Fake science news: will Mars be as big as the Moon in the sky? Probably not!

The Skeptic’s Guide: How to Identify Fake Science News [10 detailed tips]

In the age of information, the proliferation of fake science news has become an alarming issue. The lines between fact-based, peer-reviewed scientific discoveries and sensational, pseudoscientific claims are increasingly blurred. For the unwary, these faux narratives can lead to dangerous misinformation that undermines critical thinking and scientific integrity. While the internet has democratized access to knowledge, it has also opened the floodgates for unvetted assertions to gain traction. This article aims to serve as a skeptic’s guide for distinguishing between genuine scientific findings and misleading or false information. Through the practical tips below, you’ll learn how to critically evaluate what you read, hear, or see in the realm of science.

Before diving into the tips, it’s important to understand that skepticism is not synonymous with cynicism. Skepticism is a rigorous intellectual disposition that demands evidence and challenges assumptions. It’s the backbone of the scientific method – a process that involves observation, experimentation, and falsifiability. A well-rounded skeptic knows how to balance open-mindedness with critical inquiry. Being skeptical doesn’t mean outright dismissing new or unfamiliar ideas, but subjecting them to a litmus test of credibility. The following tips are designed to provide you with this toolkit; think of them as your cognitive armor against the barrage of pseudo-scientific claims you might encounter online or in everyday conversations.

Tips to Identify Fake Science News [With examples]

1. Scrutinize the Source

When you come across a scientific news article, the first thing to consider is how well the source has interpreted and represented the original research. Various factors, such as the journalist’s understanding of the subject, editorial guidelines, or even the desire to create a viral headline, can lead to distortions. This can manifest in several ways:

Why it matters:

Journalists might only highlight the most attention-grabbing aspect of the research while neglecting other essential elements like limitations, control variables, or the sample size. This selective focus can mislead the reader into drawing conclusions that the research does not fully support.

Media outlets are businesses that profit from high readership, and sensational headlines get more clicks. This economic incentive can sometimes compromise the integrity of reporting.

Example:

You might see a headline saying, “New Study Proves Coffee Increases Life Expectancy.” However, upon examining the original research, you find that the study only observed a modest correlation between coffee consumption and longer life. The study might also include numerous caveats, such as “more research is needed” or that the correlation “does not imply causation.”

Another example could be a headline stating, “Scientists Discover Gene Responsible for Obesity.” This headline implies that obesity is purely genetic, ignoring other factors like diet, lifestyle, and environmental influences. The actual study might have found a gene that has some correlation with obesity but is by no means the sole “cause.”

2. Extraordinary Claims Need Extraordinary Evidence

The principle “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” was popularized by astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan. This idea is particularly essential in the realm of scientific news. Extraordinary claims, those that defy established scientific laws or theories, must be supported by a high level of evidence, often from multiple, independent studies.

Why it matters:

Misrepresentation or over-exaggeration of scientific findings can not only spread misinformation but also erode public trust in science. An extraordinary claim that is not substantiated can quickly become a sensational headline, capturing the public imagination but lacking scientific rigor.

Signs of Extraordinary Claims:

  • The claim defies known laws of physics or biology.
  • The discovery would revolutionize an entire field of science.
  • It purports to have found a “cure” for a complex disease with a single treatment.

Example:

Imagine a news article titled, “Scientists Discover Water that Defies Gravity!” If the article claims that water in a particular lake flows upwards, seemingly defying the law of gravity, this would be an extraordinary claim. According to our current understanding of physics, such a phenomenon would be impossible. The first reaction should be skepticism, not credulity.

If a news article suggests that something is defying or breaking the laws of physics, your skepticism should immediately be on high alert. Established laws of physics have been confirmed through multiple experiments and observations. It’s highly unlikely that a single study would overturn these.

What to Do:

  1. Check the Evidence: What kind of data is being presented? Is it anecdotal or based on rigorous experiments? Are the results replicated by other researchers?
  2. Consult Experts: See what other scientists in the field are saying about this claim. Are they skeptical or supportive? Do they point out any flaws in the study?
  3. Consider the Journal: Where was the research published? Reputable, peer-reviewed journals are less likely to publish unsubstantiated claims.
  4. Look for Follow-up Studies: Extraordinary claims usually inspire further research. If the claim was genuine, other scientists would verify it through additional studies.

