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In this series, I’ve taken you through the basics of science reporting in the media. You’ve learned why so few articles in the media honestly report science and, I hope, gained a few useful tools to work out when a headline is lying to you.
Now for the most important lesson.
Everyone’s an Epidemiologist
You make decisions about your health every day. You walk down the supermarket aisle and decide that today you’re going to buy a bunch of kale instead of that second round of cheese. You look at the fancy supplements and think maybe you aren’t getting enough calcium in your diet — and it can’t hurt anyway, can it? You decide that today you’re going to cycle to work instead of driving, because you could really use the exercise and the fresh air will do you a world of good.
We all make decisions about our health on a day-to-day basis.
But are we making the right choices?
The thing is, getting it right is not as hard as you might imagine. Don’t get me wrong — you won’t become an expert overnight. If you have a serious health concern, see a medical professional. They do long degrees, years of training, and wear white coats and pompous expressions for a good reason: because health is not easy. It is a complicated headache.
But if you’re looking for the answer to a single question? Well, there are a few simple things you can do.
Let me walk you through what I do when I see a new study reported in an article, using an easy example. A recently published study looked at whether drinking alcohol affects our risk of getting diabetes. According to the study, regularly drinking alcohol actually lowered the risk.
Interesting, that. Sounds like it’s probably not entirely true.
I happened across a media article talking about this study, and the journalist linked directly to the source. This is uncommon but always welcome.
What if the writer hadn’t linked to the study?
How would I know where to look for it?
Well, the first thing I’d do is use my trusty Googling skills. But not just any Google. I use Google Scholar.
This is a cool addition to the Google family of search engines. It allows you to look through academic literature with the same ease that normal Google lets you search for cute pictures of kittens.
If I type a few keywords from the article into Google Scholar—say, alcohol, diabetes, and the name of the study (which I copied from the text) — and limit my search results to 2017 (the year the study came out), I find it as the first result.
I’ve passed the first hurdle.
Sadly, there’s still the issue of that nasty box on the right-hand side. You see, being a scientist can be expensive.
Search Academic Journals
It’s a sad fact that, like a boxing match or the newest episode of Game of Thrones, much of scientific knowledge is locked behind an annoying paywall. And it turns out that most people can’t afford to fork out $35-plus every time they want to trawl through scientific jargon just to know if they should be downing an extra glass or two of wine each night. (Spoiler: You shouldn’t. I mean, c’mon, that one’s obvious.)
In this situation, you have a few options. First, you can be an academic or somehow get access to a university library’s login. Through various means — I work with at least one uni — I have access to three separate such logins. Basically, it provides you with the great good fortune of having a library pay a large subscription on your behalf so you can read to your heart’s content. This is a great benefit, but one that requires you to embark on a career as a scientist or spend tens of thousands of dollars for the dubious honor of a university education.
Not all that useful for most of us, really.
The second option is to try to get the article for free. Increasing numbers of online publications put out scientific knowledge at the low cost of nothing. If you’re lucky, the study in question will be in one of these open-access journals, and you can simply grab it off the website. You can also email the scientists who performed the study — in my experience, most scientists are more than happy to shoot you off a copy of their study, because ultimately they want as many people as possible to read it. This takes a bit of time and effort, but the lead researcher’s email should be readily available on the website with the study.
There’s a third option. It’s not one that a lot of academics like to talk about, because it’s a bit naughty, but honestly, it’s by far the easiest way to go.
It’s called Sci-Hub.
Sci-Hub is a slightly less than legal method of accessing scientific research. It’s also incredibly easy to use. You just go to the website and copy/paste the study’s URL into the handy search bar. You can also use the PMID or DOI, which are strings of numbers and symbols that you can usually find on the webpage containing the study.
Once you hit enter, the website will automatically download a PDF of the study for you. It’s that easy. As long as you can find the online publication containing the research using your newfound Google skills, you can get the full text of the study.
Getting the Science Right
You’ve found the study. What to do next?
My advice, as someone who’s tried this both before and after doing several degrees?
Just read it. Try to take in what you can. Look up the words you don’t understand. Even though I’ve been a scientist for a while, I constantly have to look up words.
You may not understand everything about the study. It may take you a few reads to see what the researchers really did. But I can almost guarantee that if you get to the end, you’ll know a hell of a lot more about the issue than any journalist who wrote a sensationalist article.
Turns out that often all you have to do is read through the science to realize there’s nothing to fear. It’s usually not all that complicated — beyond the scary statistics, science is often pretty simple — and the researchers will usually spell out exactly what their study means in their conclusions. And while scientists are not always entirely right about their research—they are, of course, human—they are usually pretty close.
None of this is going to make you an expert. You will still have to make a bewildering selection of health choices when you walk down a supermarket aisle. But now when you see a product screaming “I’m healthy!” alongside some dubious-sounding claims, you have all the basic tools you need to exclaim “That doesn’t sound right!” and check the facts yourself.
Health is complicated. If you have a real problem, it’s always best to see a doctor.
But if you just have an interesting question? If you see something and want to check out if it’s true?
You can handle that. Trust me.