I recently received the following message from Adam:
Hi Kelly. I was thinking about your post about the responsibility of scientists to explain things to the public. Recently, there’s been a renewed bout of global warming skepticism, and I’m not really sure how to get about the truth. The point is I’m a big fan of science. It works. But there’s a problem. Not with science itself. But with what we do after we’ve done the science. There’s a problem with information. I may be a big fan of science, but I’m not a scientist. I can understand basic principles, and I know that if I were to go and do enough research on physics, and pay attention, and work my way through stuff, I could understand it. But that’s mainly because people agree on stuff now. All the really hard work – slogging through experimental reports, searching for bias, ensuring people weren’t selective with their evidence – all that stuff’s been done for me. If I want to go and do that kind of stuff for myself, it’s a lot harder.
Say I want to evaluate this climate change stuff, and get a better opinion about how important solar cycles and stuff are. It’s not that easy. I don’t know where to find the data, I don’t know where to find the experiments. Even if I do, it’s pretty hard for me to recognise where someone might have ignored previous research, or only used certain evidence. If I want to see that, my best bet is to find what other people have said about that paper or experiment. So there’s a lot of needless searching and taking other people’s opinions for granted. There’s no central place where I can go and search through documents, and compare conclusions, and judge stuff for myself. And I think that’s a problem. Because I read about global warming, and I take that for granted because “scientists say so”. And then I read some anti-global-warming thing, and I think, “Oh, well, these scientists say the first ones were wrong. So I guess they could be right.” And then the other group makes counter-claims.
There are only two solutions. The first is to get one group to make a report, the other group to have a counter-report objecting to the first one, the originals to counter-counter report, and so on until we figure out who has a better grip on the facts. The second is for me to go and try and do that by myself, comparing their data and reports and positions. The first would be better, but it’s unlikely, because the job of scientists is to research science, not necessarily explain it to me or explain why the other people are wrong. And the second is more likely to happen/doable, but it’s really hard, because I just don’t have access to the kinds of materials I need. So I’m kind of stuck.
How do you suggest not-scientists like me figure out the truth about science?
That’s a tough one. Even for scientists it can take months to years to become totally acquainted with the literature in one’s field. Perhaps more importantly, there are often many more than just 2 sides of an issue. Global climate change (I prefer this more accurate term for global warming) is a great example. I don’t think that too many scientists are currently arguing that global climate change is a non-issue, but a healthy debate is definitely raging over the predictions that we can make about patterns of global climate change – for example, how far we predict that sea level will rise as the polar ice caps melt. It would be easy if the debate were polarized, but it’s far more nuanced than that.
So unfortunately, you’re going to have to do a lot of work to get complete information on topics such as global warming. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a handful of prominent writers will have published their view on a topic, which will cut out some of the work that you’ll have to do to track down references. Blog writters can also be useful resources if you’re lucky enough to find one who is well-informed and willing to consider multiple sides of an argument.
Other times you’ll get a lucky break when a review paper has been published in the scientific literature. Finding a review paper is often better than finding a book on the topic as books can be biased by personal opinions and have not undergone the same peer review process that a review paper goes through.
Review papers can be found through sites such as Google Scholar, but readers who aren’t associated with research institutions may not have access to anything more than the article’s abstract (an abstract is a short summary). Fortunately, more and more open access journals are popping up (PLoS One, for example) which allow all readers access to the entire article. If you find a review paper that you’d really like to read and it isn’t available in its entirety online, e-mail the main author and ask for a reprint. If they’re able to, they’ll probably send you the article.
To determine how well an article is accepted by the scientific community, check to see how many times the article has been cited and read a few of the articles that have cited it. You can find this information by clicking the link in Google Scholar that says “Cited by: XX” which appears underneath the article’s title. If a paper has been written which refutes the claims made by the article in question, it should be listed here.
Another good indicator that the researchers in question used sound methods and made reasonable conclusions is to check the impact factor of the journal in which the article was published. Better journals are more critical of the work that passes through their doors and more often than not are publishing high quality work.
Finally, you can browse the Internet to find researchers who study the topic that you’re interested in and shoot them an e-mail. Ask them if they know of any laymen literature on the topic. They should be able to direct you to popular science books, news articles, documentaries, blogs, etc. If one professor doesn’t write you back, just try another one. It’s been my experience that busy professors forget to reply to e-mails such as these when their to-do list gets exceedingly long. Don’t get angry, just try someone else.
I hope that helps a bit, Adam!