By applying these steps, you can approach extraordinary claims with the necessary level of skepticism and scrutiny they require. This way, you can differentiate between what might be a groundbreaking discovery and what is more likely pseudoscience or exaggerated reporting.

3. Seek Original Research

The importance of seeking out the original research when encountering scientific news cannot be overstated. Journalists who take the time to read and understand the primary source material are more likely to present a nuanced, accurate representation of the research findings. Conversely, stories that lack a link to the original study may be indicative of incomplete or potentially misinterpreted information.

Why It Matters:

Linking to original research provides an additional layer of transparency and allows readers to critically examine the methodology, sample size, results, and conclusions. It also permits readers to check whether the journalist’s interpretation aligns with what the scientists actually discovered or stated.

Indicators of Original Research:

  • Direct citations or hyperlinks that lead to academic journals.
  • Detailed explanations of the methodology and findings suggest the reporter has studied the original document.
  • Quotes from the research paper or the researchers themselves, not just paraphrased information.

Example: “NASA Announcements”

There are often viral claims like “NASA announced Earth will be dark for X days” or “NASA says Mars will be as bright as the full moon.” These types of claims usually spread quickly on social media and even get picked up by less-reputable news sites. The simplest way to verify these claims is to go to NASA’s official website or press release page. Most likely, you’ll find that these sensational announcements are nowhere to be found, debunking the claim.

What to Do:

  1. Follow the Link: If an article includes a link to the original research, click on it. Scan through the abstract, methodology, and conclusion to verify whether the news article accurately represents the study.
  2. Search for the Study: If no link is provided, try searching for the study by name, researchers involved, or the institution where it was conducted. Reputable research is usually available in academic databases or directly from university websites.
  3. Check Reputable Sources: If an article claims to be based on research from a renowned institution like NASA or a respected university, visit those websites to find the original press release or publication.
  4. Look for Expert Opinions: Sometimes academic discussions on platforms like ResearchGate, Google Scholar, or social media can provide additional perspectives on the study’s credibility and interpretation.

By taking these steps, you ensure that you’re not just taking the journalist’s word for it but are doing your own due diligence to understand the scientific claim being made. The more closely an article aligns with its original source, the more trustworthy it generally is.

Identify fake science news - NASA Press Conference
These types of images are commonly used in fake science news to lend an air of credibility to false claims, often concerning NASA announcements that never actually occurred. NASA has a website, go and check it if you see something “big”.

4. Precision Matters: The Significance of Wording in Scientific Claims

The language used in presenting scientific news is crucial for understanding the actual findings and implications of a study. Precision in wording can offer significant cues about the credibility and reliability of the information being presented. It can also help to distinguish between what the study conclusively demonstrated and what is still under investigation or speculative.

Why It Matters:

The more precise and nuanced the language, the more likely the article is to present the scientific findings accurately. Overly broad or absolute terms, on the other hand, might indicate a lack of scientific rigor or an attempt to sensationalize the findings for a more engaging headline.

Types of Wording to Look For:

  • Qualified Statements: Words like “may,” “suggests,” “could,” and “potentially” usually indicate that the findings are not definitive and that more research is needed.
  • Absolutes and Superlatives: Phrases like “groundbreaking cure,” “revolutionary discovery,” or “proves definitively” should be taken with caution. They often signal that the article is overstating what the research found.

Example:

Let’s say you come across two articles about a new drug for treating a specific type of cancer.

  1. The first article’s headline reads, “New Drug Cures Cancer!”
  2. The second article states, “New Drug Shows Promise in Alleviating Certain Cancer Symptoms in Preliminary Trials.”

The first headline, with its absolute term “cures,” implies that the drug is a definitive solution to cancer, which is a complex disease unlikely to have a single “cure.” The second headline is more nuanced, using qualifiers like “shows promise” and “in preliminary trials,” signaling that while the results are encouraging, more research is needed.

What to Do:

  1. Read Carefully: Pay attention to the specific words used to describe findings. Are they absolute or qualified? Do they match the language used in the original research?
  2. Cross-reference with Original Study: Whenever possible, check the original study to see if the article’s language aligns with how the researchers themselves presented their findings.
  3. Consult Multiple Sources: Look for multiple articles covering the same research. If the wording varies widely between them, it could be a sign that the findings are being interpreted differently, warranting further investigation.

