There appears to be a serious communications problem between the general public and scientists. In short, scientists are generally bad at communicating their ideas to those of us that are not in their field. One only has to look as far as the vaccine controversy to see how bad this has become. The information security community suffers from this same problem. It’s not that there is a lack of smart or capable people out there. Is does appear, however, that there is a lack of smart and capable people that can communicate effectively. Instead of listening to experts we often turn to the media to translate scientific and technical findings into some sort of meaningful message. Unfortunately, the mainstream media likes to broadcast generalities, sound bites, and sensationalism in the name of ratings. Rather than inform ourselves and make our own decisions we are allowing anyone who talks the most and loudest to influence our lives. I’m not completely blaming the mainstream media though. The same is true for social media.We, the public, allowed this to happen, and the media caters to what they think the public wants. I’m the first to admit that I’m a news junkie, but part of being informed is researching the facts in order to draw your own conclusions. More than any other time in history, thanks to the Internet, nearly all the information we could want is at our fingertips so why do people continue to believe things that are counter to available evidence? My theory is that it’s a combination of laziness, ignorance, and information overload. It takes time and effort to do research and reading scientific papers is not something most people enjoy doing. The rest of this post outlines how I go about sifting through the enormous amount of data that is thrown at me everyday, and how I try to make sense of it all.
Vetting Information Sources
The source of the data you receive is the most important factor to consider when processing new information. Some questions I always ask myself are:
“Is this source credible?”
What are the author’s credentials? If the author’s bio shows that they are a doctor don’t just assume they are an expert. What’s their degree in? Do they have a Phd or MD? If the author is writing about medical procedures, but they have a Phd in communications, for example, you need to consider that when consuming their information. That does not mean you have to immediately dismiss what they are saying, but you should at least be a little skeptical if they are touting “medical facts”. A follow-up question to this one is,
“How widely cited is this source?”
In the scientific community, with peer-reviewed publications, it’s relatively easy to see how often an author or paper is cited by colleagues. Exactly how to check the amount of citations is beyond the scope of this post, but there are academic search engines and databases that can help with this. If a source has been widely cited go find out why. Is it because the information is nonsense and other scientist are debunking its conclusions or are they using it as a foundation for further research? On the other hand, when considering social media and mainstream news using the number of citations can be dangerous. It’s easy for sensational, but otherwise false or incomplete, information to spread very quickly. Instead ask yourself the other questions listed here, and try to establish a trusted source (more on that shortly).
“Is the publication credible?”
Where are you getting your information? Whether it’s the morning news, a website, journal article, or Facebook post you have to weigh where information is coming from. There are pros and cons to every publication. Mainstream media tends to vet their sources more carefully than, say, the Facebook post by your friend who heard something from a friend of a friend. However, mainstream media tends to be influenced by the political leanings of the owners. One of the main reasons the MMR vaccine controversy was so widely accepted is that the originating article was published in one of the world’s oldest and best known general medical journals, _The Lancet. _Any publication can make a mistake so do not immediately assume credibility without going through your vetting process.
“Do they cite their sources?”
It’s rare that information is completely original and does not require cited sources. If the author is quoting “facts and figures” they should have a source cited; if they don’t have citations the skeptic flag should go up until you’re more sure about the data.
“Is the author pushing an agenda?”
Take into account the tone of the message. Biases and agendas will tell you how much credibility you should give to a particular source. A really hard thing to do is question a source that you agree with, and this is especially true for emotionally or politically charged issues. Take a step back and always question your assumptions before believing new information.
“Is this one of my trusted sources?”
With so much information out there it’s important to establish a list of your personal trusted sources. Trusted sources can be mainstream media outlets, blogs, twitter accounts, etc. The most important criteria for a trusted source is that you have consistently vetted their information output and integrity. The advantage of establishing trusted sources is that you can then allow them to feed you information by subscribing to their services or regularly consuming their information. I’m not saying that all the information from your trusted sources should be blindly accepted, but these should be sources that in general require less scrutiny. It’s up to you on determining the criteria for a trusted source, but choose wisely who you let influence your view of the world. I would recommend following two conflicting sources to get both sides of the story (e.g. Fox News and CNN).
By vetting your information sources you’re creating a filter that funnels more credible information down to you. This in turn allows you to form more educated opinions and make better decisions. Once you learn to vet your sources you can then start reading more into the actual facts. Many news stories start with something like, “according to a recent study”, or “according to a recent poll”, but most people will never go look up the actual conclusions of the original data. When you don’t take the time to go look up cited data what you’re saying is that you trust the author to interpret it correctly and report accurate conclusions to you. This is not a problem if you have previously vetted the source, but if you haven’t then it’s time to go dig a little deeper.
Reading Scientific Publications
Let’s be honest most scientific papers are less than exciting, and the general public doesn’t have the time nor inclination to read them. However, with a little effort you can quickly review scientific papers to get a general idea of what the authors are trying to present. Of course if you have the time I recommend reading documents in their entirety, but as a matter of practicality for most people you can just focus on the following sections of most scientific papers.
When you search for scientific papers (quick start here) most often you’ll see the abstract section before any other part of the paper. If you can only read one section of a scientific paper it should be the abstract. The abstract summarizes the key points of the paper, and it’s usually in a single paragraph. Everyone can take the time to read a single paragraph. Scientists rely of other scientists reviewing their work so it’s important to tell their peers upfront, what they were investigating, how they conducted their experiments, any major findings, and their conclusions. These are exactly the points you need to know to make a more informed decision.
If you have a little extra time after reading the abstract continue on to the introduction. Like the abstract this will give you an overview of the entire paper, but provide even more details.
Key Charts and/or Graphs
Skim over the paper for charts or graphs. By definition charts and graph should be able to stand alone to convey information, and these will usually contain key experimental findings.
Conclusion or Summary
After the abstract this is probably the most important part to read in scientific papers. The conclusion is the place where experts interpret data and draw on their experiences to develop meaningful results or call others to action. This is the part you want to know – what does the expert actually think?
I can’t guarantee that you will be able to understand every paper you read. Some subjects are so advanced that even the abstracts are daunting. It’s okay to not understand everything though. The important part is that by making the effort to inform yourself you are already better for it. At the very least you will understand that most news is far more complicated than the media lets on. I would like to conclude with a call to any scientists reading this – write for everyone, not just other scientists. Write papers for your peers, but also remember that the public needs to be informed by you and not the watered down interpretation of your work often presented.