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).


  1. “Ask a scientist” can also be misleading advice if the scientist in question doesn’t have particular expertise in that field. The global warming denialist movement is full of people who love to ask scientists in the employ of oil companies.

  2. Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book ‘Public Opinion’ pretty much summarized everything anyone wants to know about how to read a news story.

  3. Yesterday’s Daily Mail article saying that Windmills cause climate change could benefit from this treatment.  A man caused global warming skeptic friend of mine immediately posted it on all his Facebook outlets.

  4. how about /r/askscience?  asking a scientist is good advice but a lot of people have this idea that unless they have a scientist on hand to ask, they’re hopelessly unable to comprehend “sciency” things. 
    even a scientist who’s not a major in that field may be helpful because they know how to read scientific journals and they may know what a lot of the jargon means.  however, you don’t need an advanced degree to think critically.  

    1. freefall is referring to the Reddit community which is fantastic at debullshiting media science reporting. Also, serious science questions can be directed at the wonderful self selected panel at

  5. I must recommend an excellent source of breaking news stories on all scientific fields, Science News, a long standing publication. It coveres biology, physics, medicine, astronomy and other fields, as well as commentary on the social dimensions and consequences of scientific discovery. The articles are written at the level of a good newspaper article, and are rigorously even-handed. I vzalue it because it is aimed at the curious layperson who doesn’t have the math background you need to read Scientific American.  Science News is also the manager for the Intel Science Search, the national highschool science fair that identifies the next generation of Nobel winners.

  6. Just throwing my 2 cents in. I like reading the originating press release from the university/research organization (NASA, UCLA, National Science Foundation, etc.) Ironically, science press releases tend to be about 100x less glammy than the resulting news stories.,, all cover a lot of similar ground in this respect.

    1. Personally, I’m not actually a huge fan of reading press releases like they’re news. That’s largely because I’ve done several stories over the years where editors handed me a press release and said, “Hey, can you go cover this?” My research always involved talking to other experts—people in the same field who weren’t involved in the research the press release is about. Nine times out of 10, the press release would turn out to be misleading. Not because the way it explains the science was wrong (although that happens more often than you might think), but because press releases usually leave out SO much context in an effort to sell that specific university or organization. They really don’t give you a very good idea of how the new research fits into what’s come before, which is vital to actually understanding the science. Physorg and Science Daily can be really, really misleading because people read those press releases and assume that’s the whole, objective story. 

      I’ve also found that press releases have a tendency to miss really interesting and important aspects of stories. Not because they’re evil or stupid, but because they thought some other aspect was going to be the thing that got headlines and attention. 

      Not saying you shouldn’t read press releases, but don’t give them too much credence. 

    2. I must agree with @boingboing-7160c7db52df96e5fe196a6c9ce73f83:disqus , universities and research organizations have someone on staff just to handle that sort of publicity and never are they a scientist or even someone with a science journalism background. Their job is to create positive publicity for the university, and so the press releases can be just as bad as the news stories.

      When you’re a scientist or otherwise involved in science (including journalists who go in-depth like Maggie) you’ll sometimes hear anecdotes from scientists discussing their unfortunate meetings with journalists, and especially the university publicity person.

      1. I disagree. Yes, hyperbole shows up in both. But in my experience it is way, WAY more likely that a newspaper, magazine or blog blows things out of proportion (the most common error I find in science reporting) than a press release will. Typically, the release is tied to the publishing of a peer-reviewed paper, and researchers are keen to keep it fairly straight as a result. And typically, the writer of the press release requires sign off by the researcher before release, specifically because of the complexity of much of the research out there.

        Now, accurate-but-misleading headlines, on either a news article or press release? That I see a lot.

        1. You’re right, but while often the press releases are quite good about not exaggerating, the point is you can’t always trust university press releases to be that good. 

          I’m only really providing anecdotal evidence – research projects I’ve been involved with or at least familiar with at the universities I’ve been at have always been mis-represented in the official university press releases (some more than others of course). 

          The researchers will sign off on them because they don’t care enough to waste time getting the PR people to re-write it. It’s frustrating working with them. And anyway for the researchers, it’s typically not that important if the public doesn’t quite understand – they care more about people within the field and those people will be reading the scientific journals not press releases.

          Again, I agree that the press releases usually are not that bad and are often quite good. But it’s a delicate problem – if you don’t make it sound exciting, then the general press won’t care, but if you make it sound exciting enough for it to get picked up by the press, then you’re almost certainly exaggerating at least a bit. Because most day-to-day science is not very exciting :)

  7. What about this one: Try to determine if this is the result of a single study, or if it has been replicated and peer-reviewed?

  8. Oh how I love the term “null association”.  I use it all of the time.  But here are some LOLs from my tenure as a lowly research student

    Me:  How do you read a scientific article so it makes sense?
    Postdoc:  I really just read the abstract and the conclusion.

    Newbie Postdoc: My paper was just accepted for publication!
    Jaded Postdoc:  Are you the first author?
    NP: No?
    JP:  The last?
    NP: No?
    JP: Well than, I guess “your” paper really wasn’t accepted for publication than was it?

    Me in my head:  I don’t think I wanna do this PhD thing.

  9. Maggie, you should mention the various science circles floating around G+. Yes, there are people who are interested in science in those circles, but there are many experts who post regularly and wouldn’t mind answering questions or giving their 2 cents.

  10. I would love for people to take this to heart. I have a coworker who likes to mention articles as proof for his beliefs but when you actually read the paper is does nto support what he is talking about at all or weakly asserts that it is lacking in data.

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