Credible publications must find truth among scientific ‘facts’

Consider the source.

How often do we use that old adage, particularly when skeptical about something read or heard?

However, skepticism is increasingly well placed when it comes to digesting myriad “scientific studies” that are quoted by agricultural companies, industry groups and media.

Good science is necessary for good decision-making, and the agricultural industry has many knowledgeable, credible researchers working on its behalf.

The challenge for laypersons is to distinguish reliable science from the fake science that finds its way with increasing ease into so-called scientific journals and thence to social media and other pools in the endless information stream.

Journalist Tom Spears of Postmedia News aptly illustrated the challenge a few weeks ago. He and colleagues at the Ottawa Citizen compiled a bogus scientific paper that combined the unlikely partner topics of geology and hematology. Spears sent the baffling bilge, largely plagiarized from various other sources, to 18 journals. Several offered to publish it — for a fee.

Spears declined the offer, of course, but how many scientists under pressure to publish, and how many faux scientists with their own agendas, publish material that hasn’t been peer reviewed or is simply false?

Among those apparently willing to publish semi-scientific work alongside unintelligible drivel are journals with plausible names like Science Journal of Agricultural Research and Management and American Journal of Scientific Research.

“Science-based” decisions are always urged in debate over controversial agricultural issues such as genetic modification, pesticide use, bee health and farming’s role in climate change.

Yet it is increasingly apparent that the science touted by one faction is not necessarily the science accepted by another, and the science reported through social media might be another ilk entirely.

Gone are the days when information labelled as a “scientific study” was automatically accepted by the public as reliable. We exist in a world where data must be carefully scrutinized to evaluate its worth, and rightly so.

Professional journalists can help in that endeavour, as can experts in the specific field involved. However, scientists and researchers themselves have a responsibility to publish only in credible journals and also to explain their results in generally accessible terms.

As well, they must be free to do so without muzzles applied by government or the companies that partially fund research projects. Those who use public money for research and discovery must be able to reveal and discuss their findings with that same public.

Complicating the whole picture of credible, peer-reviewed research is the public’s skepticism in the face of science that indicates something is safe or healthy in one study and dangerous or unhealthy in the next.

Such is the nature of scientific discovery, but what we don’t generally consider amid this confusing array is that science is becoming more accurate and specialized. Theories are revised as more is known. It’s a strength often seen as a weakness.

“Science may not be the only way of organizing and understanding our experience, but for accuracy it fares better than religion, politics and art,” says University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel Willingham.

So yes, the old adage is true, and never more so than when trying to understand science in this age of multimedia, social media and faux media.

Consider the source, indeed.

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