Science & Society

Is That Science Article Valid? A Guide for the Lay Person

Someone on Facebook shares a science article. Should you trust the article? I made up a list of things that go through my mind when I read an article. As I write explanations of them, I’ll add links to the numbered items:

  1. How badly does the story violate established science–and does the evidence warrant the “violation”?
  2. How reliable is the publisher of the story?
  3. Are other sites (reliable and unreliable) reporting the story?
  4. What do the fact-checkers say?
  5. Is it a press release?
  6. How much do I trust the author?
  7. Is the headline sensationalistic?
  8. Does the story point to the original paper?
  9. Do the abstract and conclusion of the original paper support the story?
  10. How robust are the methods?
  11. What is the agenda of the author?
  12. What does Phil Plait say?
  13. What is my agenda as the reader?
  14. Does it look Photoshopped?

I hope to use examples from real articles to demonstrate each of the points. Next, I’d like to go through an article or two to demonstrate the technique. Finally, I might give some examples and see how the readers do on them.

The idea for this series of articles came from a friend who asked me to evaluate an article I think he found on Facebook. In evaluating the article, I realized I went through a checklist in my head that started with “Is the publisher “The Daily Mail” or “The Daily Caller”? Both are notorious for bad science.

I looked to see if anyone else had written such an article. I found many for people reading science journal articles. There was one BBC audio in my browser that I heard a snippet of in the car while listening to Sirius XM BBC (and still haven’t gotten back to…). But these are the things I think about, although not in such an orderly fashion, nor in so consistent a way. And I may add to this list or modify as I write.

If you’d like to read some of the articles I came across, here’s a list:

Hi, I’m Rob. I’m a Science Denier

I’m not entering a 12-Step program for science denial, but I feel that way.

I’m a “facts” person. My natural inclination to go with the data is so strong, I don’t understand when others don’t. “If I give them the facts, they’ll agree with me” is so…logical.

Shortly after I decided to bring the UnSpace blog back, I wrote a post on Facebook with a series of statements. One respondent commented that there were no “facts” anywhere to back up what I said. I posted a point-by-point rebuttal. In researching the rebuttal, I avoided Snopes and tried to use conservative sources like Fox News and the Daily Mail1. I also included video whenever possible. The “respondent” replied that they didn’t believe any news sources and that they had their own special personal sources of information on Benghazi and what the Russians are doing and many, many other “special” things.

Well, that person got blocked pretty quickly. What would the point of further discussion be? I wish I’d gotten a screen capture, but I blocked them too quickly. Oh well.

The irony of the interaction struck me, though. Psychologists have known for years that facts alone won’t change peoples’ minds. If someone’s identity and world view contradicts the facts, more facts will harden their beliefs. Simple fact dumps don’t work.

I know that. If asked, I will tell you all about it. But when someone questions something, I dump facts. I’ll even pull out the math, which probably shuts down people who agree with me. My brain doesn’t “get” the idea that facts might make things worse. How could facts make things work? I love facts! I absorb them like a sponge! I’d sing Data’s “Lifeforms” song right now if “facts” weren’t only one syllable. I know fact dumps don’t work, but my actions deny the facts.

A couple years ago, I tried to take a class called “Making Sense of Climate Denial.” It was a free online class and…I just didn’t get it. I read the words, but the way my brain works, I…I couldn’t connect. I’m not sure I really understood. I gave up. I gave up pretty quickly.

If I’m going to restart this blog, I need to understand that facts alone are not enough. If someone is in denial, I need to approach them in a way that makes things better…not worse. I need to accept the facts aren’t everything.

So I signed up for the 7 week course again and, to make sure I stuck with it, I paid $49 to take the class for a certificate of completion. If I don’t complete the class with at least a 70%, I wasted the $49. It’s surprisingly strong motivation for me.

I suspect the class will generate blog posts, so there’s that. Or…maybe I just dump my homework into blog posts. Either way, it’s going to be interesting.

  1. Shudder []

Why Would You Drain a Swamp?

