Reading Science Articles is a Skill

Last week, a certain pop science article went viral and exploded across the internet. This isn't always a bad thing, but from what I've been able to follow, the popular science article varied from the original paper in several ways that were critical to the understanding of the study. This, alas, isn't all that uncommon. My training as an engineer and scientist thoroughly disabused me of my fear of reading scientific papers. Many people complain that these articles are opaque, confusing and boring. This can be the case, on purpose, but not for the reasons one would believe.

First, when a scientist is being trained in technical writing (if they are trained at all), they are told to use the passive voice in their writing and to stick only to the dry facts for most of the paper. Only in the conclusions section, and perhaps in the abstract, is conjecture allowed. The point of a scientific paper is to explain what one did and what happened in enough detail for it to be reproducible by others, sometimes across language barriers. There is also a fine line between analysis and interpretation. The first is encouraged, while the latter is discouraged. You want your paper to be clear and comprehensiveenough for your audience to draw their own conclusions. Ideally, you shouldn't have to tell them.

That said, this leaves lots of room for technical jargon, which most people won't understand. General understanding isn't really the point, however. A scientific paper, for the most part, is written to communicate with others in the field. They should already know what most of it means and have the resources and training to understand the rest. But don't despair! I once read a statistic that said that if you read for one hour a day in a given field, in four years you will have an equivalent knowledge base of someone with a masters degree in that field. What does this mean? Scientific understanding is a skill.

It takes time and patience, often a great deal of Googling, but reading a scientific paper gets easier. Want to know a secret? When I did undergraduate research in college, Google was my best friend. Seriously. I won't hold it against you if you choose to lean on your search engine of choice.

Often, the key to spotting a scientific paper and a pop science article is pretty simple. Recently, I found this infographic  on CompoundChem.com.  They have a bunch of great material, so you should take the time to check them out.  Below, I present Compound Interest's A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science. I hope you take these points to heart next time you try to educate yourself.  Happy reading!


For the full size infographic, click on the image above. To view this infographic in it's natural habitat, click here.




2 Responses

  1. Brenda says:

    Very good article and very well said. This is the kind of thing that really needs to be said. I’ve read so many articles posted on my FB wall that can only be summed up as “bad science” or not really science at all, just posing as it. The commentaries to many of these posts are equally disturbing. So many people are willing to buy into so much stuff if it has any scientific jargon in it and if its endorsed by someone with potential credentials. We all need to back up stuff like this with plenty of research.

    • Nathan Barra says:

      Brenda, I agree 100% and have seen much the same thing as you have. I have the benefit of a formal science education to teach me these things, but have heard time and time again that science is something that smart people do. WRONG! Science is something that is easily within reach of us all, it just takes more effort than many people are willing to invest. Scientific skills and the scientific method are used by people every day, even if they don’t have a name for it or follow the formal system. As a scientist and a writer, I feel it is important to point that out every so often!

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