How to Navigate Controversial Science Topics

From global warming to genetically modified food, vaccination to health supplements, scientific controversies abound. With conflicting claims polluting social media feeds and search engine results, narrowing in on the facts can be difficult, and few of us have the time to dive deep into every issue. So how can the average person cut through the misinformation and get to the truth of the matter?

“Take everything with a grain of salt,” advises Pamela Ronald, a geneticist at the University of California-Davis.

Ronald is the coauthor of Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food, which summarizes the established scientific consensus on the health, safety, and environmental impacts of genetically modified foods.

For Ronald and many other scientists, media coverage of controversial science topics leaves much to be desired. While she says some media outlets, such as the New York Times and The New Yorker, are generally good at covering science topics, reputable scientific organizations, national science academies, and peer-reviewed journals are the best places to find reliable information. Ronald points to organizations such as the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and their respective journals, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Science, as examples.

“They have reports that have been looked over by many, many scientists,” she said.

In the book, Ronald provides recommendations for distinguishing rumors from high quality science. Several of the tips explore how to determine if a scientific study is a trustworthy source. Was the study published in a peer-reviewed journal? Does the journal have a good reputation? Has it been widely cited? According to Ronald, these three characteristics are the hallmark of a quality scientific study.

Searching a journal’s name on Wikipedia is an easy way to find out if a journal is peer reviewed. Going a step further, a journal’s impact factor, which reflects the average number of citations to recent articles in the journal, is often used by the scientific community to determine a journal’s importance in a given field.

But Nick Wigginton, an editor at Science, cautions against putting too much confidence in a journal’s reputation.

“I think [impact factor] does have some value in terms of looking at a journal specifically,” he said. “But not any particular paper within the journal.”

Michael Specter, a science journalist at The New Yorker, recommends looking at how many times an individual paper has been cited, as opposed to the journal as a whole.

“If a controversial study has never or rarely been cited by other scientists, that tells you all you need to know,” he said.

Google Scholar provides data on individual and researcher citations.

Single study syndrome

Many specious scientific claims often rely on one study, leading Andrew Revkin, who blogs about science and environmental issues at the New York Times, to coin the term “single study syndrome.” He defines single study syndrome as “the habit of the more aggressive camps of advocates surrounding hot issues to latch onto and push studies supporting an agenda, no matter how tenuous — or dubious — the research might be.”

According to Ronald, independent confirmation is an important tool to combat this phenomenon. If another study published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal confirms the results of the original study, the claim is more likely to be true.

“I think the general rule is that you don’t trust one source,” she said. “If the National Academy of Sciences or the National Institutes of Health — these are government sources — make a statement, and then those are confirmed by every other country that’s also looked at the matter, then the conspiracy gets a little bit shaky.”

Confirmation of results, especially independent confirmation, is one of the central tenets of the scientific method, which is why the peer-review process is such an important part of a study’s credibility.

“Before we publish a paper we replicate, we replicate, we replicate,” said Ronald. “We look at different angles, and we have our peers review it, to see if they see something that we haven’t thought about.”

The danger of denial

In Specter’s book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, he outlines several cases where public misunderstanding of science, willful or not, has resulted in negative societal effects. While some forms of science denial are harmless, others, such as former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s campaign against antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, can do a lot of harm. According to a 2008 report by Harvard University researchers, more than 330,000 lives were lost because an antiretroviral treatment program was not implemented.

“Science is not an argument, science is a process,” said Ronald. “It relies on reproducibility and independent confirmation, and it’s testable. It’s not the same as someone trying to argue a position.”

While it’s tempting to dismiss experts and form contrarian opinions on contentious, often politicized, science issues, the scientific process and mainstream scientific organizations remain our best means for distinguishing fact from fiction.

“There is at least one compelling reason that the scientific method has come to shape our notion of progress and of modern life,” writes Specter in his book. “It works.”

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