Reading: BREAKING: Federal government unmuzzles scientists https://t.co/cTmVgsBjRV via @NatObserver
— Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics) November 7, 2015
Canadian politics are probably of little interest to the rest of the world, and the recent switch in ruling party most likely went unnoticed by anyone not holding a maple leaf close to their hearts. However, for Canadian science, the recent events are a big deal.
Feeling giddy…. like waiting to open the presents! #unmuzzled https://t.co/dxdc34XbZg — Shoshanah Jacobs (@shoshanahjacobs) November 7, 2015
For the first time in almost ten years, federal scientists found they could speak once again about the work they were doing on the public dime. For the first time following a virtual communications blackout ordered by the former government in 2006, the people doing the research could tell the public about their work without having to resort to a merry-go-round of emails seeking permission. Scientists with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (also known as DFO) were the first to be #unmuzzled, followed shortly by those in Environment Canada.
Unmuzzled federal biologist Facebook post goes viral https://t.co/06nHGrUekz pic.twitter.com/6GkH8Hgjb5
— CBC News
Science papers—the everyday tales of slaying research dragons and finding buried treasures. Not just for stereotyped nerds in white coats, or wild-haired Einstein lookalikes. You can read them too. With the rise in open access publishing, more are available to lay readers outside academia’s ivory towers.
But what are they all about? And why would you want to read one?
Firstly, there are two types of science papers: primary research, where excited doctoral students and their senior advisors showcase their latest research and launch it into the international science world, and reviews, which round up current knowledge and up-to-date thinking in one subject area. Although the reviews give a broad overview of the current state of scientific play, the primary research papers are the ones that generate the excitement with their sensational headlines.
And this is the reason you might want to take a peek at the primary source material itself—is the headline a fair summary of the paper? Is the press release an accurate
repeat after me: correlation does not imply causation
In April, the Journal of Neuroscience published the paper that apparently everybody had been waiting for—definitive proof that even recreational cannabis use messes with your head. As soon as the publication embargo lifted, the headlines screamed into action, suggesting the danger to developing brains from just a few puffs of weed per week. According to the press release from one of the associated research institutions, casual marijuana use was linked to brain abnormalities—“more ‘joints’ equal more damage.” Even the paper’s senior author, Hans Breiter, questioned the safety of pot use in anyone under the age of 30.
But is this really what the paper’s results showed?
The study, cross-sectional and retrospective in design, used MRI scans to compare brain morphology of 20 self-reported recreational 18- to 25-year-old marijuana users with appropriately matched controls. At a single interview, each subject estimated their cannabis consumption over the previous 90 days and underwent
Most people seem to want news they can trust, and most people I know think that’s quite hard to find. There are many, many reasons for this, but I’m going to try (notwithstanding the 8,000-word first draft of this piece) to only talk about the ones that are most helpful if you’re trying to decide whether you think a particular source is credible. And so as not to bury my lede: There is no single news source that I would treat as generally trustworthy. Think of the news as your gossipy friend: He might be full of information that you actually want to hear, but you can’t let your guard down, since you also know he’ll say almost anything for attention. So if you want to have decent news intuition without procuring a highly marketable communications degree of your own, here are a few questions that can make it a bit easier to figure out how many grains of salt you’re going to need.
Christie Aschwanden has an excellent piece up at XX Science, with a simple experiment you can do at home to identify sexism in science journalism! As a long-time fan of the Bechdel Test, I’m easily convinced that science journalism warrants a similar instrument. Finkbeiner’s test is interesting because, unlike the Bechdel Test (which primarily reveals a lack of individuality and agency in fictional women), it has components specifically designed to call attention to “benevolent” sexism. Having applied the test, I believe that science journalism has made great strides forward, and finally achieved routine tokenism. Baby steps.