I think I’m in heaven. Another week of blog writing inspiration from a #smartreader (I love #smartmomma and #smartdad but I like this one too). The suggestion was posted in response to my repeat singing of the safety song about the HPV vaccine on social media this week, and it is simply this:
“How can you help people decipher what is good science (and not) in what we read in print and online?”
Great topic. Not necessarily a simple one, but I think we can arrive in the neighborhood of the right answer if we get in the habit of reading science and medical articles with what I fondly call “the hairy eyeball.” What’s charming about the hairy eyeball is that you can also use it with your kids if you find yourself in a situation where you are:
1. Not absolutely sure if they are fessing up to who got gum stuck in the carpet, or
2. Noticing them being rude and/or wayyyyyy too comfortable with back talk, or
3. Witnessing them in the middle of a large fight in a restaurant or other public place.
Actually, the hairy eyeball usage is endless, and I invite you to share some of your suggestions with me as I’m always open to expansion of its general deployment.
Back to business. If we’re using the hairy eyeball to its full potential when we appraise the science and medicine that we read, we have to do a few things:
A. Check out the source of the content.
The best way to be assured that what you’re reading is solid science is to check that it’s directly sourced from a peer-reviewed journal (and preferably one you might have heard of), or at least cites the journal in the written piece. Somebody’s obscure reference of a case report or small sample of data from 30 years ago should at the very least warrant a mild hairy eyeball from you. Look for several other solid current articles on the same topic: do they exist? Do they conclude the same or opposite of what you just read?
B. Investigate the author, affiliated institution, and agenda.
Is the person an actual scientist with actual expertise working at an actual credible institution? If there is research, is it funded by a neutral source, or not? It’s amazing how many “scientists” (some with sketchy credentials claiming expertise in which they have no training) are out there trying to advance an illegitimate agenda rather than produce robust research. I really fire up the hairy eyeball against those expert impersonators.
C. Figure out if this is opinion/commentary or actual evidence.
Properly vetted scientific articles are not written as opinion papers unless they are clearly described as such. Research papers are written to tell a factual story and report whether or not the investigators have proven their hypothesis. They honestly describe the study methods, results and limitations and indicate where future research should go. That’s it. The authors aren’t trying to convince you in any direction about their findings. Science doesn’t really care if you like the factual data or not. It just is.
D. Make sure the language is dispassionate.
Flowery language is not permitted in good research. That is nearly always a big red flag. MAJOR hairy eyeball. Same thing with suggestions or allusions to any type of conspiracy. Just no. Again, the science isn’t passing judgment. It’s REPORTING. It’s not emotional testimony from someone, either. You should never be made to feel like you should “believe” despite the fact that a plethora of convincing data exists, proving whatever the opposite claim.
There are many nuances to these four hairy eyeball opportunities above, but if you can start to evaluate what you read with them generally in mind, then you’ll soon find yourself with a fairly good sense of where the real science exists and where it doesn’t. Plus, you know you always have me to provide feedback; my hairy eyeball is ALWAYS at the ready to look askance at false claims!
Just ask my kids.