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Lorena Smalley

How to fact check suspicious science stories for yourself – Plagued by misleading headlines? Go straight to the source.

For every complex scientific question, there’s an answer that’s clear, simple, and wrong. I’m bastardizing H.L. Mencken here, but the point stands: for every clicky headline offering you simple truths about your health, there’s a peer-reviewed paper that most people (including, in many cases, the folks who crafted that headline) haven’t read.

There’s a whole intricate media machine of supply and demand that drives these misleading headlines, but suffice to say that most outlets need clicks to keep the lights on, university press offices often write flashy news releases to boost their institution’s public recognition, and journalists, like all humans, can be unscrupulous or gullible (or perhaps simply overworked).

But when the media mill pumps out a story that says, for example, that you’re growing horns because you look down at your phone too much, it’s useful to be able to fact check what you’re reading. And the best way to do that is to take a peek at the scientific paper itself.

Most reputable outlets should be linking to the paper in their article, though sometimes the study itself will be behind a paywall (if you’re still really motivated to read it, you can email the corresponding author, who is often happy to provide interested parties with a pdf).

If you can read it, the good news is that you don’t have to be an expert to glean some key pieces of information, even if a lot of the technical jargon goes over your head.

CLICK HERE to visit the Popular Science website and read 5 easy steps to go straight to the source!


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