Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

Policy: Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

This post isn’t about anything scientists discovered or some new emerging tech.  I found an article authored by William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter, & Mark Burgman, about the process of integrating science into politics.

I thought this article was very interesting and relevant since our class discussions all centered on legal interpretation of scientific findings.  The article discusses twenty tips that laypersons should keep in mind when reviewing scientific data.  Of course it isn’t a textbook manual on complicated theories and equations, instead it’s more a helpful guide on how scientists and politicians and lawmakers should interpret scientific data.  But clearly written for non-scientists.

The 20 tips (they are discussed in greater detail in the link provided above):

  • Differences and chance cause variation.
  • No measurement is exact.
  • Bias is rife.
  • Bigger is usually better for sample size.
  • Correlation does not imply causation.
  • Regression to the mean can mislead.
  • Extrapolating beyond the data is risky.
  • Beware of the base-rate fallacy.
  • Controls are important.
  • Randomization avoids bias.
  • Seek replication, not pseudoreplication.
  • Scientists are human.
  • Significance is significant.
  • Separate no effect from non-significance.
  • Effect size matters.
  • Study relevance limits generalizations.
  • Feelings influence risk perception.
  • Dependencies change the risks.
  • Data can be dredged or cherry picked.
  • Extreme measurements may mislead.

The two that I found most interesting were “correlation does not imply causation” and separating “extrapolating beyond the data is risky.”  These two rules are clearly related and in essence say that jumping to conclusions is dangerous.  I think too often people are too quick to glance over scientific findings and come up with their own conclusions.  I suppose this is a form of bias.  But if lawmakers and politicians are briefed on these twenty tips prior to making decisions based on scientific data, I can imagine a much more efficient and informed machine operating and moving the country towards positive change.

While the article specifically addresses the interpretation of scientific data in political forums, I think these tips could be refined into principles that should be taught in schools as well.  Similar to the scientific method, it would improve people’s understanding of information available through the media by minimizing bias or at the very least teaching people to understand that bias exists.

How interesting would it be if children were taught to understand that their opinions and beliefs are a result of conditioning, and as teenagers learn to form opinions from an almost neutral point of view?


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