Sifting Through Science News And Claims
Posted on December 19, 2013
If you spend time on social media, the Internet more generally, or watching news programs, chances are you will see a science story or two. Sometimes it will be presented in the form of a full article on a website like the New York Times or Wired. Other times it may just be a tweet passing through your Twitter feed before slipping into the social media ether. No matter in which form you consume your science news, it’s important to approach articles and claims intelligently. This brings me to a wonderful video that I found today (on Twitter) called “How To Read Science News” from Joe Hanson of PBS’ It’s Okay To Be Smart. It’s certainly worth watching, and I embedded it below.
This immediately reminded me of the Egypt snow stories that were floating around about a week ago, after pictures emerged on social media of snow, sleet, or graupel in some Cairo suburbs. Many news articles asserted, without a source, that this was the first time that it had snowed in Cairo in 112 years! If you perform a Google News search right now, you will still find that many of these articles exist without any sort of correction. The source for that “statistic”, it turns out, could be traced back to a single person who admitted that he was just guessing. He said, “I guestimated that snow fell in Cairo 112 years ago. This is not accurate. Only CBS News bothered to validate the figure with me.”
There was also the case of a picture of a snow-covered Sphinx that was widely distributed. The only problem was that it was actually a photo of a model of the Sphinx from a theme park in Japan. It was later debunked in a couple places, including on this article on BuzzFeed.
Of course, it’s still good to have a nice balance of appropriate skepticism and openness to new ideas rather than being inherently skeptical about everything. As Joe says in the video above, “you should approach every story with a balance of curiosity and skepticism”. This was written about by the late Carl Sagan – an excerpt I found on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings website.
To summarize, there is an intelligent way to consume science news and science-related things that you see on the Internet. A strategy for doing so is laid out well by Joe Hanson in that video I linked. I really liked his quote, “anyone that wants to donate two cents can pop that into the piggy bank of human knowledge”. In the age of social media, it is tempting to share something cool right away, but it also doesn’t hurt to pause for a minute and consider its authenticity. Remember that the reach of information on social media will tend to expand exponentially, so if you are a fan of trying to be as accurate and factual as possible – it pays to check first before sharing!
You can follow Joe Hanson on Twitter @jtotheizzoe, and Maria Popova on Twitter @brainpicker.