Previously Published in 2017
SCIENCE COMMUNICATION -- We've all seen health products, mental health products, or other services claim that what they're doing is backed by real science. Whether they're making wild claims about how much weight you're going to lose, or saying how much better they're going to make your life in general, they often times say that they're backed up by science. Even dating websites claim they have science behind them.
These claims may do one of two things to you:
1) They may make you more skeptical about the product or service.
2) They may make you trust the product or service more than you might have originally.
Obviously, for the company trying to take your money, the latter option is more ideal. But the average consumer needs to be more skeptical. Just because some science is behind a product, that doesn't necessarily mean it's trustworthy. You have to consider the source. How do you go about considering the source of a scientific study, though? How do you know what to look for?
Considering the Source: Where Did the Study Come From?
In 2017, Vox Media produced an article showing how companies like OceanSpray got away with saying that their cranberry juice could reduce urinary tract infections by 40%. However, that study that OceanSpray boasted was co-funded by the company themselves. On top of that, the study was co-authored by OceanSpray. And the study and similar ones like it have had a lot of people fooled. Doctors have gone as far as to suggest to their patients that they drink cranberry juice when suffering from an UTI. The author of this article knows this from personal experience.
It wasn't as though the study was completely lying, either, which helped boost their supposed credibility. Cranberries do have compounds that fight off bacteria, but you'd have to drink a LOT of cranberry juice to see any kind of result whatsoever. "People would have to continuously drink the juice twice a day in serving of 150 mL for an indefinite period of time."
When looking at a study, was it funded by the company promoting the product? Was it authored by the company promoting the product? Is the study helping promote the product at all? All of these things should raise red flags when looking at a study.
Considering the Source: Is a Celebrity Talking About it?
The average person take celebrity opinions far too seriously. Let's just admit that right off the bat. This can be a huge problem, unfortunately. It's lead to countless people attempting detox teas because Kylie Jenner posted them on instagram (and got massively paid to do it, too). Detox teas have unwanted side effects, and will mostly help you lose water weight more than anything else as they are a diuretic. They're not the miracle weight loss product that celebrities and instagram influencers claim they are.
And the Kardashian-Jenner family aren't the only ones at fault here. People like Gwyneth Paltrow have made a business surrounding products that supposedly have science backings. However, Paltrow's website GOOP is being investigated for at least 51 deceptive health claims. These claims hurt people on the regular, because if their favorite celebrity is doing it -- they should too! It means it must work! In reality, we have to remember that these people are not scientists and are getting paid to promote these products.
Considering the Source: Did you Find it on Social Media?
Social media is similar to the aforementioned celebrity point. They may not be getting paid to promote these tweets, but they are getting the instant gratification of likes and retweets. This was a an issue to Megan Lynch, a student of Economic Botany herself. When I asked about what other ways we need to consider the source of scientific claims, she said she watched a lot of scientists retweet "spammy" tweets without questioning the fact that these tweets didn't have a source associated with them. We're all susceptible to this kind of behavior, too, so we have to be aware of that and realize what we're doing before we do it.
Considering the Material: Peer Reviewed Articles
It's not just the sources of articles and "facts" we need to be wary of. Even the articles we find we can trust the sources from have faults, flaws, and can be misleading.
Dr. Emma Yhnell brought this up to me when asked, saying "articles are often changed depending on reviewer comments". And it's true. On top of this, peer reviewed articles have other flaws such as the competition factor. "Academic competition for funding, positions, publication space and credits has increased along with the growth of the number of researchers," Says a New Republic article written by Stefano Belietti. "Science is a winner-take-all enterprise, where whoever makes the decisive discovery first gets all the fame and credit, whereas all the remaining researchers are forgotten. The competition can be fierce and the stakes high. In such a competitive environment, experiencing an erroneous rejection, or simply a delayed publication, might have huge costs to bear."
Because of the competition of science just to get into a journal, let alone have your study make it big, this can cause biases to be formed that could negatively effect the article. Science should be neutral and unbiased, but it's not infallible by any means.
Considering the Material: What was the Sample Size?
Is the article hiding important information from you? Seeing how large the sample size was and how the variables were controlled is extremely important. And a lot of times, the sample sizes to articles are small. They're small enough that they can't really say for sure that the conclusions they came can be considered a scientific fact now. But often times, despite this, that's how the conclusions from the research comes off, especially when being reported on by the mainstream media. If the study doesn't even tell you how big a sample size was, or hides from you how the variables were controlled, that should be a warning sign for you to be more skeptical towards the study.
Science needs skepticism. Without it, there would be no science at all really. Without questioning things, finding sources, and doing your own research, you're blindly trusting in fallible humans. And the bottom line is that we will realize that we made mistakes in our research, or made mistakes in promoting that research. However, the more aware of it we are, and the more cautious we make ourselves, the more we can avoid promoting pseudoscience and faulty science as absolute fact.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM. Find her on Twitter.