How to Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True

Phil Plait (Bad Astronomer)

Phil Plait (Bad Astronomer) (Photo credit: Genevieve719)

I think I’ll have my students read this article next semester. In this information age it’s much needed.

Every day, we’re confronted with claims that others present as fact. Some are easily debunked, some are clearly true, and some are particularly difficult to get to the bottom of. So how do you determine if a controversial statement is scientifically true? It can be tricky, but it’s not too difficult to get to the truth.
Every internet user has developed a healthy dose of skepticism that keeps us from being duped by things that don’t pass the smell test, but it’s not enough to just think something might not be true. What if you think the statement might be true and you want to learn more? What if you want to respond to the assertion or engage in conversation but you don’t know enough to do so?

We sat down with experts Dr. Phil Plait, aka The Bad Astronomer, and David McRaney of You Are Not So Smart to figure out a working approach to discovering the truth of any statement, from obvious hoaxes (think Nigerian prince emails) to more difficult topics (think vaccine “controversies”.)

First, Learn to Avoid Confirmation Bias

Before we get into what you should do when confronted with a statement you’re curious about, the first thing you have to strip yourself of is confirmation bias. Says Dr. Plait:

The biggest problem is one of confirmation bias: finding an answer you already believe. If someone has a question about a belief or opinion—say, that vaccines are dangerous—then when they look it up online they’ll tend to be biased toward sites that have information they already agree with! This is a well-known effect, and is one reason some things, like anti-vaccination beliefs, are strong even in well-educated communities. The people are smart enough to look up and understand what they read, but perhaps not experienced enough in critical thinking to evaluate what they’re reading without bias.

So how do you beat back confirmation bias? “Even with experience, it’s incredibly tough to do,” Dr. Plait explained. First, be aware that confirmation bias exists, shake yourself of your natural tendency to draw a conclusion before you’ve researched a topic, and be open to information that falls on either side of a statement. Don’t just demand someone else present studies that support their assertion—go looking for them yourself

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