Step 2: Finding the data
In our last post, we (hypothetically) found a news feature that interested us, likely because it’s related to our cancer project, but it can be on almost anything related to cancer. A news article on a web site is a good place to start, but if you simply summarize a news story that is already a summary of a research article, then you risk being derivative (remember, paraphrasing or summarizing is a relatively low order of critical thinking). You can dissect the reporters work, finding inconsistencies and flaws in the argument or reporting—this is very good. But it raises the question: are the flaws due to the inadequacies in the science or in the reporting? Perhaps the reporter got the facts wrong. In order to really see whether the data support the claims, we must look at the primary research article.
A well written news story or feature should always cite the study on which it was based. Unfortunately, many news stories from very reputable outlets do not. They may mention that “researchers at Harvard…” discovered this… or “a recent report from Stanford…” said that…, neglecting to mention where it was published. This is just lazy reporting; a link to the article is trivial and its absence leads the suspicious mind to wonder whether the reporter bothered to read the report at all. However, in their defense, most reporters receive an embargoed pre-print of the study days or even weeks before publication with the hope that they read it and write about when it goes public. Often the paper doesn’t have a URL linked to it until the day it goes public. Nontheless, whether the reporter read the article is something you can confirm by reading the article yourself and seeing if the news story match the claims made.
But more importantly, read the article to see if the data presented by the scientists match the claims they make in the paper. Are the conclusions valid? Are the interpretations of the data logically consistent? Are there alternative explanations that would be equally valid based on the data? Where are the flaws in the scientific article (there are always flaws)? These are higher order critical thinking questions that are worth writing about. Other sorts of things you might want to look at is whether this report challenges existing models or ideas in the field. How does the study fit into the context of the class discussions we’ve had? What hallmark of cancer does the study try to address and are there similar patterns seen in other topics that we’ve covered?
In short, be skeptical about the scientists’ conclusions until you judge the data for yourself, and see how this study fits into a bigger picture.
Next time… limit yourself.