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Science Communication: Consider the Source

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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.


 

Opinion: What We Can Take Away From the Instagram OP-ED

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Disclaimer: In the interest of not being hypocritical, FemSTEM will NOT link the article in question (though the title will be mentioned), nor mention the author by name.  That information has gone around enough within the science community, and we do not want to unintentionally promote attacking the article and, more importantly, the author in question.

 

A lot of anger, confusion, and debate was stirred up in the science community on March 15th, 2018 when Science Magazine published an article entitled: “Why I Don’t use Instagram for Science Outreach”.  While the title sounded as though it would be a thoughtful opinion piece on why Instagram may not be the best avenue for science communication, the article instead read as a bitter attack peace for many.

 

It’s easy to see why this article was read that way.  The article compared women and suggested that one method of science communication was more valuable to another’s.  It also had bitter sentences throughout the paragraphs.  

 

The author even admits to her bitterness in the article by saying: “Instead of cheering on Instagram’s dynamic and vibrant #scicomm women, I felt an increasing bitterness with each post I came across […] I realized that I am not bitter toward the authors of these posts […]  I am annoyed that the majority of the posts seem to celebrate a very narrow representation of femininity, my real bitterness comes from the systemic challenges that these posts are working to address …”

 

As of March 17th, both the author and Science Magazine came out with statements apologizing for the article, though the article can still be readily found.  

 

With that said, there are things we can learn from the article and the surrounding controversy; it just might not be what the article initially intended.

 

 

Don’t Pit Women Against One Another

 

 

As mentioned previously, the article directly compared two women.  It compared popular online science communicator Samantha Yammine to an unnamed professor the author knew in person.  

 

“I liken the many hours that Science Sam spends on her Instagram content to the volunteer work a female professor in my department put into organizing a summer program to introduce teens from underrepresented communities to biomedical engineering.” — Direct Quote from Article

 

As far as any reader can tell, these women have similar mindsets and goals — they just go about their science outreach in different ways.  Even if this was not the case — there is nothing healthy about comparing two people and their achievements.  

 

 
 

Dr. Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said in an article for Psychology Today: “If we use others as a benchmark to evaluate ourselves, that creeping twinge of jealousy may undermine our ability to truly cherish the good things that come to others.”  

 

Carr then goes on to remind her readers: “Over time, things may even out, and a friend’s success may enable him or her to support and make opportunities for others (including you).”

 

We want to remember that, instead of bringing someone else down, we want to raise one another up.  In the long run, that will provide better, more positive, and longer lasting effects in the community.  We want to remember, too, that this is all of our community.  Tearing someone down, intentionally or not, disrupts the system of the entire collective.  This was clear in the reaction to the Instagram op-ed on Twitter.  It created anger.

 

It is important to note, though, that out of that anger did come some good.  Many fellow scientists and science communicators came to Yammine’s defense and support in the wake of the article. 

 

 

It’s Okay To Have an Opinion, but How You Present it is Extremely Important

 

It is, by no means, a bad thing to have a negative opinion on Instagram or social media in general.  It can be argued (and has been) that social media can be bad for the general state of human health.  Of course, however, everyone reacts to social media differently, and everyone interacts with social media differently.  

 

There is no fault with the author for not thinking that social media is not an effective or good way to go about science communication.  The fault lies with how it was presented.

 

Samantha Yammine was used as an example of science communication through social media from the very first sentence of the Science article.  Afterwards, Yammine was mentioned by her social media persona three more times in the short, 600-word article.  The entire time, Yammine seemed to be presented in a negative light.  

 

Because this article portrayed a negative opinion of a harmless activity, the usage of one example, and outright naming that example, read as an attack.  If the article was otherwise well-written and thought out, it was overcast by what came across as an attack.  

 

On another note, the article never had evidence that backed any of the author’s claims.  There are no links to studies or sources, and there was no research conducted to see if the act of science communication on Instagram could produce positive effects on the public.  It came across as completely baseless, and as a result, purely pessimistic and assaulting to those who enjoy and find good results from their social media usage. 

 

The world needs differing opinions, but those opinions must have structure and foundations, and they must be presented in a professional way.

 

 

We Can Learn From Our Faulty Judgment and From Other’s Errors

 

The reality is that a reputable online magazine should never have posted this piece.  The reality is that this op-ed never should have been penned the way it was.  To call it a ‘mistake’ may be being generous, as the article had been thought out by the author, and then read and edited several times by the employees of Science Magazine.

