5 steps to not being bamboozled by bad science reporting

Can you trust the headlines in your newspaper? What can you actually learn from reading message boards and random Facebook forwards? If you aren't sure what to believe, this guide by Gabrielle Rabinowitz and Emily Dennis can help. It describes how to track "digested" information back to an original, scientific source, the questions to ask, and the red flags to for — all of which will help you sort bunk from stuff that's actually worth talking to your friends about. The problem, of course, is that this can be a lot of work. Essentially, they're describing a lot of what journalists do when we're writing a story about a scientific topic.


  1. My personal rule is that if a finding sounds exciting, then assume that it is incorrectly reported / fabricated / misrepresented, until thoroughly proven otherwise.

    1. The sad corollary is that the overwhelmingly vast majority of the time, nothing exciting is actually happening.

    2. 1) If it’s about health science, there’s a 99% chance that it’s been misreported.
      1b) If it’s about dietary science, there’s a 99.999999999% chance that it’s been misreported.

        1. I don’t need to go to the lab to figure out that three day-old fish smells worse than three day-old bread.

  2. Step one for me is has become if there’s ‘discovery’ or ‘nature’ or ‘scientist’ in the domain name, to not bother clicking through. Avoiding science reporting on the major news networks has been a good idea for a long time as all they care about is capturing eyeballs, but for a while there you had a moderate chance of getting decent reporting on the “education focused” entities. 

    Not anymore though, they regurgitate stories just as doggedly as CNN does.

    Curiously, the best science reporting comes from blogs. You still have to read with a critical eye to avoid getting sucked into a bias, but the small fries seem to do a much better job cutting through the sensational claims.

  3. Step 6:  Read the Boing Boing Comment section.  (maggie is a great source of science reporting, but the commentors really cut to the chase and make a lot of funny penis jokes while doing it)

  4. A correction on this post, last line should read “Essentially, they’re describing a lot of what journalists should do, but usually don’t, when we’re writing a story about a scientific topic.”

  5. check for a known, sound, physical or chemical explanation for the effect at hand. if there isn’t one, take mere statistics with a huge pile of salt.

    this is what journals are meant to be for, but publish or perish is screwing the world.

    have you noticed that even academic societies’ press releases don’t include a link to, or even title of, the journal article? yeah…

  6. Good stuff Maggie!  Thanks for posting.  Your frequent science-based posts here are one of the few things that keep me coming back to BoingBoing on the daily.  You do great job of discussing facts and context without creating a narrative – traits which are now few and far between here on my beloved BB.  I’m regularly challenged in my own bias when I read your posts – that is good science writing.

    I want to add Brian Dunning’s “How to tell a good website from a crap website” into the mix.  He runs Skeptoid and is dedicated to giving people to the tools to objectively assess new information.  Especially science-ey information.  There is a lot of overlap between that Skeptoid episode and your post here – but there is some other good stuff as well.  Well worth the listen!   http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4336

    Thanks and keep up the good work.  Its very much appreciated.

      1. Hi there!  I’m glad you posted here.  Your response here exemplifies one of the wonderful ways that the internet has facilitated greater education, communication, and access to primary source information.  I must admit, I’m coming from the “skeptical” community, which has really taken off on the internet in the past 10 years.  But the skeptical mindset 100% lends itself to the scientific worldview.

        I’m talking about empiricism and evidence-based thinking.  Science and Skepticism encompass values upon which every person can build their worldview.  One of the first steps of learning how to think objectively/critically is learning how to identify bogus sources.  So I want to encourage and thank you, Gabrielle, for authoring this piece – especially since it is so easy for the layman (like myself) to read and understand.

        A tiny percentage of humans will ever pursue education in Science – but that doesn’t mean that empirical and critical thinking need be cordoned-off to those who achieve academic success.  Critical thinking is available to EVERY HUMAN on this rock and I applaude you and Maggie for helping that become reality.

        Ok – now that I have created that wall of text – my point is – skeptical thinking is accessible to 99+% of people, where scientific achievement only encompasses a tiny minority of all people on earth.  BUT YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A SCIENTIST TO THINK SCIENTIFICALLY.  Efforts like these – which encourage the layman to objectively assess information – go a long way towards helping humanity as a whole make better decisions.

        I applaud you and Maggie, that is what I’m really trying to say.

    1. You [Maggie] do great job of discussing facts and context without creating a narrative.

      Thanks and keep up the good work.  Its very much appreciated.

      Ditto that.  It’s fantastic and fitting to have good hard science on BB, something so obvious that it should have been here from the beginning.

  7. I was interested in the recent articles spawned by the release of a paper about carnitine and heart disease, but I wasn’t prepared to spend 32 $AUD to read the study. I was hoping this article would help me find a way around that, but, alas it did not.

    1.  Searching for the article title on scholar.google.com brings up a direct link to a freely available pdf.  (I didn’t look into whether that pdf is *legally* freely available.)

      1. Thanks! Interesting how the link to the dodgy PDF on some random website appears conveniently off to one side …

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