Even though we live in the 21st century, a large proportion of world’s population is scientifically illiterate. This especially became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when understanding science became, to some extent, a matter of life and death.
This needs to change. If you don’t know how to properly form an opinion on scientific subjects, you might be duped by someone into doing something dangerous. Or you will develop habits that will gradually reduce your quality of life. Or you may start doing something that will endanger the lives of others. And with prevalence of social media, where false information spreads faster than the objective truth, these risks will only increase in the near future.
And it’s not only malicious groups and individuals that spread the information. These days, even the nation states have information warfare units that deliberately spread misinformation in the countries that they have antagonistic relationships with. The industry of misinformation has already gone mainstream and became huge in scale.
Unfortunately, public schools rarely teach people scientific literacy. For example, despite living in one of the most developed countries, I’ve only been properly taught scientific method in university. But now, as somebody who has successfully completed bachelors degree in environmental biology and masters degree in environmental informatics, I feel that it’s my duty to contribute towards improving scientific literacy of the public.
Here are ten steps that you can take to develop the ability to think critically and form a worldview that is as close to the objective reality as possible. This way, you will be better equipped to protect yourself from baseless damaging ideas.
1. Get out of echo-chamber
You are in a so-called echo-chamber when you are surrounded almost exclusively by people who think alike.
Don’t get me wrong though. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. For example, if you want to become successful in your chosen endeavor, surrounding yourself with those who are successful in this area will be extremely useful. It’s especially useful to isolate yourself into an echo-chamber of successful people in the societies where success is demonized.
But more often then not, echo-chambers are harmful. Those that are formed spontaneously over time, rather than the ones you deliberately join, are usually the harmful ones. And most echo-chambers do form spontaneously.
And you might not even realize you are inside one. If you are a regular social media user, you may be placed into an echo-chamber by the algorithms. An algorithm will take note of your preferences and you will then start seeing more and more content that you want to see. The same applies to search engines and sites like YouTube.
Eventually, you may think that unfounded believes that you have are mainstream. In reality, however, they might be shared by only a few thousands of people in the entire world. You just happen to occupy the same cyberspace as those people.
And this is why you shouldn’t be just a passive consumer of content on the web. If you are interested in developing the ability to think critically, search for the information deliberately. And don’t forget to check out the sources that you wouldn’t have previously considered looking at.
2. Always verify information someone sent you
One thing you will have to remember about the internet is that absolutely anyone can generate content on it. And it’s not the more accurate information that spreads the fastest. It’s the information with the highest emotional appeal (e.g. clickbait).
But many people don’t realize it. Or they may know it conceptually, but still forget this principle when it matters the most. For example, somebody might receive a link to an article that will outrage this person. And the person will react to it immediately by getting outraged and sharing it further.
So, if you receive something on social media that sounds a bit controversial, either from your friend or via recommendations, you must always verify this information. It doesn’t matter if it sounds right. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the point of view. If this information is about a scientific topic, don’t take it at face value. Absolutely anyone could have created this content. Look it up outside the platform you have received it on.
So, next time somebody sends you a link to an article with a title like “a man died after taking a vaccine”, verify it. It may be a complete fabrication. Or it may be twisting the truth (e.g. a man had indeed died after taking a vaccine, but it had nothing to do with the vaccine itself). Or it might be true after all.
3. Don’t engage in discussions of dubious theories on social media
When you see a discussion on social media about a controversial scientific topic, it is extremely easy to get dragged into it. But please don’t.
First of all, once you start, it will be very difficult to stop. And such discussions are pointless. Chances are, everyone will keep their opinion at the end. So you have just wasted a lot of time – the most precious non-renewable resource.
Secondly, the participant will be people who don’t know what they are talking about. Remember that the web is a place where anyone can express their opinion? So, even though you might have an actual subject matter expert joining such a discussion on occasions, the chance that you will find something insightful in there are very low.
Thirdly, having these discussions is the surest way to drag yourself back into an echo-chamber. If you actively interact with a particular type of content, algorithms on the web will show you more of such content. So, the more you interact with dubious scientific posts, the more of such posts you will be seeing.
4. Verify the reputation of the source you read information from
For the above-mentioned reasons, not all internet sources are made equal. And it doesn’t only apply to amateur blogs. Some big mainstream media sources are unreliable too.
But there is a relatively easy way to check a reputation of a particular media outlet. Independent websites like Media Bias/Fact Check exist specifically for this purpose. Or you can simply google how reliable any particular source is.
If it’s a big mainstream media outlet that is considered to be unreliable, you will easily be able to find out why it’s unreliable. There will be some concrete examples.
