Activist’s Guide to Reading Scientific Research

Understanding science as an activist

As an activist, have you ever tried to read a scientific article and been completely lost? To be an efficient and science-informed activist, you will need to understand what science is, what it means to be scientifically literate, what goes into making a scientific article, and how to read an article with an eye towards understanding and identifying bias. If you have a strong foundation in understanding the process of science, then you will become a more effective advocate who can utilize scientific data to understand the most pressing issues we face and develop evidence-based solutions.

What is this thing called science?

Science as knowledge, process, and institution

What do you think about this thing we call science? For many, science invokes images of lab-coats, beakers, and traveling through challenging climates to study strange yet beautiful creatures. Others think about asking big questions, creating a hypothesis, gathering data, analyzing it, and forming conclusions. Perhaps science is the knowledge: scientific journals that publish ground-breaking research or textbooks found in any high school across the United States. Another group may think about the institutions attached to science, swayed by political forces, like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Food and Drug Administration. Most understand science as being all these components: the process, the knowledge, and the institutions.

Activists play a key role in informing science and being informed by science. An urgent and important example currently playing out across the world is that of climate change. Activists must understand the science of how and why the climate is changing to advocate for policies that can reduce the most important contributors to climate change and be able to convert people skeptical of human-induced climate change. Further, the methods of science can be used to validate and check claims made for the sake of political gains. In politics, people may use their discourse to further their own political aims rather than relying on sound reasoning and methodology. While science is not completely objective or always factual, an activist who understands how to read a scientific article can be more objective in their discourse because science safeguards against some bias.

The trap of quick tips and tricks

We all have limited time and attention, which leads us to want quick tips and tricks on how to understand the world. However, these simplifications can prevent someone from building a strong understanding by replacing thinking with, potentially counter-productive, intuitions. Let’s discuss a few examples of potential ‘tips and tricks’ which can lead to adverse outcomes in understanding science:

a.) “Make sure you check the sources to determine if someone is using evidence.” At first glance, someone may write an article with a huge list of sources. Using this tip, you may be inclined to believe them based on having references. However, consider that people can cite an article with the knowledge that most people won’t check the source to see what it says. Alternatively, someone may be writing based on what they assume is standard knowledge. An environmental biologist, for instance, discussing the mechanisms of evolution, may entirely be correct without listing sources. Lastly, consider that anyone can create a journal with a reputable name and offer to publish papers if the author pays for the service. As such, I could create a journal called “International Environmental Science Concerns” and publish a wide range of articles without checking them.

b.) “Check the author's credentials” can mislead people in three ways. First, many for-profit schools can be unaccredited, offering credentials for money and limited work. Second, someone may have a credential but place making money above their duty to telling the truth – as such, they may be snake-oil salespeople who attempt to discredit other scientists. For instance, the cigarette companies found credentialed scientists to publish pieces casting doubt on the relationship between smoking and cancer. Third, people can be credentialled in a certain field such as astrophysics but be making claims in a different field such as health; in this case, their credential does not credit them to make claims as an expert in the field of health.

c.) “If they are selling something, don’t listen” may seem normal, but it could lead to a distrust in any professional scientist. For instance, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus about the importance of vaccination, some people could take the stance that physicians are ‘selling’ vaccines, which means they must be un-scientific.

All of these are examples of why, in this article, we will be exploring scientific literacy and process instead of offering quick tips.

Foundations of scientific literacy

Scientific literacy means that a person can ask questions, gather data, and create explanations about experiences and phenomena in the natural world (National Academies of Sciences et al., 2016). Researchers think of scientific literacy as an umbrella, which covers many different components.

1. Foundations: Scientific literacy depends on being able to analyze and interpret texts, a skill which includes visual literacy, textual literacy, numeracy, and understanding charts and graphs.

2. Content: A person needs to understand a set of knowledge about scientific terms, concepts, and facts often covered in K-12, such as biology, chemistry, physics, etc.

3. Process: A person needs to understand how scientists do science. In other words, they need to understand how scientists design experiments, collect data and analyze it. For instance, scientists communicate through peer-review, utilize different methods with varying generalizability, and attempt to manipulate variables to produce an outcome.

4. Credentials: A person must be able to evaluate whether a person is an expert on a particular subject based on their standing and prestige in the scientific community and whether their credentials make them an appropriate spokesperson for an issue.

5. Principles:A scientifically literate person understands the principles which allow us to believe in scientific evidence, and the role uncertainty plays in science. They can also recognize what types of questions science can answer, ethical issues in science, and the strengths/limitations of scientific inquiry.