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Science & Environment

How To Be A Savvy Consumer Of Science News

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The news overload we all feel can extend to the world of science. Our friend from the world of astrophysics, Adam Frank, has offered to provide some tools to help make us all savvier consumers of science news. Adam Frank, welcome back. It's good to talk to you.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Oh, it's great to be here again, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Adam, why did you feel like this guidance was especially important right now?

FRANK: Science is such a part of our lives. It just dominates our lives now, with everything from climate change to genetically modified foods to, you know, the possibility of genetically modified babies, that it's really important for us, as a democracy, as these science issues come to dominate so much for us to have some sense of not only what science says but how science works.

SHAPIRO: So pull back the curtain for us a little bit. If I see a headline that says something I thought was junk food is actually healthy or something I use every day causes cancer, how seriously should I take it? How do I make sense of it?

FRANK: The way I like to codify it is what I call the three S's of science. The first one is spitballs, and then supertankers, and then stadiums (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Is this something you just made up, or do other scientists use these, too?

FRANK: I think I just made that up.

SHAPIRO: OK.

FRANK: But, hey, we'll see if it can - maybe it has legs.

SHAPIRO: All right. Let's go through this. We'll use - first is spitballs. What does spitballs mean?

FRANK: Right. So when people hear a new study says, when they see that headline, how are they supposed to respond to it? The important thing is to understand is that the currency for scientists are scientific papers. You know, we publish a paper. Then as soon as it gets published, it's part of the scientific literature, as we say. But each one...

SHAPIRO: And to get published, it has to be reviewed by experts, challenged, et cetera.

FRANK: Exactly. But each one of those studies is really just a spitball. It's a spitball in a giant spitball fight in this community of scientists. And so what that means is that when you hear a new scientific study says, you have to recognize that's not the last word on anything.

SHAPIRO: OK. The second S - supertanker.

FRANK: So we know that it takes seven miles to turn a supertanker. And science is very much like that supertanker where each one of these spitballs, each one of these studies, it's hitting the prow of the boat. And the question is whether or not they're - all those spitballs are lining up to help you slowly turn the supertanker or are they hitting on both sides so that there's no turning at all? And so with coffee - right? - with those coffee studies that are going back and forth, that's telling you, you know, the state of the science is not decided yet and the state of the supertanker is not going to turn.

But with something like tobacco - right? - where, you know, it took some time, but over time, all of those studies were coming to the same conclusion. And so the ship of science was turned to the point where scientists could say we know that tobacco is bad for you. And it's the same thing with climate. It took 50, 100 years for all of these studies to line up one after the other after the other. And now you're going to have a very hard time finding a study that doesn't tell you that the climate is changing and it's changing because of us.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And that's what we call scientific consensus.

FRANK: Exactly. And that's where we get to the third S, which is the stadium, right? So who's...

SHAPIRO: Oh, all right.

FRANK: The way the ship gets steered is by this process of consensus. We need the community of people to interpret and process and decide on directions.

SHAPIRO: That stadium full of people.

FRANK: That stadium full of people. And if we don't understand that process, that's how science denial can get its legs and completely lead us astray.

SHAPIRO: So to bring this back around to evaluate news stories about science, it sounds like you're saying read beyond the headline. And if we see a study, look at the context of where it fits into the larger scientific debate over the issue.

FRANK: Ari, that's exactly it. You know, if there's a scientific study about coffee, did they have ten people or 100,000 people in it? Did they follow those people for six months or 60 years? Was the group, you know, a bunch of college students or was it a whole range of different people? Now, with scientists, we know how to evaluate that, but for the general public, since most people don't practice science, you know, it's good for them to understand that there are these differences and be able to step back and say, look; I need to ask how the science as a whole is going, not just that individual study.

SHAPIRO: Adam Frank, thanks as always.

FRANK: It was a great pleasure, Ari.

SHAPIRO: He's an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, and he has a new book called "Light Of The Stars." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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