wallowing in that data oneself. Credible scientists can lay out:

• Here's my hypothesis.
• Here's what you'd expect to observe if the hypothesis is true. Here, on the other hand, is what you'd expect to observe if the hypothesis is false.
• Here's what we actually observed (and here are the steps we took to control the other variables).
• Here's what we can say (and with what degree of certainty) about the hypothesis in the light of these results.
• Here's the next study we'd like to do to be even more sure."

Read: Evaluating scientific claims (or, do we have to take the scientist's word for it?) (Scientific American)

Take responsibility for your reaction to the scientific claims you read.

"Screaming headlines abound in our media-saturated world. 'Killer Moths Invade Homes.' 'New Drug Promises Alzheimer’s Cure.'  'Experts Confirm: Sky Is Falling.'

"Some are obvious click bait, but others seem legit—especially when seemingly backed by science. Inevitably, we’re all regularly confronted with scientific facts and factoids. Claims about household products, technology, medicine, and even politics often come steeped in the presumed authority of scientific research.

"The truth is slippery, and it’s not always graspable even by experts. So how can we non-experts decide what to believe?

"The seven questions here can help you weigh the validity of scientific information, wherever it might appear. You may not be able to get answers to them all—and this in itself might be telling—but if you can, you’ll be well on your way to separating science fact from science fiction."

Read: Can You Believe It? Seven Questions to Ask About Any Scientific Claim(Exploratorium)

Try these rules of thumb to help you hone your instinct for judging scientific claims.

"When we look to disprove what we know, we are able to approach the world with a more flexible way of thinking. If we are unable to defend what we know with reproducible evidence, we may need to reconsider our ideas and adjust our worldviews accordingly. Only then can we properly learn and begin to make forward steps. Through this lens, bad science and pseudoscience are simply the intellectual equivalent of treading water, or even sinking."

Read: How To Spot Bad Science (Farnham Street)

Quote of the week

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

-- Isaac Newton