Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

3 Tips for Avoiding Fake News in Science

Astrophysicist Michael J. I. Brown offers some guidelines for identifying fake or bad science.

(ALLISON HILL)

There’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news, and many consider it a genuine threat to a well-functioning democracy. Some of it results from political mischief, or worse. It’s also happening in science reporting as researchers, writers, and publications attempt to gain attention with sensational headlines. Inconclusive evidence may be presented as fact, and sometimes it’s just bad science. Check out RetractionWatch, a site whose purpose is trying to keep up with scientific papers that have been recalled after publication — there were 700 retractions in 2015 alone.

Astrophysicist Michael J. I. Brown is concerned with how difficult it’s become to separate real scientific breakthroughs from clickbait. Writing for Science Alert, he shares his three-step checklist for sorting the truth from the trash. Even with his checklist, it’s not always easy for a real scientist like him to be confident of a study’s validity. But nobody likes to be fooled by fake or bad science.

Neatness Counts

This may seem superficial, but Brown asserts that it’s not. Given that carefully conducted research typically takes a long time, even years, a study that looks slapdash may well be. Typos and cruddy-looking graphics can be a clue that a lack of due diligence is at play.

(LAURIE SULLIVAN)

Brown cites a recent, well-publicized paper by E.F. Borra, E. Trottier that claimed in its Comments section: “Signals probably from Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Brown was curious, so he had a look. “An immediate red flag for me was some blurry graphs, and figures with captions that weren’t on the same page,” Brown writes. Looking further, he discovered that the author’s conclusion was based on a liberal application of Fourier analysis, which Brown says is known to generate data artifacts that skew results. He also learned that Borra and Trottier chose to work with only a tiny subset of data. Together, Brown feels these two factors render the study questionable at best.

He points out, though, that the neatness filter isn’t always a reliable test, since sometimes great science comes in a less-than-great presentation, as with the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.

Obviousness

As Brown puts it, “’That’s obvious, why didn’t someone think of that before?’

Well, perhaps someone did.” When a study announces something really big and basic, Brown suggests you do a search on that announcement — odds are that you’ll find the topic’s been studied many times before. If you find that to be the case, and if you find no one else came to the same conclusion, what you have is a red flag that should have you carefully considering the new study’s methodology.

(MIKE LICHT)

Brown’s example here is a recent study that asserted the universe isn’t expanding at an accelerating rate, contrary to earlier, well-regarded research. Brown found an edifying discussion by experts on Twitter (one of whom referred to their discussion as “headdesking”) that dismissed the study as having been based on incorrect assumptions about the behavior of the supernovae it examined, and on the ignoring of some key counter-evidence.

. @Cosmic_Horizons @ScienceAlert A glaring mistake is they assume that the properties of all the supernova have a gaussian distribution - no

— Brad Tucker (@btucker22) October 24, 2016

LIVE ON MONDAY | "Lights, camera, activism!" with Judith Light

Join multiple Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress Judith Light live on Big Think at 2 pm ET on Monday.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

8 logical fallacies that are hard to spot

From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.

Photo: Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
  • There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
  • A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Keep reading Show less

Space travel could create language unintelligible to people on Earth

A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.

Cylindrical space colony.

Credit: NASA Ames Research Center.
Surprising Science
  • A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
  • Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
  • This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Keep reading Show less

Your emotions are the new hot commodity — and there’s an app for that

Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Personal Growth

Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast