How “Science” Articles Are Written

I read an article last week that really set me off.  It was one purporting to be a warning about some sort of additive in a vaccine, but upon closer inspection, it didn’t have much in the actual fact behind it, but instead played a number of tricks, intended to scare the reader.  While the actual article will be withheld here in order to limit it’s exposure, and however hard it is to resist the urge to simply blast “learn to science” out into the world, I’ve put together some tips that may help you evaluate articles making questionable claims in the future.

The following list is by no means the most comprehensive or all inclusive list, but it’s the initial checklist I use when I evaluate articles.  For the sake of argument, let’s pretend we’ve come across an article by “Rex Canus,” titled “Killers in Your Home: The Feline Time Bomb.”

  1. Check for citations or outbound links from the article in question.  If a claim is made, such as 90% of cats are born ready to kill all humans, look to see if they name a study or outside source for this information.  If all that is said is something to the effect of “studies show” or “[name] said” or “experts say,” be skeptical.  Look up who the noted “experts” are, if any.  Just because the claim may sound reasonable to you, doesn’t mean that there’s fact to back it up.
  2. Look into the author of the article.  If no author is given, this should be a huge red flag for you.  If an association is given for the author, such as Dogs for a Better World, look into the organization, it’s past work, and it’s agenda.  Organizations which have a hard bias for or against a particular issue can often times have names which don’t betray their goals.  In this imaginary example, “Dogs for a Better World” could in fact be for eradication of the domestic house cat.
  3. Read the article again.  Are the claims that are being made in the story actually connected?  It sounds a bit silly, but it’s a serious thing to pay attention to.  In our example, the imagined author could write, “Bobcats have been known to attack humans who stray too close to their territory.  House cats believe your home is their territory; it’s dangerous to keep a house cat.”  The reader is meant to come to the conclusion that their house cat will attack them if they enter their home, as bobcats (aka a species of lynx, which is a wild North American big cat) will defend their territory.  This correlation is absurd on its face, but it reads “normally” when not considered critically, because it follows the writing convention of linking topics in our sentences together.

When in doubt, get on Google, or Bing, or DuckDuckGo, and take a minute to double check what you’re reading.  If an article is making a claim that raises your eyebrows, or makes you think you should “get something checked,” or freaks you out on some level, look closer.  It’s an unfortunate fact of life nowadays that there are many who would choose to scare or mislead people to support their agendas, but luckily, most do so poorly.  Be informed, and be vigilant.   …And do both before clicking that share button.

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