On the other hand, if the website you want to check the reputation of isn’t even known to any fact-checkers, then it’s probably just an amateur blog. Don’t be deceived if it looks professional. With WordPress and cheap hosting, any housewife can create a professional-looking website these days with just a couple of clicks.
So, the rule of thumb is that, if the scientific information came from a reputable source, it is probably reliable. To reputable media outlets, reputation matters. It’s their selling point. And they wouldn’t risk it by publishing unsubstantiated claims.
A website without a reputation for reliability, however, sells to an audience that doesn’t care about reliability. The audience of such content tends to consist of impulsive people who don’t have the habit of thinking. Therefore such website doesn’t have to care about its own reputation. In this case, check the other sources. Also, if you happen to be a regular user of such a website, you should, at this stage, question why.
5. Learn what scientific method is
Scientific method is a universally acceptable set of standards that every scientific research must follow. If research doesn’t follow them, then it’s definitely not science.
In the nutshell, the scientific method consists of the following steps:
- Ask a question (i.e. what are we trying to research)
- Do background research (to make yourself familiar with the subject and to ensure that someone hasn’t found the answer already)
- Construct a hypothesis (If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen.)
- Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment (trying to disprove the hypothesis is also important at this stage)
- Analyze your data and draw conclusions
- Communicate your findings
But following these steps is not the only thing that matter. It’s not science until the finding are published in a reputable scientific journal. And in order for this to happen, there are several more steps.
No journal will publish a scientific paper until it went through a peer review process. This is when several independent experts in this subject area review all your findings, while actively trying to find gaps in your process. And this process is constructed in such a way that, as the author, you cannot have any say on who these people are. The conflict of interest is minimized.
Quite often, publishers or peer-reviewers will ask the researcher to replicate the process. Or somebody else may do so based on the description of the experiment.
In certain areas, standards go even further. A double-blind study, for example, is used in trials involving humans to ensure that the researchers don’t subconsciously influence the behavior of the participants.
So, when you hear that scientists have conducted some research, this is what this research went through. And having so many standards in place ensures that, if something has made it into a scientific journal, it is probably reliable.
6. Learn to find and read scientific papers
It is good to get your scientific information from reputable news outlets, but there is a caveat. Even a reputable website can sometimes play with words. An article may tell the truth, but do it in such a way that is easy to misinterpret. For example, an article titled “a child developed Autism after taking a vaccine” would not be lying even if the vaccine itself didn’t cause Autism.
And such play of words happen. It mainly applies in political topics, but is often present in scientific topics too. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus has mutated and became 30% to 70% more transmittable. And when it happened, very few reputable news companies have described it in unambiguous terms. Instead of saying that it’s at leat 30% more transmittable, they have started almost exclusively saying that it’s “up to 70% more transmittable”.
Also, when politicians say that they “follow the science”, it’s not always the case. For example, many anti-Covid measures that British government has introduced during the pandemic in 2020 weren’t backed by any science at all. This is why you need to learn how to look for scientific papers and how to read them yourself.
To do so, first you need to find a reputable scientific journal. This is crucial, because any publication can claim to be a scientific journal without being so. SCImago Journal Rank will help you with this. It ranks all known scientific journals across the globe. If a journal isn’t listed there, it’s not a scientific journal. If it’s there, but has a low rank, it shouldn’t be relied upon either.
Then, you need to learn how to actually read a scientific paper. Because, believe me, it’s quite different from reading a book. However this guide will help you.
7. Know the difference between actual science and an opinion of a scientist
Many people make a mistake of believing that if a qualified scientist said something, then it must be what science on this subject says. However, while the scientific papers from reputable journals are reliable by design, you shouldn’t always trust individual scientists.
Publishing research paper with outright fraud in it is very difficult. There are enough safeguards against it. But there is nothing that would stop a scientist abusing their position and publicly saying any things they want for the purpose of achieving their own goals.
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a deliberate lie. Some scientists may express an opinion on something that hasn’t yet beet tested. Or someone may be an expert in one area, while not being good at seeing the bigger picture. For example, while an environmental scientist would be correct to say that certain restrictions would improve air quality, he may not have considered that such measures may cause greater harm in other areas. Likewise, an epidemiologist may correctly say that lockdown measures will be effective to control the spread of a highly infectious disease, the same person may fail to realize that excessive lockdown measures will kill people too.
Another thing to watch out for is that, in the Information Age, absolutely anyone can easily claim to be a scientist. So, remember that if it’s not published in a scientific journal, it’s not science. It’s merely an opinion of an individual.