Biologists think of swamps (and other wetlands) as wonderful places.1

Swamps control runoff from rain. Here in Pittsburgh, we’re actually working at constructing artificial swamps and wetlands. These swamplets will be far cheaper than the non-biological catch basins that were proposed. In a town focusing on tourism related to our riverlife, eliminating sewage discharge is a must.

Swamps purify water. The plants and microorganisms break down toxins, collect silt, and remove heavy metals from the water. Swamps purify water better than modern water treatment plants–and often cheaper as well.

Swamps protect against hurricanes. Besides acting as a buffer zone between human habitation and the ocean, swamps and other wetlands tend to rapidly suck energy out of hurricanes. Much of the increased hurricane damage costs is attributable to wetland destruction.

Swamps have great biodiversity. That means the environment people depend on for their survival is made stronger. Biodiversity means the web of interactions between organisms are complex–a great place to go “bioprospecting.” Very often, nature has already solved chemistry and biology questions of use to humans. Antibiotics and many drugs are modified versions of biological compounds. Enzymes catalyze reactions, requiring less energy and produce purer products. Swamps and wetlands hold new antibiotics and chemical pathways that, if we don’t kill them off, we might find and make money off of!

“Draining the swamp” is such a strange metaphor. If someone says that they are “draining the swamp,” they are actually saying they’re going to make the problems worse, make solutions harder, and endanger society.

I would be suspicious of that person. Maybe they just don’t know much about swamps.

Or maybe they do, and they’re hoping you don’t.

  1. WWF: The Value of Wetlands []

They Brought the Penguins Inside…and I Want to Cry

The National Aviary in Pittsburgh brought the African penguins in from their outdoor exhibit because the weather is too cold.

Normally, that would make me laugh.

But I looked up where African penguins live. They’re from around the part of Africa closest to Antarctica. The weather gets as bad—or even worse—than Pittsburgh.

In the wild, the penguins would ride out that cold. A few, mostly the weak and sick, might die. As Steve Irwin used to say, “That’s nature’s way.”

But at the beginning of the 19th century, nature had about 4 million African penguins. Since then, the numbers have been plunging. There are only 55,000 African penguins left in the wild. At the rate it’s going, there won’t be any African penguins living free in 15 years.

The National Aviary wants to take special care of their African penguins, not only because they want to do their best for the animals, but because zoos are the last realistic hope for their species.

Careful records are kept on the family history of the penguins. They do this to maximize the genetic diversity of the species. Some of the birds are over-represented in the world captive population and aren’t permitted to breed. They are traded between zoos to ensure genetic diversity.

And they’re brought in when it’s too cold.

Because of habitat loss and pollution and even global warming, it’s unlikely that the African penguins will ever be reintroduced if they go extinct in the wild. Reclaiming habitat from industry and beach houses and toxic spills is rare. There’s only so much money for reintroduction, and there are species that might be better to spend that limited money on.

The only examples of these beautiful African penguins will be in zoos. And we’ll bring them inside when it gets too cold, because we don’t dare lose one of these remaining few.

Science in 80 Liters (20 Gallons)

In 1967, I was in third grade and got a book by Beverly Cleary titled “Henry Huggins.” In the book, Henry goes to a pet store and buys a pair of guppies. The two guppies had babies. Soon Henry’s room and life are over-run with jars of fish. This story disaster inspired me to ask my parents to let me have an aquarium. My parents agreed, and soon there were three aquariums in our new house.
Recently, I looked back on those experiences with tropical fish and realized just how much science I learned from them. Making the water safe for the fish taught me a lot of chemistry. Learning about the fish, keeping a balanced tank the fish could live in, and breeding them introduced me to topics in biology long before I had them in my classes. Even mathematics, physics and a touch of engineering came into play.

Today, scientists and educators are making a deliberate attempt to interest children in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—it’s abreviated STEM. In the past, such activities tended to be aimed mostly at boys. Now, the goal is to interest everyone, no matter their gender.

I learned through books. My first book on aquariums taught me how to set up a small 5 gallon tank. As I got bigger books, I got bigger tanks. My Dad was an engineer, but for the most part, he stuck to lifting heavy objects, curbing some of my excesses, and suggesting how to look up an answer. It worked for me.

