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How to Read Scientific Papers Intelligently

How to Read Scientific Papers Intelligently

Christians…should model humble engagement with scientific findings. Christians should not pretend that science is a perfect, objective, infallible source of truth. But they also shouldn’t have cynical attitude every time a scientific discovery is made.

As an engineer, I read scientific papers quite frequently. I am convinced most people do not know how to read scientific papers intelligently. This doesn’t need to be the case: you don’t have to be an expert to think critically about a study and its results. In a society which is obsessed with scientific discovery and “scientific truth,” Christians in particular need to be wise when engaging with modern science.

If you want to better engage with scientific findings, you are going to know certain questions to ask as you read scientific papers. Additionally, you are going to have to get a good grasp of the uncertainty inherent to any good science. Recently, I read a book that gives both a series of questions to ask of a scientific paper as well as a good analysis of the uncertainty inherent to science in general.

The book is called “Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth” by Stuart Richie. Although written by a non-Christian, it is an essential read for any Christian working in a STEM field and is useful for any believer who finds themselves looking up the latest “scientific study.” For today’s Book Quote of the Week, I want to look at questions Stuart Richie says you should ask when reading a scientific paper.

Is everything above board? Authors from reputable universities, companies, labs? Journal published in look professional?

How transparent is it? Can you find data set online anywhere?

Was the study well designed? How was the control group treated? When seeing headline claim, should ask “compared to what”

How big is the sample? How many subjects were included from the final sample and why?

Are the inferences appropriate? Causal language when only a correlation study? Experiments on animals jumped to humans?

Is there bias? Does the study have obvious political or social ramifications and do the scientists write about these in such a way that seems less than impartial? Where was the study funded?

How plausible is it really? If study involves human participants imagine yourself having taken a part…did the environment of the study even approximate the setting that the scientists want to know about?

Has it been replicated? Stop relying so heavily on individual studies

Questions from “Science Fictions:How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth” by Stuart Richie

What the Quote Means

These questions come at the very end of “Science Fictions.” The entire book looks at the ways researchers intentionally or unintentionally publish results which are misleading in one way or the other. The results can be over-hyped, they can ignore important data, or the conclusions can be impossible to replicate in a future study. All of these questions laid out by Richie are designed to help you as you read scientific papers to ask the simple question “is this true?”

Some of these questions are harder to answer if you don’t have a STEM background. But the basic questions of “how was the study designed? Who were the people who did the study? What were the conclusions of the study and do they make sense?” are always useful to have in the back of your mind when reading a “scientific conclusion.”

Now, the goal of these questions isn’t to cause you to never trust another scientific conclusion again. Rather, they are tools for you to more intelligently discern whether an article like “10 Superfoods which reduce aging instantly” is something you should read and take to heart, or not. These questions help you sort the “wheat from the chaff” so to speak.

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