Use The Obviousness Test To Spot Garbage Science News

Use The Obviousness Test To Spot Garbage Science News

News based on bad science is everywhere, but you don’t have time to verify every single claim about wine’s weird properties or a new, suspicious way to lose weight. To quickly filter the garbage, ask how obvious the test’s conclusions are.

Photo by prometheus_lego.

As astrophysicist Michael J.I. Brown explains, if a study’s conclusions are so obvious that someone must’ve thought of it before, then they probably did. He uses the example of a recent study that claimed the universe isn’t expanding at an accelerated rate. Most well-regarded research claims that it is, but this study asks the obvious question, “What if it’s not?” That’s Brown’s first clue that this study might not be totally accurate.

As Brown puts it, “‘That’s obvious, why didn’t someone think of that before?’ Well, perhaps someone did.” When a study announces something really big and basic, Brown suggests you do a search on that announcement — odds are that you’ll find the topic’s been studied many times before. If you find that to be the case, and if you find no one else came to the same conclusion, what you have is a red flag that should have you carefully considering the new study’s methodology.

Obvious questions usually have a long history of being researched already and you can usually find that they have already been disproven. For example, if eating a ton of sugar really was good for you after all, someone would have discovered it long ago.

3 Tips for Avoiding Fake News in Science [Big Think]


  • Things to check for

    1.Correlation Vs Causation. Scientists claiming a causal link will talk much more about mechanism. Correlative links will skip that (since they wouldn’t have a hypothesis/evidence of mechanistic factors)

    2.Definitive claims. Scientists rarely make absolute definitive claims. Most back it up with percentages and data which suggests the link as “evident”

    3. MOST IMPORTANT, most science in the news doesn’t actually talk about the topic been researched at all. News writers try to make the discovery more accessible or interesting by focusing on a minor (often parallel but unrelated) aspect. E.g. [Paper] scientists find a protein that is also present in some foods to be present in increased concentration in and around cancer cells. [News] Can this food give you Cancer?

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