Part of me would love to write a book for third through fifth graders explaining the science as they set up a modern aquarium. Unfortunately, my wife and I weren’t blessed with children. I’m not sure if I’d know how to write for third to fifth graders.

As I thought about it, I realized I don’t want to write for those third to fifth graders. I want to write for their parents. The parents can guide their children, pick and choose the topics that are appropriate, and interpret the lessons for their children’s level of understanding. With any luck, the parents and children have fun together with the tank.

And who knows? Maybe the parents will gain a little more understanding and appreciation for science.

As I see it now, I’ll write a lesson about once a week, focusing on the particular topic involved with that stage of the aquarium setup. That might seem slow, and, as I get a feel for it, perhaps the frequency of the posts will increase. But one of the tricks to setting up an aquarium is to take it slowly. If, in a single day, you purchase an aquarium, set it up, and put the fish in, there’s a high probability that you’ll waste a lot of money and kill the fish.

If anyone is going to follow along, I would appreciate getting feedback. What was clear? What wasn’t clear? What was too difficult for your child to understand? What was too simple? What was too expensive? What better ways are there to do this? A comment section is available at the end of each article. I’ll make every effort to answer questions and learn from any suggestions.

Pittsburgh Podcamp 8

Right now, I’m at Pittsburgh Podcamp 8. This is a social media get-together where we can learn about various aspects of online interactions. I wasn’t going to mention this day. UnSpace is about science.

What was I thinking? As a child, computers were huge machines that took up rooms and required several technicians to keep running. The average person didn’t have access to these computers. None of the science fiction stories envisioned something like Twitter and Facebook.
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Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving

Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving

Tomorrow, October 3, 2013 is Pittsburgh’s Day of Giving. This is the 5th year for the Day of Giving. As the PittsburghGives.Org website says,

PittsburghGives is an initiative of The Pittsburgh Foundation.  The aim of this initiative is to:

  • Increase the level of knowledge about nonprofits in our region
  • Leverage or increase individual funding or organizations or an issue in our community
  • Spotlight the charitable trends in our region.  Where are people giving?  What are your community’s nonprofits saying is vital and needed right now?

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Weather Wars

Weather Wars

There’s an interesting exchange beginning at 41:08 on the YouTube video of the recording of the NASA Hangout: Ask A Climate Scientist on 30 September 2013. The video starts a few seconds before the 41:08 mark:

NASA Hangout: Ask a Climate Scientist

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@realscientists Features David Schiffman This Week

@realscientists Features David Schiffman This Week

Every week, @RealScientists on Twitter has a “real scientist” talk about what they’re doing as a way of showing the public what “real scientists” do. This week features David Schiffman (@WhySharksMatter), “a Ph.D. student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami…“. David grew up in Pittsburgh. (1) He’s working toward his Ph.D. by studying the ecology and conservation of sharks.

I’m looking forward to following our native son on @realscientists this week as he explains his work and answers questions! (2)


  1. David’s not the only marine scientist I know from Pittsburgh. Maybe the Three Rivers give people a taste for even more water! 😉 The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has a great shark exhibit, too. []
  2. (Maybe it will make up for the Discovery Channel’s disastrous Shark Week Megalodon fraud. My wife, Nancy, still hasn’t forgiven the Discovery Channel for that one. If it’s not Mythbusters, we’re not watching it, and she’s even annoyed at the Mythbusters promos which seem to offer new episodes of Mythbusters but are repeats. []

Replacing the Space Shuttle

Replacing the Space Shuttle

On April 12, 1981, astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen took off in the Columbia space shuttle. Their flight was the first launch of the Space Transportation System (STS). Once in orbit, a look back at the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) (the two lumps below the fin on the back of the body of the shuttle) showed there were some insulating tiles missing. Because the OMS had a secondary thermal protection (a felt-like fabric) and the area did not reach as high a temperature during re-entry, STS-1 landed safely. The thermal protection system (of which the tiles were a part) would be a continuing problem for the shuttles, one that would eventually cause the destruction of Columbia and the death of seven astronauts on January 16, 2003.

Columbia was the second shuttle to be lost in flight; Challenger was destroyed January 28, 1986 by a failure of a Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) gasket because of cold weather, and seven astronauts also died.

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