How to read and understand a scientific paper

Scientific Literacy is required for citizenship. We cannot understand the proposals to fix our problems if we can’t tell what is true and what isn’t.

Science is a methodology. It’s about trying to figure out what is objectively true. To do that scientists use various methods to try and test for what really is happening and account for bias and other things that might be impacting whatever it is they are looking at.  Some scientists do this better than others.
This is why scientists submit their work to peer review and everyone else in their field critiques their work looking for problems. It seems adversarial, but, we all have biases and we all miss things and having other people double checking our work for mistakes helps catch mistakes. This is a good thing and something we all should welcome.

When something is reported in the news, journalists and others report what the study says. But what happens if the journalist isn’t scientifically literate? Or the editor has biases and wants a big splashy headline?  When that happens, the headlines may not be supported by the paper or the findings.

Because our lives literally depend on science it’s important that we become scientifically literate, meaning we must all learn how to read reports and papers and make judgements about whether what they are claiming is likely. We need to learn to be skeptical. In other words, we need to learn to think like a scientist, and look for reasons why the study doesn’t say what it purports to say.

I am linking to an article about how to read and understand a scientific paper for non-scientists.

First things first. Get the actual paper. If you are reading an article about a study – link through to the study. Eventually you will get to a pdf put out by the scientist or their university.  It will look something like this:

On this page – you should be able to download the entire paper or read the summary and introduction, methods used and key takeaways. If the key takeaways are different from reported, congratulations, you’ve passed step one.

Next, look for caveats to the findings. Scientists will always tell you what the limits of their findings are and how they aren’t valid in all sorts of situations they didn’t control for. Knowing what this paper doesn’t say – is useful and will help prevent you from believing the hype about whatever the paper is about.

Now, read the article. Yes, they are long. Yes, they use all sorts of terms that may seem complicated. But, you won’t be able to tell whether you agree with their conclusions if you don’t. And, they are often very fascinating because of things that are down deep in the data. For instance, the paper I linked to makes claims at the top that seem a bit outrageous, but as you read through and realize how they got there-  it makes sense.

If you aren’t sure whether a method used by the researchers is problematic – go and look for critiques. Not political critiques, scientific critiques. Politicians try to debunk science they don’t like all the time. They may be correct, but they may not be. Often, they are just spouting propaganda -and cherry picking the evidence. You want to know what is true and whether you can trust the politician so find out what other actual scientists say and remain skeptical.

Good luck – our society depends on all of us getting this right.

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