 

However,  with every negative experience can come a lesson.  That doesn’t make this okay — none of it was.  With that said, us — as the readers, the reviewers, and the critics — can use this to help ourselves become more aware of our own actions.  To use this as an example of what NOT to do.  To look at this and examine ourselves, our own motives, and use this to teach us how to lift someone up rather than to take them down.

 

Hopefully, Science Magazine will do as they say and will “examine [their] editorial process for these pieces moving forward” in a thoughtful and profound way.  We cannot count on that, however.  The only thing we can count on is how we react to situations like this, and how we move past this.

 

Samantha Yammine, who says she will be writing and submitting her rebuttal to an unknown magazine, has taken the entire situation in stride.  

 

 
 

 

Let’s all look at this as an opportunity to learn, and let the science community as a whole become stronger as a result.

 

 

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.


 

Teach Your Kids to Be Social Media Savvy: 3 Tips

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Originally Posted March 30, 2017

 

Social media is just a part of our lives now (for the most of us, anyway).  We use it to run our businesses, we use it to connect with family, and we use it to get in touch with friends.  And children are using social media, too.  In the form of everything; from Twitter to Snapchat, to Musical.ly.

But we cannot just let kids roam around on social media.  We need to teach them how.  Here are a few tips on how to teach your kids to be smart, and savvy, on social media.

 

1)  Do NOT Allow Your Children to Have Social Media Accounts if They’re Not Thirteen

 

This is illegal in most cases, believe it or not.  Some social media platforms, such as the deceased Vine or What’sApp, require that your children are at least 16 or 17 years of age before joining them.  This is for protective purposes.  For example, Twitter says that if parents become aware that their child under 13 has started an account, that they should inform Twitter right away so that the company can terminate the account.

This is this way for a number of reasons.  One is safety, as many internet trolls roam around the internet, wanting to harm your kids with words.  But also because of online predators who wish to do more than just bother your children.

This is also for security reasons.  Places like Twitter and Facebook are free services because they take your information and basically sell them to advertising companies.  They know your internet history, and what you’re interested in, and what your age (if you told them the truth), gender, race, and so on is.  They use all of this information to sell you products, but here’s the thing:

 

They aren’t allowed to take this information from children under the age of thirteen. 

 

Our Services are not directed to persons under 13. If you become aware that your child has provided us with personal information without your consent, please contact us at privacy@twitter.com. We do not knowingly collect personal information from children under 13. If we become aware that a child under 13 has provided us with personal information, we take steps to remove such information and terminate the child’s account. — Twitter’s Privacy Policy

 

2)  Remind and Teach Your Children to Not Be a Bully Themselves

 

A lot of heated debate takes place on all forms of social media.  These debates range anywhere from “who’s the best character on the Justice League” to politics.  It’s very easy for anyone, but especially for unexperienced children, to get caught up in these debates and get themselves, or someone else, hurt.  Mean words often come out, and so do bad names.

Encourage your kids to stay away from public forums and comments under YouTube videos.  Though sometimes comments can be engaging, discussion worthy, and educational, many times they are just filled with hate and people who are trying to seek attention.  These people just want you or your children to respond so that they can feel better about themselves, and the last thing you want is for your kids to fall into this bad spiral.

If your kids do see a comment or a forum with something that they don’t agree with, and they feel the urge to yell at users across the web, teach them to discuss it with you.  Teach them to go to you, as the parent, first before they respond.  Maybe they’ll decide it’s best not to respond at all.  Teach them to reason on the situation, instead of react to the situation.

 

3)  Teach Them the Difference Between a Real E-Mail and a Fake, Phishing E-Mail

 

This applies to many social media posts as well.  Many times there are key differences between a real email from a company and a fake one from someone pretending to be a company.

As an example, many fake Google emails will appear to have an old version of the Google logo located at the top of the email, rather than Google’s current logo.

 

REAL GOOGLE EMAIL I’VE RECIEVED

 

 
 
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EXAMPLE OF FAKE GOOGLE EMAIL

 

 
 
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Furthermore, if someone your children follow on social media suddenly starts to post advertising out of nowhere, and these posts have suspicious looking URLs tagged with them, they are more likely phishing posts, and that user has most likely been hacked.

 

These posts and emails steal information, try to sell you services you don’t need, or may even install viruses onto your computer.  Teaching your kids how to be shrewd, and how to avoid these, will keep them safe, as well as their computer, and their personal information.

 

There’s of course much more that you need to do in order to teach your kids how to be safe and smart online, but these tips should get you started in the right direction.

 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of things STEM.  Find her on Twitter.