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How Reasons to Believe Responds to Breaking Science News

By Hugh Ross - May 27, 2020

Almost every day, my social media pages are filled with requests for my immediate response to breaking science news. Then I receive complaints for not providing a response quickly enough.

As concerned as I am about web articles misrepresenting the science or generating conspiracy theories, I am even more concerned about coaching people on how to evaluate web articles on science to determine which ones they can trust.

How to Evaluate Internet Articles on Scientific Discoveries

First, I recommend being skeptical about any web article that doesn’t link to the original scientific paper on which the article is based. Ideally, that paper should already have been published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal. (A scientific preprint posted on the arXiv website indicates whether the paper has been accepted for publication and, if so, names the peer-reviewed journal accepting the publication.)

Second, I recommend evaluating the publishing standards, priorities, and purposes of the journal in which the paper is or will be published. For example, Physics Letters B accepts papers proposing new theoretical models for which neither experimental nor observational evidence has yet been found. One purpose of this journal is to provide a platform for scientists to challenge currently accepted scientific models for which there is substantial experimental and/or observational evidence. Such challenges encourage physicists to develop more comprehensive and detailed evidence and to consider possible enhancements or adjustments to current models. Lay readers may misunderstand the speculative nature of such papers and jump to incorrect conclusions.

Third, I encourage a click-through to the published research source. Every scientific journal makes abstracts of their published papers freely available to the public. Often the entire paper is made available for free. If there is a paywall to access the entire paper, readers can access the preprint for free on the arXiv website. Reading the abstract of the published paper is a quick way for lay readers to see whether the web article is consistent with the source paper in its content, conclusions, and tone. If readers have any remaining doubts, they can always read more, without incurring a financial cost, by accessing the latest preprint version on which the paper was based.

Finally, I suggest that readers visit journal archives at such sites as pubmed.gov (for life science papers) or adsabs.harvard.edu (for physical science papers). There, they can find other scientific papers on the same topic as the web article that caught their attention. These archive sites have excellent search engines that allow anyone to quickly see what scientists are researching and writing about a specific subject. They help both scientists and lay readers evaluate the credibility of specific scientific claims.

Publication Policies for Reasons to Believe
One of RTB’s core values is to be a source of scientific content people can trust. Our staff scientists not only have earned PhDs from reputable universities but also have done significant postdoctoral research at reputable institutions. Readers of our scientific articles and books can be assured that our science authors have gained both recognition and substantial experience engaging with their secular peers.

RTB scientists, including me, devote much time to reading scientific journals. Thus, when some scientific breakthrough is announced, we have a context for interpreting and evaluating the announcement.

We make it a point to refrain from public response to an announced scientific discovery until an original paper supporting the discovery has at least made it through the most important stages of the peer-review process. For example, we have lately been bombarded with requests to address claims about the discovery of a “parallel universe.” This discovery may simply represent additional evidence for a cosmic inflation event. Before we respond, however, we want to read and consider the peer-reviewed paper, which is not yet available.

When we do write an article about this announcement or any other scientific discovery, we will cite not only the peer-reviewed paper on which it is based but also other relevant peer-reviewed papers. We want readers to gain a sense of how well the scientific discovery holds up in the context of current understanding. Readers can count on us to provide endnotes listing the DOI URL for every paper we cite. This makes it easy to immediately access the research papers to verify our claims.

Given these essential safeguards, we hope you can understand why it takes time to write, review, edit, and post our articles. We are prepared to sacrifice likes, clicks, and follows in order to build a reputation for integrity and trustworthiness. We also take opportunities to write about scientific discoveries most web writers may be completely unaware of. Because our scientists are immersed in the scientific literature, we often spot discoveries of immense scientific, philosophical, and theological significance that no one else notices and bring them to light for our readers. Our goal is to be the go-to source for such hidden gems, as well as for major breakthroughs.

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