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Science in the media: assessing the evidence

Caitlin Astbury

At the MS Society, evidence underpins everything we do. We use evidence to influence, campaign and develop services for people living with MS. And we share it to help others do the same.

But with lots of different sources of evidence, from academic journals to newspapers and social media, it can be hard to figure out what to trust.

Alessandra Dillenburg, a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, talks us through her three top tips for assessing scientific evidence.

1.    Don’t believe everything you see on social media

Yes, we all do it. Social media can be a great source of information, but if you see some exciting results from a new study, try to find out more from a different source. Be mindful of anecdotes and personal stories, too. They are important, but personal experience isn’t the same as scientific evidence.

Often, what we see on the internet or in the news is only part of the story – and there is a good reason for this. Research papers can be long and hard to read so the media usually picks up on the most interesting bits. This means that news stories can often overhype research – so look to see if organisations like the MS Society have covered it, or check another trusted news outlet.

2.    Have a look at the original research paper

This can be a hard one, but looking at the research paper will give you a few clues as to whether the study has definitively proved something or not. Sometimes you can find a link to the original paper in the news story, but you might also need to dig a bit deeper. Websites like PubMed and Google Scholar are a great place to search for research papers.

Once you’ve found the paper, first check the title or the summary – does it say the words ‘controlled’, ‘randomised’, ‘blinded’ or ‘double-blinded’? These words mean the scientists have tried to reduce bias in their study. If you see the words ‘pilot study’ or ‘open label’, it’s likely that this is a small, first trial. We’d need to see further, bigger trials before we can put too much trust in the results.

In some cases, there might not be a paper yet. Exciting headlines can often come from conference announcements instead of published papers. This means that the research hasn’t been peer-reviewed – which is when other scientists check the work and make sure the methods are right and findings aren’t exaggerated. So it’s important to be cautious about these kinds of stories.

3.    Still want more information? Ask a scientist!

If you see a cool new study and are interested to learn more, why not reach out to the scientist? You’re likely to find a lab Twitter account, email address, or University press office where you can try to get in touch. It’s true that scientists are often busy in the lab, or writing grants or publications, so it’s possible they won’t get back to you (or take a really long time to answer). But it’s worth a shot!

Another interesting place to pose your questions is Reddit (r/science) – scientists sometimes do AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, which can be really interesting. You can request these sessions via the subreddit r/IAmA. While Reddit is a social media platform, these AMA sessions do require proof that it is the real scientist answering your questions.

> Read an AMA from Professor Richard Reynolds, Director of the MS Society Tissue Bank, on Reddit

News articles and social media posts can be a great way of learning about breakthroughs in science. These top tips will help you look behind the headlines for the best scientific evidence.