Lesson #1 | The Citizen’s Guide to Research

Eat all the pasta you want

Did you know that PASTA makes you SKINNY? I mean, science PROVED it! Look, I read about it:

That’s a headline from a real publication. Sure, that particular site likes to have a sense of humor, but at the end of the day, it’s not a satire site, so we can assume it’s trying to be informative.

Could that headline sound any better to an Italian-American girl like me? I was intrigued, so I clicked, looking for the science to back up an excuse to gorge on tasty pasta (not that I ever need an excuse).

Wait a sec. The actual study isn’t linked to in the article. Instead, it links to another article in web publication Mic, titled “This Study on How Pasta Can Help You Lose Weight is Easily the Best Science of 2016.” Aside from that dubious claim (I can appreciate the humor, but the best science of 2016 was arguably developments in space exploration and health… #buzzkill), the Mic article also links to another non-science article in the Telegraph.UK before it links to the actual study.

Luckily, the actual study is accessible for free, which isn’t always the case with academic research. The study does show a link between healthy weight maintenance and pasta consumption — in conjunction with an existing Mediterranean diet of fresh, seasonal produce, and locally-sourced fish.

So the headline is not necessarily false, but it’s not necessarily true, either.

Hmm… anyone else in the mood for pasta primavera?

My anecdote is to help illustrate that science and research is all around us. This, in many ways, is wonderful. However, there’s a trend of what I think of as “headline science,” where complex research is condensed into one clickbaity sentence. Unfortunately, these headline claims are actually false, or they just share one tiny part of the findings without the context.

And instead of going to the actual data — often locked behind a paywall, which we’ll discuss in the coming weeks — journalists report on other journalist’s articles. Remember the game, Telephone, where one person whispers a message into another’s ear, and it gets passed around in a circle? By the end of the circle, the message has usually warped into something completely different. That’s how headline science can work. Not only does it mislead readers and consumers, but it incorrectly shares researcher’s findings, which can make an impact on their entire research discipline.

This isn’t to disparage journalists. I used to be one — usually covering science! — so I totally get it. Being a journalist is hard, and they see a lot of news and science on a daily basis. All of us can chip in to be more critical readers.

Real research (especially in the health industry, which lends itself so well to clickbait) is complicated, highly technical, and very specific. It’s rare that scientists and academics make claims that can be shared in a simplified way. A good scientist should be able to explain their research without jargon, but their actual process tends to be too technical for the “average” reader.

But you’re not the average reader, are you?

Step 1:
Grab a journal or a notetaking app, and make a note of anytime you come across an article, online or in print, that says something like:

  • “A study proved…”
  • “Scientists say/science says…”
  • “A report found…”

Step 2:
If you see a claim like that, look to see if the article links to any original data. If so, is the source a reliable source? (This is a hint about next week’s lesson, so it’s OK if you don’t know the answer!)

**Bonus points: If there is a source linked to in the article, see if you can find it.**

Step 3:
Watch this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

It’s 20 minutes long, but worth it for that H. Jon Benjamin cameo.

Like what you read? Give Ashley Warren a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.