It may come as some surprise, but scientists don’t spend all day mixing chemicals, measuring reactions, and hunching over open flames. To ask the right questions and design cutting-edge experiments to answer them, they have to do a lot of reading. Scientists may read about many different topics, including techniques for executing an experiment, the latest findings in their specific field, or communications from outside fields to broaden their horizons. Most of what they’re reading, scientific literature, is filled with numerical data, jargon, and what, quite frankly, looks like gibberish to non-scientists. So when people have to rely on mainstream news for their science, how can anyone expect them to figure out which scientific advancements are on the verge of completion versus those that are just bunk? Let’s take a look.
Science Doesn’t Happen in Real Life Like it Does on TV
Unfortunately, scientists rarely experience “Eureka moments,” like Archimedes did when he discovered a method for measuring volume while sitting in the bathtub. These days, a single person rarely makes any major scientific discoveries. Rather, scientists work in teams to gather bits of information that they hope will lead to a breakthrough in the future. Perhaps you’ve heard of CRISPR, a technology that allows us to edit genes in living organisms in a relatively easy and specific way. Though there is some debate over the legal “owner” of this technique, it is worth noting that the paper that introduced it was published with 13 authors! Think about that for second: that’s 13 separate people spending years to figure out the details of this genetic reprogramming tool and making sure their procedure could be repeated by anyone who read their paper.
Don’t forget, there is a whole additional side of research that people outside of the lab rarely hear about: failure. Only about 3% of experimental drugs make it to clinic, and that process takes years. Science is slow and arduous, and for every promising compound or insight, there are another 20 that never got anywhere, but which some poor graduate student or technician spent years of their life working on.
How Can I Tell the Difference Between Fact and Fiction?
Okay, so now that we know science isn’t as fast-paced and sexy as the folks on CSI would have us believe, how do we evaluate a book, documentary, or article online telling us about scientific progress? When you’re reading articles on the internet about new ways to lower your risk of getting cancer, it can be very tempting to believe that the next big breakthrough has arrived. But in reality, there is no “silver bullet” that will keep cancer away. To tell if a news report is truly describing a promising new discovery or is merely sensationalist clickbait, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is writing this article?
Writers at newspapers and magazines tend to hype up scientific findings to attract readers. Scientists, on the other hand, are less likely to oversell the conclusions of their studies, party for fear of reprisal within their own community, and partly because they’re well aware of the long road ahead of them. So, you’re better off trusting articles written by scientists, or at the very least, making sure the article you are reading was written by someone with a strong history of scientific reporting.
- Is this news source legitimate?
Technically, the best source for research news is original scientific literature – but reading scientific reports is challenging for most people (even scientists!). However, universities often release news reports about the research going on in their laboratories, and these reports tend to be written with greater scientific rigor than your average news article. If these reports not available, Google the result and choose an outlet with a history of good scientific reporting. Scientific journals such as Nature and Science often report on science news in non-technical language, and several mainstream sources, such as the BBC, Wired, and Ars Technica report on science fairly accurately.
- Is this report being truthful?
Make sure the report you are reading is presenting research appropriately. You can do this by always making sure at least two or three outlets have reported a result, and assume that “clickbait” sounding titles should be read with a grain of salt. If all else fails, you can always ask a scientist if you don’t understand a report!
But I Don’t Have Time to Do All This Research!
Welcome to the life of a scientist – all the aforementioned mixing, measuring, and burning has to be done in between staying on top of the literature in their field. With the sheer volume of information (both true and false!) out there, you’re bound to get a little lazy from time-to-time. And that’s okay! Sometimes we just go online to look at pictures of cats. But next time you see a Facebook post pop up with some miracle cure for cancer or back pain or arthritis, think about the points covered here before you run out to get some overpriced pills at your local health store. They are likely to disappoint.
Stefanie Kall is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago.