LECTURE                               HOW TO SPOT REAL SCIENCE ON THE INTERNET

In this lecture you will learn:


Before the 1990's computers were used by scientists.  After the 1990's the internet was increasingly taken over by non-science related pursuits including email, marketing, gaming, entertainment.  "This explosion started in earnest during 1993, a year in which Web traffic over the Internet increased by 300,000%." (1)

This has resulted in a glut of information, only some of it useful, for two main reasons.  First, there has been an explosion in web pages and blogs.  Everyone with a point of view, no matter how well informed or worse (something to sell) can and do post what LOOKS like science on the internet.

Second, real science is published in refereed journals.  Those journals are sold and are expensive (mainly to libraries).  For example, a personal subscription to Nature is $199 for 51 issues.  As of now only the abstracts (a brief summary) of real science articles are found online using search engines like pubmed.  Access to the full text is not yet free and available.

An additional problem is that primary articles are often incomprehensible to non-scientists.  Science for non scientists has generally been available in magazine format, like Scientific American although it is not free.  Fortunately there are some pretty good science writers that can intelligently interpret the primary literature and offer it free on their websites.  The one I enjoy is Science Daily.  However, when searching for information on a specific topic it will be necessary to separate the science from the junk.

It is possible to increase your probability of identifying authentic scientific information by following a few guidelines.
 
1. url  The url or address of the information is the most important single item.  The urls that end in .edu are published by educational institutions and along with .gov (for government) are usually trustworthy. Those with .com (for commercial) must be very carefully examined further. 
2. ads  Ads for products that are in anyway related to the discussion is common in junk science sites.  Some information sites need ads to pay the cost of their sites but the ads.  It depends on what is being sold. 
3. "tone" Science articles have a very neutral, unemotional "tone" and almost never use extreme adjectives like "great, fantastic, terrible".  Scientists do not inject themselves into the writing.  If it is obvious that the writer has a bias for or against the material they are presenting, this signals it is junk or pseudo science. 
4. authorship If the author is a scientist a quick google or search on pubmed will reveal what they have published and in what area of science they publish. If the author is not a scientist then the article should at least name scientist(s) who did the research. 
5. expertise It is important to find out the area of expertise of the scientist. Real scientists have the background and expertise usually in a single area of science.  When speaking or writing outside their area of expertise what they say is only an "opinion" altho it may be an "informed" opinion.  The chance for serious bias is high when a scientist gives her opinion outside the area of expertise. 
6. refereed journals  It is scientific suicide to "announce" scientific research to the general public before it is published (or accepted for publication) or have been presented to a conference of scientists. It is important that science articles cite their sources either within the article or list them at the end. Refereed journals found in pubmed have more weight than "trade" journals or those that are non refereed and may be little more than promotion for a biased viewpoint. 
7. $$$$$ The most unbiased scientists work in tenured positions at universities.  It insulates them from politics, economics and even society. That "ivory tower" has a purpose.  Scientists that are funded by industry or work in industry or government may be biased since their jobs depend on it. 
8.nonscientists  People who take a lot of science courses are not scientists unless they have taken a second degree, a PhD in science.  A PhD in science is a specific course of study and work very different from other kinds of degrees. For example, physicians and veterinarians and nurses who do not have a PhD are not scientists. 
9.  who paid The most unbiased source of funds for research is the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation.  There are non-profits that have a bias towards finding certain results, there are industries that have a bias towards finding certain results.  The bias of the funding agency must always be taken into account when "weighting" how good the information is. 
10. protocols This is pretty advanced and it is usually scientists who discover errors, but the lecture on spotting real science provides tools for checking authenticity. 
11. statistics The statistically meaningful results must be backed up by a scientific citation that is authentic.  Saying so is not enough. 
Dr. Ingrid Buxton