8. Don’t form an opinion on anything you haven’t made an effort to understand
Humans are quick to judge and form an opinion. And this may be a dangerous thing in the Information Age. There is plenty of content with clickbait titles that make outrageous claims that get shared widely. And many people are in habit of forming their opinion instantly as soon as they see such content.
This is the surest way to allow someone to mislead you. So, don’t form opinion simply because it kind of feels right. Get familiar with the subject first.
Remember “do background research” step from scientific method? If you fail to do it during a scientific research, your paper will be thrashed by peer-reviewers. You have to prove to them that you understand the subject before you do your experiments. And this is what people should be doing in other areas of life too.
For example, if you hear a claim that some vaccine is there to insert a microchip that will allow someone to control a person via 5G signal, you shouldn’t just accept it at face value. Instead, you could try to find answers to the questions similar to these:
- Is it possible to insert a fully functioning transmitter into a needle of a syringe?
- What is 5G and how does it work?
- How would your immune system react to a small foreign object?
- Can a microscopic transmitter send sufficiently strong signal through your skin?
- How easy is it to maintain centralized infrastructure to monitor everyone?
- Has there been any published science on it?
However, doing your own research might be a long and laborious process. Therefore a good rule of thumb to follow would be this:
- If a particular subject is important to you – make an effort to understand it.
- If a particular subject is of little importance to you – just move on.
9. Always ask how those who “expose” conspiracies got their “secret” information
There are plenty of conspiracy theorists who publish their unfounded claims far and wide. And during large-scale crises, like a global pandemic, this content spreads like a wildfire.
Some of the conspiracy theories may sound logical at the first glance. However, more often than not, they completely fall apart when you ask the question of how such a secret conspiracy with global consequences was exposed by a single person.
It’s not that difficult to keep a secret if you have a large amount of resources. Corporations have their trade secrets, the vast majority of which never get exposed. Nation states have their defence-related secrets. There are procedures in place that make these secrets very difficult to steal.
On the other hand, let’s have a look at a typical conspiracy theory. There is a group of billionaires, who supposedly own the planet and control national governments. If this was the case, wouldn’t they have procedures in place even stricter than those of nation states or corporations to prevent their secret plots from leaking out? If they wanted to reduce the population of the planet or enslave a large proportion of it, wouldn’t they do everything they can to prevent anyone from getting to know their plan? And being owners of the planet, wouldn’t they have enough resources to achieve the total secrecy?
But somehow, an ordinary person who is known for spreading conspiracy theories can get hold of such information easily. And not only this information, but also the information on every other global conspiracy too. Does it really make sense? In the absence of concrete evidence, what is more likely – that an ordinary person is repeatedly able to get hold of secret information about the global plots, or that such person has simply made it all up?
10. Always ask who would benefit from a particular conspiracy theory
Another way to check if any particular conspiracy theory is plausible or not is to ask who would benefit if it was true.
For example, a lot of conspiracy theories assume that the world is ran by a small group of ultra-wealthy people, who also happen to be complete sociopaths. But do these people really match the characteristics of a sociopaths?
Sociopaths do become wealthy, but they often do so at the expense of the others. Often, they run some fraud schemes. Or they work around the law. So, in a way, it is plausible to imagine a CEO of a financial institution or a tobacco company to be a sociopath.
But let’s have a look at someone like Bill Gates, who is a target of many conspiracy theories. This man became wealthy by making it cheap to own a personal computer and making it easy to use it. Sociopaths aren’t known for building genuinely good products for their customers. So, how would Bill Gates, who is already an incredibly wealthy man, would benefit from having more control over global population?
Likewise, if all of our movement is already being tracked by the technology that we use, who would benefit from undertaking an expensive program of inserting microchip into everyone’s body? Would there be any return on investment on such an action?
But there is a category of people who genuinely benefits from conspiracy theories. It’s the authors of conspiracy theories themselves. The more popular their theories are – the more books and other content they can sell.
Some may even be way more sinister than that. Some are aspiring cult leaders that want to build a big following. Remember that every single cult that has ever existed was based on some sort of a conspiracy theory.
Critical thinking is a skill. Just like any other skill, it gets better with practice. And it’s a learned skill. Nobody is actually born with it. This is why, unless you have learned how to think critically, you will probably lack such ability.
Science is not perfect, but it’s still the most objective method of understanding the physical reality. And all good science is based on the ability to think critically.
The information provided here may be new to you. But if you will take this advice to heart and start practicing these principles on regular basis, you will, eventually, develop a good immunity against harmful disinformation.
And you will be way more objective and knowledgeable.