Op-ed: Read Science Headlines With Some Skepticism

The Detroit News published my op-ed yesterday. Check it out.


Do Americans take female-named hurricanes less seriously than those with male names? Is your sunscreen or birth control giving you cancer? Are organic foods really more nutritious?

If you’ve read the news lately, chances are you’d answer “yes” to these questions-even though the scientific research behind those news stories doesn’t necessarily support those conclusions. But before you chuck your sunscreen or birth control pills, it’s important to take the time to evaluate the research behind the headlines.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Most research papers are dense and written to be read by fellow scientists. Determining just how strong a study’s findings are, or looking for flaws in study design, isn’t easy for the casual reader. It’s not even that easy for science journalists who are trying to report on a wide array of topics from chemistry to biology to nutrition while coping with fewer resources as traditional media outlets suffer budget cuts.

But even if you don’t have the time or the expertise to sift through piles of research, you can certainly use common sense and a basic understanding of science to make scientifically-sound health decisions.

For instance, consider whether the study is an outlier-does it run counter to the vast majority of scientific research on a particular topic? As a general rule of thumb, trusting the scientific consensus is advisable.

Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.