Doing science is hard, but for many, reading about science is harder. However, learning how to read and think critically about science is a valuable skill in today’s fast-growing world of information and innovation. Here are three easy steps you can take today to read science like a pro:
- What’s the source?
Knowing where your information comes from is often just as important as knowing the information itself. For example, I’m a lot more likely to believe that gorillas are taking over the world if I see a report on it from NPR than I am if I hear it from my eight-year-old neighbor. The same concept applies to scientific information. If I read somewhere that our brains clean themselves of toxins while we sleep (if you’re curious about that, check out last week’s post), one of the first things I’m going to do is look for the source of the information. For example, most reputable websites make it clear where their information is coming from, whether they hyperlink their sources directly into the article or list their references at the end. It never hurts to follow a link or two and see the primary source for yourself before trusting what you read.
- Bigger isn’t always better.
This is something that all budding scientists learn eventually, but it’s important for you to know this, too. Using big, fancy words is not always better. In fact, when it comes to science, using too much jargon can get in the way of understanding. The same thing goes for length. If you can say it with a few words, then don’t go on for pages and pages about it. It’s tempting to think that articles and papers that use a lot of jargon are more trustworthy than the ones that don’t, but beware—fancy language doesn’t make a writer smart. If you’re reading a paper or an article that is miles long and talks like a textbook, consider finding a different source of information. The potential for growing confused and frustrated while you read increases dramatically if you’re reading something that isn’t accessible to all levels of experience with the subject matter.
- There are at least two sides to every issue.
This one might seem overly obvious, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind when reading about science at any level. For every scientific claim you read, there is at least one counter argument. Remember that while a particular piece of writing might argue it one way, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t evidence for the contrary out there. This brings us back to my first tip about knowing your sources. Taking the time to check the source often brings to light any other sides of an issue that your book or article might have glossed over. It’s up to you as the reader to evaluate all the arguments and choose which one you believe based on the available evidence.