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Guidelines for Science News

Science news is a different animal. You can’t trust “he said, she said” news, the kind of balance that is typical of conventional journalism. Unless you have reporting that understands how science operates, how to judge evidence, and how to interpret the scientific literature, I consider that reporting worthless at least and misleading at most. As a quick and dirty way of overcoming bad science journalism, the folks over at Double X Science offer a concise and useful checklist for better reading science news. They suggest doing a “double take” before you give credence to any scientific news story:

All these guidelines fit nicely within requisite skeptical principles, and although it won’t cover everything, the checklist above is a good start.

You can read a full description of these guidelines and even go through a test case applying them, here.

Guidelines for Health News

Along these lines, allow me to offer some additional guidelines that I have stumbled upon, relating more specifically to health news:

1. Make sure that the article includes the sample size of the study (how many people were included in the study) and know that when a sample size is too small that the results may not be generalizable.

2. For the sake of understanding, look for risks and probabilities expressed in absolutes (1 person in 100 people) as well as percentages (1%).

3. Look for realistic time frames for the translation of the study into a treatment or cure (almost every study will say 5 years, every year).

4. In science news, it is OK if there is no typical journalistic “balance” where each side of a question must be given equal weight. For example, a news story that gives equal credence to anti-vaccinationists does NOT have the science right. Look for stories that accurately portray the preponderance of scientific evidence.

5. If there is an extraordinary claim being made, look for extraordinary evidence to back it up. Conversely, if there is no extraordinary evidence offered (small sample size, minimal effects, etc.), make sure the article acknowledges this with important caveats.

6. Follow up on news stories that interest you. Science is an ever-morphing body of knowledge that should update itself when done correctly. Likewise, science journalism should give equal weight to any stories updating old ones, especially if new evidence refutes a previous claim. News sources that are cognizant of this are more apt to report science well.

Now get out there and learn some science!

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