by Marsha Rakestraw

In April hundreds of thousands of people around the world took part in the March for Science, in part to “champion robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. … and “for science that upholds the common good.”

But, as one physician wrote after the march, while we may cheer on the concept of science “most people have no idea how science actually works” and “The state of science (and science literacy) in this country, and most of the planet for that matter, is woefully bad.”

Critical thinking and science literacy are vital to an informed, compassionate, thriving citizenry.

Here are some resources that we humane educators can use to help teach others to think critically about health claims.

In this 2015 Vox article, health reporter Julia Belluz outlines the challenges of our collective love-affair with catchy health study headlines and emphasizes the importance of journalists and citizens relying on meaningful, credible meta-studies, rather than embracing overhyped, unproven research.

Belluz has also written about how reporters should deal with people who promote pseudoscience.

The New York Times offers a series of lessons to help students explore and think critically about health reporting, “while weighing reliability and relative significance.”

This article from AlterNet highlights some of the tactics (sometimes intentional, sometimes not) that can affect the conclusion of a study.

Dr. Ben Goldacre’s TEDx talk “Battling Bad Science” is very helpful in demonstrating how evidence can be distorted and studies can be manipulated. Dr. Goldacre’s website has additional videos and information that explores and reports on “bad science.”

In a 2013 New York Times commentary, Gary Gutting highlights the many problems with scientific reporting and offers the idea of a labeling system for scientific reporting to help clarify the validity and importance of a study.

And Vox reports on the Cochrane Collaboration, which is working on helping children to “detect bullshit when bullshit is being presented to them” via education materials. The materials have been tested on more than 15,000 kids in randomized controlled trials in Uganda.

The education materials are based on 32 key concepts “people need to understand to assess claims about treatment effects,” which were outlined in a 2015 article in the Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine.

Informed Health Choices provides more information on the Cochrane Collaboration program and provides excerpts and supporting materials from the curriculum.

Retraction Watch monitors and reports on scientific studies that have been retracted, whether for manipulation, inaccurate information, errors, or even fraud and plagiarism.

Scientific studies and their reporting offer a valuable opportunity to hone critical thinking skills and to remind us not to blindly accept what we read or are told.

Since science is wrapped in such a cloak of authority and credibility, it’s vital that we look beyond those news headlines and dive deeper into the details — and teach others to do the same.


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