UnScienced: An Intro

I was most recently a research scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle. I worked with viruses, mostly Hepatitis C. I got my master’s degree in Infection, Immunity, & Human Disease from the University of Leeds in the UK. I was in academic research for nearly five years.

I had to leave my lab in March because they could no longer afford to pay me, so I took it as a golden opportunity to dive head-first into science writing — and I haven’t looked back.

Science writing means I can write about all the subjects that made me fall in love with science in the first place: evolution, ecology, parasites, bugs, marine life, and human anatomy — not to mention mental health and child psychology.

The purpose of this blog is to help you learn how to love science too… or at least understand it a little better. People often tell me they would love to know more about scientific research. There’s so much to learn about vaccines, global warming, GMO’s, reproductive health, disease transmission, even government policy… But the sheer volume of information out there is impossible to navigate. It’s no secret that scientific literature is dry and jargon-packed. Frankly, for someone outside the very narrow realm of most papers, it’s flat-out boring. Scientific research is all but inaccessible to the general public.

Unsurprisingly, it’s way too easy for news outlets and social media to influence the general belief in science. Let’s start with global warming. In this Wikipedia entry on media coverage of climate change,* you can find experts who discuss the problems in global warming news coverage. One basic problem is that journalists often report scientific errors because there aren’t always fact-checking climate scientists on hand.

Question Everything: “Wait. Didn’t my professors always say that Wikipedia is NOT a credible source?” Well, yes. But actually, scientists use Wikipedia all the time. They just know how to tell what’s reliable and what’s not. In this blog, we’ll talk about how to secretly use Wikipedia — and Google! — to find all of your more credible sources and look like an information-finding god.

If we look deeper, reporters often purposely “balance” issues to make them seem more controversial. This is what makes a good news story. First, they under-report the number of climate scientists who agree that humans are the main cause of global warming. At the same time, they over-report climate change deniers, making them seem a lot more credible, and more common, than they actually are. This influences the general public’s view of climate change, because those “undecided” people feel a lot better if many others share their doubts (when, really, they don’t). Look for more on this in a later post!

Learning how to tell the difference between good and bad data can be extremely difficult. They say there are always two sides to every argument. In science, there are often a hell of a lot more than just two, and the distinctions are not always clear. To make matters worse, there are plenty of corrupt scientists, doctors, and drug companies whose priority is to get funding, publish papers, and sell drugs — or compounds — rather than find the truth and help patients. It’s nearly impossible to discern between fact and speculation — also called a guess. Read more about what we call data beautification in this post!

Even after being in the biology field for over 10 years, I am often hard-pressed to distinguish truth vs. contrived (or false) data, promising results vs. a flashy headline. Scientists much older and more qualified than myself have this problem too. This blog will try to help you learn how to distinguish between good sources and speculative crap. In light of recent events — think 2016-Presidential-Election-level “fake news” chaos — lots of big names have already started doing this. A quick Google search will take you to articles by NPR, BBC, even HowStuffWorks.com. We’ll talk more later about their advice in the context of science.

It’s hard to care about science if you can’t understand it. Sometimes, high-impact research is buried in a sea of scientific gibberish — or jargon. It doesn’t reach public interest until it’s been posted by a big-name journal like Nature or Science, talked about on NPR, and circulated on social media for a few days. But then, what if no more major developments happen right away? Too often, public interest dwindles and we move onto the next story. Scientific research is long-term by nature. It takes 10-15 years, for instance, to develop a vaccine and release it for patient use. The problem is, people are impatient. We want instant gratification and flashy headlines. I want to help people get excited about science, and STAY excited.

Above all, I want you to enjoy learning about science. I want you to know how to talk to climate change deniers and “anti-vaxxers” from a place of better understanding. If you aren’t sure how you feel about climate change or vaccines, I want you to know how to do your own research. Too often, people are forced to believe something because it sounds the most correct. Whether you are interested in biology, vaccines, antibiotics, how scientific research works, or basic health and medicine, I want to help translate the nonsense into something that speaks to you. Overall, I want us to leave behind a generation that’s smarter than our own, more able to think critically, willing to ask more questions, and confident enough to challenge everything they hear.

Dr. Ben Goldacre is a big inspiration for this blog. Check out his book, Bad Science, in which he sheds some light on bad, sloppy, and downright unethical practices in research, medicine, pharmacology, and the media.

Please see my About section to get more info, read some interesting studies, listen to me briefly make fun of Ben Carson, and challenge yourself with a short scientific literacy quiz. And please comment to your heart’s content — I am here to discuss with you, not just read my own words. Keep on questioning!

∴∴∴∴∴

References:

Editorial: Beautification and fraud. Nature Cell Biology, 2006; 8:101-102. doi:10.1038/ncb0206-101.

Media coverage of climate change. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_coverage_of_climate_change. Updated August 31, 2017. Accessed September 11, 2017.

Vaccine Development, Testing, and Regulation. The History of Vaccines website. https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/vaccine-development-testing-and-regulation. Accessed September 11, 2017.

One thought on “UnScienced: An Intro

  1. Pingback: How the media screws up climate change, Part 1: Sketchy Sources – UnScienced

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s