Columnists

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear!

We are definitely living in a post-truth world. It’s not just in the political sphere that we have to be careful of facts and “alternative facts”; it also extends to the scientific and medical worlds as well. The public is being constantly bombarded with scientific information via mainstream media, social media and other internet sources. How is a non-scientist supposed to filter through 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 about a scientific or medical topic is whether the author or source is credible. Does the author have the proper credentials and experience? Is the person addressing a subject on which he or she has extensive training and knowledge? A layperson doing research on the internet is NOT the same as someone who has the knowledge base and skills to critically assess a given topic.

Does the author have a degree from a well-recognized accredited institution or simply a member of an organization that has little or no credibility in the scientific community? Just because someone has an advanced degree, it does not mean he/she has the expertise to comment on the subject at hand – it may be completely out of his/her area of expertise.

There are a number of other things to watch for in scientific articles. The first, that should raise a huge red flag, is if the article is trying to sell or promote something. It is exceedingly rare for scientific sources to disseminate information for the sole purpose of selling a product or service directly to the public (i.e. over the internet). Credible scientific sources generally dedicate their lives to scientific inquiry for the betterment of mankind. Unfortunately, like all humans, some fall into the trap of promoting treatments or procedures that benefit them financially.

There are some logical fallacies you need to watch out for when reading scientific articles. The “argument from authority” is frequently used when trying to peddle a bogus product or treatment. This follows the flawed logic that since the author is an educated person with a degree, what he/she says must be true. While this may be true, you must realize that it isn’t always (except for this column of course).

Authors may also use the argument from authority to reference another professional as having done research or said something that supports the author’s position. The problem occurs when the supporting professional’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 at some point in time 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 fails to provide a detailed citation to a study 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 primary source to see if the findings do indeed lend support and that the author did not make an improper association.

Two final things to look out for are 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.

I highly recommend The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, by Dr. Steven Novella, as a source on how to navigate our post-truth world.

– Dr. John Roberts is a member of the Franciscan Physician Network specializing in Family Medicine as well as the Deputy County Health Officer in Montgomery County.