By paying close attention to the precision of language used in scientific news, you can gain a clearer understanding of what the research actually says and how much confidence to place in the findings.

5. Distinguish Between Journalist and Scientist

When examining scientific news, the source of the claims can be just as important as the claims themselves. Being able to distinguish between what the journalist is saying and what the researchers actually concluded can provide vital context and add layers of credibility to the information being presented.

Why It Matters:

Journalists are not usually subject-matter experts, and they may interpret or emphasize different aspects of a study compared to the scientists who conducted the research. Knowing when a statement comes directly from a researcher can give you a better sense of its accuracy and reliability.

Indicators of Credible Reporting:

  • Direct Quotes: Phrases like “According to Dr. X” or “The researchers stated” followed by quotes offer a stronger link to the original source.
  • In-Depth Explanation: If a journalist goes into detail explaining the methodology, results, or implications, and attributes these details to the scientists involved, it is more likely they are accurately representing the research.

Example:

Imagine two articles discussing a new study on the effects of a particular diet on heart health:

  1. The first article says, “This diet is a miracle, guaranteed to make your heart problems disappear.”
  2. The second article states, “According to Dr. Y, who led the study, ‘Our findings suggest that this diet can significantly reduce the risk factors associated with heart disease, although more long-term studies are needed.’”

In the first example, the journalist is making an unqualified claim. In the second, not only is the claim attributed to a scientist, but it is also more carefully worded, indicating the preliminary nature of the findings.

What to Do:

  1. Look for Attribution: As you read, check who is being cited. Is it the journalist’s own wording, or is it attributed to a scientist or the research paper?
  2. Cross-Reference with Original Research: If the article quotes a scientist, try to find that quote in the original paper to ensure it was not taken out of context or misrepresented.
  3. Compare Multiple Reports: See how different articles handle the same information. Are they all quoting the scientists involved, or are some making claims without direct attribution?

By carefully distinguishing between the journalist’s voice and the scientists’ findings, you can assess the credibility of the information being presented more effectively.

6. Cross-Reference News Outlets: The Importance of Multiple Sources in Scientific Reporting

In today’s era of information overload, the reliability of scientific news can often be gauged by how widely it is reported across multiple platforms and outlets. Verifying the spread of a news story can serve as an important litmus test for its credibility, especially when it comes to purported “amazing discoveries” or “groundbreaking research.”

Why It Matters:

A real scientific breakthrough will capture the attention of multiple reputable news organizations and academic journals. A lack of coverage elsewhere could be a red flag that the claim may be exaggerated, poorly researched, or even false.

Indicators of Widespread Reporting:

  • Multiple Reputable Outlets: If a story is reported by established news organizations or scientific journals, it’s more likely to be credible.
  • Expert Opinions: When multiple scientists or experts in the field are discussing or commenting on the findings, it adds another layer of credibility to the news.

Example:

Take the discovery of gravitational waves as an instance. This groundbreaking scientific achievement was reported not just on specialized scientific platforms but also gained widespread coverage across mainstream media. Outlets like BBC, The New York Times, Nature, and Science all carried detailed stories, often featuring expert commentary. This widespread reporting is a strong indicator that the news is of significant scientific importance.

What to Do:

  1. Broaden Your Search: If you come across a story claiming an “amazing discovery,” search for the same news across different platforms. Use search engines to find other articles or reports covering the topic.
  2. Check Scientific Journals: If the claim is groundbreaking, check if it has been published in or reported by reputable scientific journals.
  3. Expert Commentary: Look for articles that include opinions from other experts in the field. Peer validation can offer added confirmation of a study’s credibility.
  4. Be Skeptical of Single-Source Claims: If only one source is reporting a supposedly major discovery, and that source is not widely recognized as reputable, exercise caution and hold off on taking the claim at face value.

By adopting a habit of cross-referencing news outlets, you increase your chances of sifting out exaggeration and sensationalism, thereby getting closer to the actual scientific facts at hand.

