How to: Read science news

How you read matters as much as what you read. That's because nothing is written in a vacuum. Every news story or blog post has a perspective behind it, a perspective that shapes what you are told and how that information is conveyed. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing. Having a perspective doesn't mean being sensationalistic, or deceitful, or spreading propaganda. It can mean those things, but it doesn't have to. In fact, I'm fairly certain that it's impossible to tell any story without some kind of perspective. When you relate facts, even in your personal life, you make choices about what details you will emphasize, what emotions you'll convey, who you will speak to—and all of those decisions are based on your personal perspective. How we tell a story depends on what we think is important.

Unfortunately, sometimes, perspective can be misleading. That's why it's important to be aware that perspective exists. If you look at what you're reading, you can see the decisions the author made, you can get an idea of what perspective they were trying to convey, and you will know whether that perspective is likely to distort the facts.

Emily Willingham is a scientist who blogs about science for the general public. Over at Double X Science, she's come up with a handy, six-step guide for reading science news stories. These rules are a great tool for peeking behind the curtain, and learning to think about the perspective behind what you read. In the post, she explains why each of these rules is important, and then applies them to a recent news story about chemical exposure and autism.

3. Look at the words in the articles. Suspected. Suggesting a link. In other words, what you're reading below those headlines does not involve studies linking anything to autism. Instead, it's based on an editorial listing 10 compounds [PDF] that the editorial authors suspect might have something to do with autism (NB: Both linked stories completely gloss over the fact that most experts attribute the rise in autism diagnoses to changing and expanded diagnostic criteria, a shift in diagnosis from other categories to autism, and greater recognition and awareness--i.e., not to genetic changes or environmental factors. The editorial does the same). The authors do not provide citations for studies that link each chemical cited to autism itself, and the editorial itself is not focused on autism, per se, but on "neurodevelopmental" derailments in general.

4. Look at the original source of information. The source of the articles is an editorial, as noted. But one of these articles also provides a link to an actual research paper. The paper doesn't even address any of the "top 10" chemicals listed but instead is about cigarette smoking. News stories about this study describe it as linking smoking during pregnancy and autism. Yet the study abstract states that they did not identify a link, saying "We found a null association between maternal smoking and pregnancy in ASDs and the possibility of an association with a higher-functioning ASD subgroup was suggested." In other words: No link between smoking and autism. But the headlines and how the articles are written would lead you to believe otherwise.

The one rule of Willingham's that I would question is "Ask a Scientist", not because it's bad advice, but because it's not something most people can easily do. Twitter helps, but only if you're already tied into social networks of scientists and science writers. Again, most people aren't. If you want to connect to these networks, I'd recommend starting out by picking up a copy of The Open Laboratory, an annual anthology of the best science writing on the web. Use that to find scientists who write for the public and whose voice you enjoy. Add them in your social networks, and then add the people that those scientists are spending a lot of time talking to. That's the easiest way to connect with some trustworthy sources. And remember: An expert in one subject is not the same thing as an expert. It doesn't make sense to ask a mechanical engineer for their opinion on cancer treatments. It doesn't make sense to as an oncologist about building better engines.

Read the rest of Emily Willingham's post on reading science news.

Buy The Open Laboratory 2010 (the 2011 edition hasn't been published yet).