Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Healthy newsreading

Very closely connected with humanism is scientific skepticism. I doubt there are many (secular) humanists who wouldn't also identify with the skeptical movement, exemplified in popular science blogs like Bad Science, podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and books by folks like Simon Singh.

Keep in mind, I'm not talking skepticism as in "kneejerk doubt". I'm talking skepticism as in "I'll believe it if you show me good evidence" - the definition most self-described skeptics would give. Much of skepticism involves learning how to tell good evidence from bad evidence.

One of the greatest day-to-day benefits of being a skeptic is having the skills to filter the claims we're exposed to. Particularly those that get uncritically spread by journalists (and by friends and family). To that end, in addition to recommending the above sources, I'd like to pass on an article that was passed on by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

How to read articles about health, by Dr Alicia White
The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”.
Of course, there's much more - read the full article to see what else she has to say. Skeptics will already be familiar with her points, but other people may find them useful. Pass on the link, or download and print off the PDF and pass that out.

I'll take this opportunity to point out that it is simple little strategies like the ones Dr White outlines that make up most of scientific literacy. People often tell me that they would never be able to understand things like quantum physics, evolution, or acoustics, because they're not scientifically trained.

Rubbish. The only barrier to most people understanding the key points of any science is lack of interest.*

And, when it comes to health, that's a rather strange barrier to erect around yourself. What possible excuse could anyone have for cultivating disinterest in their own well-being? (I know, I know - whole psychological schools of thought are devoted to answering this question.)

Anyway, enjoy the article.


* Okay, that was a very strong claim. But I stand by it, with one caveat: one must have a teacher (or book) with some competence to communicate the science.

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