Practice looking for the shams and flimflams. Always be on the lookout for things that don’t seem right. Remember an argument is only true if all its premises are true. If you find one premise that is untrue, then the argument falls apart. I once bought a book that claimed to have a sure-fire cure for acid reflux. It presented all sorts of background information on the illness, which was correct, and then changes to diet and behavior that seemed like they might help. It then started talking about how having Candida overgrowth can aggravate acid reflux and how you can determine this by taking a spit test to detect it. Being a microbiologist, I was immediately suspicious. Candida is part of the normal microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract of humans and causes no problems in a healthy human. The “test” was even more ridiculous. It proposed you spit in a glass and watch to see if your spit floats or sinks. Supposedly if it sinks, you have a Candida infection. There are dozens of websites that will help you manage your overgrowth. They cannot cure it, but buy our magic pills, and you will feel much better. This spit test surpasses quackery and goes straight to outright fraud. So let’s ask some questions. How does having more Candida in your spit cause it to sink? If you come up with a hypothesis to explain that, how could it be tested? Has there ever been a study of the spit test to show that more Candida in the gut causes dense spit that sinks? Since Candida is always present in our gut, how much is too much? If you search PubMed looking for studies about Candida overgrowth, you will find them, but they are all in patients with suppressed immune systems or those who have undergone antibiotic therapy. Candida overgrowth is not something that affects 80% of the human population, which some of these sites claim. You will not find anything on the spit test for diagnosis of Candida. When the author of the acid-reflux cure treated this as legitimate information, he lost my trust. As a general rule, if you catch an expert or one who claims to be, in an apparent falsehood, it’s time to find other sources.
What type of review process was there for the article? The highest standard is an article written by experts that is reviewed by other experts in the field (peer-review). However, even in these cases, there are caveats. Not every study appearing in a journal is peer-reviewed, for example, news and commentary about the research or letters to the editor. Peer-review is also anonymous, except to the editor, and voluntary. The reviewer may not take the time to review the article carefully or may not have the depth of expertise that is needed. Finally, personal bias and social interactions may enter into the mix. Often reviewers may know the authors of the article and that opinion, positive or negative, may influence their decisions. Or if the research contradicts a pet theory of the reviewer, they may reject the article and take further steps to prevent the research from being published. Science is a human endeavor, and bad actors exist who make trouble. But, the self-correcting nature of science always exposes these frauds in the end.
What is the goal of the publication? Is it to describe a topic or do the authors want to convince you of something? Persuasive articles must pass a higher standard than descriptive ones. Another good rule to live by is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. If someone is claiming a miracle cure for weight loss, they better have lots of data from the primary literature to back it up.
Is the article even-handed and does it stick to the facts? If there are important questions up for debate or interpretation, is more than one side presented? Is the treatment even-handed? Are pitfalls or caveats discussed and do the authors avoid exaggerating or overstating conclusions?
Does the article slander any group or use inappropriate language? When presenting the opposing view, is the treatment respectful and earnest, or is the other side denigrated.
Finally, what is their funding source? One should be more skeptical of articles written by authors with an apparent conflict of interest. For example, a discussion on the validity of climate change penned by an author who is funded by the American Petroleum Institute, would not hold as much credibility as a similar study written by a climate scientist funded by the National Institutes of Health. There is just too much financial incentive for the API scientist to bend the truth.
I want to take a short sidetrack and talk about a recent, disheartening phenomenon that has arisen in the last decade in academic publishing. Ideally, a peer-reviewed journal is one that has an editor and editorial board made of scientists. When a paper comes in, two or more researchers who are qualified in the subject (they are familiar with the methods and overall topic) review it and pass judgment on the quality of the experiments. They can recommend acceptance of the paper, ask for revisions, but accept, reject the paper but ask for corrections and resubmission, or reject the paper with no invitation to resubmit. The editor makes the final decision on acceptance. The point is, the paper is reviewed for quality by experts and only published if it is of sufficient quality and a contribution to the field. Part of the financing of many journals is that the authors of the manuscripts pay page charges to get their work published. You heard right; you have to pay to get your research published. It is one of the ways journals finance their operations.
The rise of the internet caused an unfortunate side effect in journal publishing, the appearance of predatory journals. These are journals that will happily publish your article on the web, and collect a hefty fee for doing it but have no standing in their fields. They first started to appear around 2008 and thousands are now available. Predatory Journals have the following traits.
The rapid acceptance of submitted articles with little or no peer review.
Academics who publish in the journal find out about fees only after the article is accepted.
Academics are sought for editorial boards using aggressive recruitment tactics. This include the addition of some prominent scientists to editorial boards without their permission. Once you are on a board, the journals refuse to let you resign.
The journals spam scientists Email in boxes begging you to submit papers.
Predatory journals will mimic the style of and use names that closely match legitimate journals.
It’s no wonder that these publishers have fooled some academics. Because of the flood of predatory journals, lousy research is being published and polluting the scientific space. Other journals, such as Science, Nature, and PLOS ONE have taken up the mantle of exposing predatory journals with sting operations that can get quite comical. For example, in 2015 four researchers created a fictitious scientist named Anna O. Szust (oszust is Polish for Fraud). Dr. Szust was a terrible candidate for an editor, having never published a scientific paper and only written non-existent books from made-up publishers. Dr. Szust applied for an editor position in 360 journals. Some were suspected predatory journals, and some were control journals that were known to be legitimate. Of the 120 predatory journals she applied to, 40 of them accepted her. Of the 120 Open Access journals, only eight accepted, and none of the established journals did.
Academic groups have begun to catalog these predatory journals on websites that list them. Currently, an excellent one is Stop Predatory Journals (https://predatoryjournals.com/journals/) If you run across a research article published in a journal that you are unfamiliar with, check it against these lists to make sure it is legitimate. There are thousands of legitimate publishers, and it is easy to check their quality. Make sure you do it!
Skepticism has gotten a bad name in our culture. Being skeptical has come to mean doubting or being cynical about a person or idea when in reality it means not being easily convinced. That is not a bad thing! Any new piece of information you come across you should examine with scrutiny and test its validity. Most people fall into the trap that if something validates their current views, they accept it unquestioningly, but if it contradicts them, they reject it without investigating. It is essential to fight this, and it is easy to do. First, you need to investigate any new piece of information. Be the most skeptical of ideas that support your worldview and do the work to make sure the data is sound. Second, and this is a hard one, if something challenges your worldview, be willing to approach it honestly. Keep your ego out of it. Finding out that your thinking on a topic is incorrect will often make you feel stupid. Everyone is wrong sometimes, get over yourself and work to be a humble learner. The truly brilliant mind is willing to change when presented with evidence. Decide on what evidence you would need to change your mind. Make an honest effort, read up on this idea-challenging topic in trustworthy sources. If, at the end of your search, you find convincing evidence that proves you were wrong, don’t move the goalposts. In other words, don’t decide that you need another, often more rigorous, standard of proof before you admit defeat. Instead, change your views.