There’s a lot of reporting going on about scientific studies. A lot of it is good, some of it is a little too superficial, but some of it is just plain bad, and meant to mislead people. I stumbled across this one recently: IFLscience.org.
First off, whomever’s responsible for this seems to be one of those ‘satire’ websites that have cropped up lately, like the National Report. (I firmly believe satire is supposed to be funny, or at least so outrageously over-the-top that the story itself makes doubt its accuracy; if it’s neither of those things, it’s just a lie. Compare the top story right now on “National Report”: Rand Paul apologizes to Ted Cruz for Mock Bumper Sticker, Campaign Ad, to the current top one for The Onion: Gay Conversion Therapists Claim Most Patients Fully Straight By The Time They Commit Suicide. Which one sounds sensational yet plausible, and which one sounds cruel and absurd?)
In this case, the IFLScience.org site is trying to look like the actual site, IFLScience.com, in both layout and types of stories. And most of the stories ARE true (taken from IFLScience.com or their sources), except for the most recent ones, about the Japanese robotic assisted suicide bear, the ‘unexplained results in dinosaur study’, and the ‘dogs can see their own farts’.
The other tip-offs that you’re not on the real site are that there are so few articles, and the link at the bottom to the “Autographed Richard Dawkins Swimsuit Calendar”, which actually links to the Facebook page “Christians against Dinosaurs”. If you’re paying closer attention, the logo is a dinosaur, not the test tube/planet.
But, let’s say you stumbled upon one of the articles out of the blue: How could you know it’s not true? There are a couple of ways:
- Does it have links to sources? Real science rarely happens in a vacuum, and a well-written article, much like actual scientific papers, should link to reports or other studies on similar things.
- Does it actually link to information DIRECTLY ABOUT THE EVENT? At the very least, it should link to a university press release or the scientific paper itself, either on ArXiV.org or the journal it’s supposed to appear in soon. If it fails to link to anything about the actual event itself, there’s a problem.
- What kinds of sites does it link to? Is all the information coming from reliable places? Reliable organizations would be major newspapers and news sites, universities, and scientific journals. People’s personal blogs, and random websites aren’t good.
- Does it explain HOW the result was achieved? It’s not a sign of malice (and can be faked) but it’s not good science reporting either way if all it gives are allegations with no explanation of how or why.
And of course, if you have the time to check something that sounds off:
- Do a web search for details from it, and see if the story turns up elsewhere. A quick summary or identical headline ought to tell you if other hits are just reposts.
So, let’s take the story about the dinosaur. While it does explain roughly HOW the “result” was obtained, It falls at the second hurdle; there are no links at all to other sources, about the research or competing research or otherwise. Googling also fails to turn up anything other than its own appearance at that site (by the time you read this, mine will probably show up there too, though).
Compare to this story, about the startling source of mysterious radio bursts: I see references to IFLScience.com itself, the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, ArXiV.org, an explainer site I haven’t heard of before, IMDB, and a twitter feed (mostly as proper citation for a graphic). That’s three reputable sources (four, if you count IMDB, which is reliable in terms of documenting things about films and TV) and two that aren’t, so much. If I google “radio telescope perytons” I find this article from National Geographic, and this from Science News. There aren’t many other sources, because most reports out there are about the older discovery of terrestrial but unknown Perytons themselves, and few are currently about the definitely-terrestrial very-known microwave ovens that are their apparent cause*. But: there are corroborating sources, there are links to the actual paper, and the scientific journal that will be publishing it, and details about how the discovery happened.
It doesn’t exactly save you from bad reporting, intentional misinformation, or vast networks of websites dedicated to unscientific things, but it should help.
*It wouldn’t be the first time something local was the problem. Not terribly long ago, there were Potassium Flare Stars – otherwise ordinary stars that had been observed in rare instances to have a large potassium emission line, but never repeatably – and it turned out the potassium was actually from the matches being struck by some observers hanging out in the instrument room, to light their cigarettes.