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Fact-checking Tips: Finding Reliable Scientific Information


Science is much more than a collection of facts, it’s a way of thinking. In a world built by science, scientific literacy is essential for making wise decisions about everything from our health to how to vote. 


Humans have long sought to explain the world around us. Our ancestors often attributed natural events, like illnesses, storms, or famines, to the work of supernatural forces, such as witches, demons, angry gods, or the spirits of the dead. We notice patterns, even when they’re not real, and we jump to conclusions based on our biases, emotions, expectations, and desires.

While the human brain is capable of astonishing levels of genius, it’s also remarkably prone to errors. It’s adapted for survival and reproduction, not for helping us determine the efficacy and safety of a vaccine or determining long-term changes in global climate.

Personal experiences and emotional anecdotes can easily fool us, despite how convincing they may seem. That’s why science is the best way we’ve found to avoid being wrong, because the process is designed to correct our limited perceptions and erroneous thoughts.



There are many misconceptions about science, starting with the definition. And the way science is taught is part of the problem.

Science is a community of experts using a variety of methods to gather evidence and scrutinize claims. It’s a way of learning about the physical world, of trying to get closer to the truth by testing our explanations against reality and critically scrutinizing the evidence. 

An essential foundation of science is skepticism, which is simply insisting on the evidence before accepting a claim. Scientists are open to all claims, but proportion their acceptance to the strength and quality of the evidence.

It’s important to note that science can’t answer all questions. Science is limited to what it can test and potentially falsify, which means that evidence must be observable, measurable, and repeatable. For example, science can’t answer subjective questions, such as personal preferences or moral judgements. In addition, supernatural explanations, like gods, spirits, or vague “energy” forces, aren’t observable and therefore not testable. (There are exceptions, such as claims to control supernatural abilities and those that leave physical evidence.) 



The goal of science is to understand and explain the natural world with laws, theories, models, and facts. It is obviously difficult to answer these questions, yet one of the greatest strengths of science is that it has the humility to recognize that we can never be totally certain. Scientific knowledge is tentative: science doesn’t prove, it reduces uncertainty. There’s always a chance we’re wrong, so we leave ourselves open to changing our minds with evidence. 



Scientific knowledge progresses over time as we dig deeper into established knowledge and expand into new territory. Confidence in our conclusions grows as findings are replicated and lines of evidence converge. Science is always tentative to some degree, but well-established findings that have been repeatedly and independently confirmed are very unlikely to be completely overturned.



While science is the most reliable method for learning about the natural world, it can’t help us if we don’t know how to be good consumers of scientific information.

Your most important line of defense is healthy skepticism, not only of news stories or studies, but of your own beliefs. No one can fool us like we can: We’re most likely to fall for misinformation when we want (or don’t want) something to be true. 

The scientific literature is for experts

Scientists publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, also known as the scientific literature. Recall that science is a social process, and these journals are vital tools for experts to communicate with other experts. 

But experts are only experts in their area of expertise, and scientists often specialize in very narrow subfields. It requires significant education and experience to be able to evaluate the quality of a study, and to have the background knowledge to put it in context with the fuller body of evidence.

Peer-reviewed literature is theoretically the best source of scientific information, but only if you have the expertise to understand and evaluate it. 

Therefore, be careful of using Google Scholar to find scientific information. Typing in desired keywords and finding a title or two that seems to support the desired conclusion is a great way to be misled. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to fool yourself…including in the scientific literature.

Science in the news

After completing their last science class, most people only learn about science in the news. However, the “news” tends to focus on new and noteworthy findings, and established science isn’t “news.” 

In addition, the news often overstates or sensationalizes the results of single studies, leaving consumers with the impression that scientists are always “flip-flopping” or “changing their minds”. (Not sure why that’s a bad thing?!?)

So the next time you hear about a “scientific breakthrough” that “changes everything”, remember that a single study is never sufficient to confirm or disprove any conclusion. It’s best to judge any study within the broader context of the existing literature, and if the findings really are groundbreaking, to withhold judgment until more evidence is available.

How to do your own research

The phrase “do your own research” is everywhere these days. On its face it seems legit: what can be wrong with wanting to seek out information and make up your own mind?

The problem is that access to information isn’t enough. Due to confirmation bias, we seek out information that supports what we already think is true. However, the danger is that we end up cherry picking individual studies or experts and miss the bigger picture, misleading ourselves in the process. 

If the goal is to find the most accurate representation of scientific knowledge, use neutral (not leading or inflammatory) search terms and make sure to use reliable sources. 




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