In the ever-evolving landscape of scientific discovery, the timeliness of the information you’re reading is a critical factor in its relevance and accuracy. What was cutting-edge or accepted wisdom a decade ago might now be outdated, refined, or even refuted. The date of publication can be a valuable clue in assessing the current relevance of scientific news.

7. Check the Publication Date: The Timeliness of Scientific Information

Why It Matters:

Science is a dynamic field, and new research continually builds upon or revises existing knowledge. Relying on older information can lead to misunderstandings or the propagation of inaccuracies, particularly in fast-changing disciplines like medicine, technology, or environmental science.

Indicators of Timely Reporting:

  • Recent Publication Date: The more current the information, the more likely it is to reflect the current consensus within the scientific community.
  • Updates or Revisions: Some articles and academic papers will be updated or revised to reflect new findings or corrections. Look for these indicators as signs of a conscientious approach to accurate reporting.

Example:

Consider two articles about cholesterol and heart health: one from 2010 and another from 2023. The older article might state that all cholesterol is bad and recommend low-fat diets. The newer article, in line with current scientific understanding, is likely to discuss the differences between “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and may recommend a more nuanced approach to diet. Relying solely on the older information could lead to outdated health choices.

What to Do:

  1. Check the Date: Before diving into the content, always note the publication date usually found at the top or bottom of the article.
  2. Compare with Current Information: If the article is older, seek out more recent articles or studies on the same topic to see if the information still holds up.
  3. Look for Updates: If the platform allows, check if there have been any updates, corrections, or retractions related to the article.
  4. Exercise Caution with Older Articles: If the information is older but still frequently cited, cross-reference with current data before taking it as fact.

By being vigilant about the timeliness of the scientific news you consume, you can significantly increase the likelihood that the information you are relying on is both accurate and relevant.

8. Verify Author Credentials: The Importance of Expertise in Scientific Reporting

The credibility of the author can be a significant factor in the reliability of the information being presented. As the saying goes, “Not all experts are credible, but all credible reports come from experts.” Therefore, assessing the credentials of the author can offer valuable insights into the likely accuracy and integrity of an article.

Why It Matters:

Expertise matters in science reporting. Journalists with a background in science, or researchers in the relevant field, are more equipped to interpret complex data, ask pertinent questions, and identify the nuances or limitations of a study.

Indicators of Credible Authorship:

  • Specialization in Subject Matter: An author with a degree or specialization in the field is more likely to produce an accurate report.
  • Track Record: Journalists or researchers who have previously published credible articles or papers on the subject are more reliable.
  • Professional Affiliations: Membership in reputable scientific societies or academic institutions can also serve as a mark of credibility.

Example:

Imagine you come across two articles about the same groundbreaking study on climate change:

  1. The first article is written by a general news reporter with no background in environmental science.
  2. The second article is authored by a journalist who has a Master’s degree in Environmental Science and has written extensively on climate issues for reputable outlets.

The second article is more likely to provide an accurate, nuanced, and in-depth look at the study, making it a more reliable source of information.

What to Do:

  1. Check the Author’s Bio: Most articles include a short biography of the author, usually at the end or beginning of the article. Look for information on their educational background and field of expertise.
  2. Research Past Work: If the article piques your interest or raises questions, look up other works by the same author to gauge their reliability in the subject matter.
  3. Verify Affiliations: See if the author is affiliated with any reputable institutions, like universities or scientific societies, as this can add another layer of credibility.
  4. Be Skeptical of Unknown Authors: If the author has no discernible credentials or track record in the subject, exercise greater caution and cross-reference the information with more credible sources.

By scrutinizing the credentials of the author, you significantly enhance your ability to gauge the reliability of scientific news, reducing the risk of being misled by inaccurate or biased information.

9. Look for Peer Reviews: The Gold Standard of Scientific Credibility

Peer review serves as the cornerstone of scientific rigor, providing an essential filter for the dissemination of reliable knowledge. Articles that have undergone this process have been scrutinized by independent experts in the field, helping to ensure their accuracy, validity, and importance. As such, peer-reviewed studies generally offer a higher level of reliability than those that haven’t been through this rigorous evaluation.

Why It Matters:

The peer review process is designed to catch errors, question assumptions, and evaluate the quality of the methodology and data. Articles that pass this scrutiny are considered more credible because they’ve been vetted by experts who are well-versed in the subject matter.

