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home : columnists : columnists July 25, 2017

Don't believe everything you hear

By Dr. John Roberts

We do seem to be living in a post-truth world. It's not just in the political sphere that we have to be careful of facts and "alternate facts." It also extends to the scientific world as well. The public is being constantly bombarded with scientific information through the popular media and especially the Internet. How is a non-scientist supposed to filter all this information and figure out what to believe? I want to give you some tips to use when evaluating what you see or hear.

The most important thing to look for when reading a science article is whether the author or source is credible. Does the author have the proper credentials? Is he or she writing on a subject they have training and knowledge in? Do they actually have a degree from a well-recognized accredited institution or are they simply a member of an organization that has little or no credibility in the scientific community?

There are a number of other things to watch for in scientific articles. The first that should raise a big red flag is if, in addition to presenting information, an article is trying to sell or promote something. Honest scientists or organizations are interested in getting information out for scientific and public discussion - not to use it to sell a product or service. Unfortunately, doctors can fall into this trap by promoting treatments or procedures that benefit them.

There are some logical fallacies you need to watch out for when reading articles, but one is particularly common. It is known as the "argument from authority." This fallacy follows the thinking that, "he/she is a doctor and educated person, therefore what he/she says must be true." While this may be true, you must realize that it isn't always. Never take these things at face value - do your homework on the person(s).

Another way authors use this is to cite another authority in his or her article as having done research or said something that supports the author's point. The problem occurs when the authority's findings or quotes are taken completely out of context and have absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the content of the article.

When someone reads that a Nobel Laureate in Medicine made a statement that has some similar language to the point the author is trying to make, they assume the Nobel Prize winner must support the author's point as well - don't fall for this slight of hand.

Another common tactic to watch out for is an author who gives either a poorly detailed or no citation to a scientific study supposedly supporting his or her claim. The study may be named or alluded to, but using only vague references. This would not stand up in a peer-reviewed scientific publication.

If an author is going to use a study to support his or her position, the citation should include, at a minimum, the author(s) and where it was published. This allows the reader to go to the original study to see if it truly lends specific support and that the author did not make an unsubstantiated association.

One final category of things to look out for is anecdotes and testimonials. If an author is making a scientific conclusion about something, it must be based on rigorous scientific methodology and peer review, not word of mouth support. If the author refuses to produce the scientific evidence to back his or her position that should raise immediate concern that you should take any conclusions with a huge grain of salt.

Dr. John Roberts is a local physician. His column appears in Monday's edition of the Times, and he has a daily health tip on the front page. Dr. Roberts is one of the owners of Sagamore News Media, parent company of The Times.

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