Indicators of Peer-Reviewed Content:

  • Published in Academic Journals: Look for articles published in well-known scientific journals like Nature, Science, or specific journals related to the field of study.
  • PubMed or Scholarly Databases: Platforms like PubMed often list peer-reviewed articles. Other scholarly databases, such as Google Scholar, can also be good sources.
  • Explicit Mention: Some articles or reports will explicitly mention that the study has been peer-reviewed.

Example:

Imagine you read two articles claiming the discovery of a new material that can purify water at an exceptionally high rate:

  1. The first article is published on a blog and cites a study that has not been peer-reviewed.
  2. The second article is published in the journal “Environmental Science & Technology” and mentions that the study underwent peer review.

The second article is far more likely to be reliable, given the additional scrutiny that comes with the peer review process.

What to Do:

  1. Check the Source: Is the article published in a well-known academic journal or cited by such a journal? If so, it has likely been peer-reviewed.
  2. Search Scholarly Databases: Use platforms like PubMed or Google Scholar to find peer-reviewed articles on the topic.
  3. Check for Explicit Mention: If an article explicitly states that the research has been peer-reviewed, this is a strong indicator of its reliability.
  4. Exercise Caution: If the study hasn’t undergone peer review, or if this information isn’t available, be more skeptical about its conclusions.

By making a habit of looking for peer-reviewed sources, you can significantly increase the reliability of the scientific information you consume.

10. Be Wary of Anecdotes: The Limitations of Personal Stories in Scientific Reporting

While personal anecdotes can be emotionally compelling and easy to relate to, they often fall short of the rigorous standards required for scientific evidence. Anecdotal evidence is based on individual experiences, which are not systematically analyzed or subject to peer review. As such, they offer a limited basis for generalization and should not be considered reliable scientific proof.

Why It Matters:

Science seeks to establish general principles through systematic observation, experimentation, and analysis. Anecdotes, while interesting, are single data points that lack this broader context. They can be misleading, particularly in fields like medicine, where individual responses to treatments can vary widely.

Indicators of Anecdotal Reporting:

  • Personal Testimonials: Articles that rely heavily on individual stories, particularly without citing broader research or statistics, are often anecdotal.
  • Lack of References: Anecdotal accounts rarely cite peer-reviewed studies or statistical evidence to support their claims.
  • Emotional Language: The use of emotional or sensational language to describe outcomes is often a red flag that the information is anecdotal.

Example:

Suppose you read a blog post about someone claiming to have cured their chronic illness through a specific diet or alternative medicine. The post is filled with compelling before-and-after photos and emotional testimony but lacks any references to scientific studies or clinical trials.

In contrast, a peer-reviewed article discussing the same condition would present statistical data, cite previous studies, and discuss the limitations and potential side effects of the treatment approach.

The Wellness Guru Who Scammed Apple [and the World] and Faked Her Entire Life | Belle Gibson Documentary
Belle Gibson gained international fame and even secured a partnership with Apple through her claims of curing her own terminal cancer through holistic nutrition and alternative therapies. She launched a wellness app and published a cookbook, both of which became extremely popular. However, it was later revealed that Gibson had never been diagnosed with cancer to begin with. Her entire narrative was based on personal anecdotes, effectively exploiting the emotional weight such stories carry. She failed to provide any scientific evidence to support her claims, but her compelling story was enough to deceive both the public and corporate partners. This case serves as a cautionary tale of how anecdotal evidence, without scientific backing, can mislead and even harm the public.

What to Do:

  1. Look for Scientific Backing: When reading personal testimonials, always check whether they are supported by broader research or studies.
  2. Check the Language: Be wary of articles that use emotional language as their primary form of persuasion without offering scientific evidence.
  3. Seek Multiple Accounts: If an anecdotal story grabs your attention, look for other similar stories and check whether they are also supported by scientific evidence.
  4. Be Skeptical: Always maintain a degree of skepticism when dealing with anecdotal evidence, especially if it is presented as a definitive solution to a complex problem.

By being cautious about the role of anecdotes in scientific news, you can avoid being swayed by compelling but ultimately unreliable individual stories.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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