Critical thinking vs. science myth

A friend tells you coffee is going to give you cancer.

Or that it is going to prevent cancer. Or that cell phones will give you brain tumours. Or that wireless internet-Wi-Fi- is making their kids sick.

“It was in the news,” they say, meaning, “it has to be true.”

The media’s primary job is to report what other people are doing or saying and often what people are doing or saying is unusual and exciting. But in no way do media have the final factual word on any matter. New is simply the most recent word.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a scientist or a journalist to understand science news.

All you need is a finely honed set of critical thinking skills. Like a good chopping knife, one set of critical thinking skills can be used in multiple situations. Yet, while the knife may dull with use, the skill set will just get sharper.

Unfortunately, much of the population has “quite abysmal critical thinking skills,” according to science reporter Peter Calamai.

Much of the population has ‘quite abysmal thinking skills.’  -Peter Calamai

But there is hope. There are signs if a story is unreliable, and ways to read more critically.

Watch out for stories that emphasize emotion and offer no evidence


David Pearson of Laurentian University’s Science Communication program has worked to make science more accessible to the public for years. He warns that the most appealing stories tend to be manipulative; they “exploit emotions”.

Take the recent Wi-Fi fuss in Simcoe County for example. Wi-fi uses radio waves to transmit information wirelessly. Parents reported their children had health problems, and they suspected the school’s new Wi-Fi was to blame. Most coverage on the issue focused on the parents’ stories about their children.

The scientific evidence? None. It was strictly anecdotal.

Evidence is fact, and as Calamai phrases it, “if it isn’t testable, it isn’t fact.”

Certainly with enough time and enough resources it might be possible to put together a study to determine in greater detail the impact Wi-Fi radio waves have on young brains. However, currently the “evidence” is isolated to Simcoe County, and as Calamai reminds readers, “a sample size of one is meaningless.”

“People are used to thinking you can put a figure on accuracy or certainty, much of the time you can’t,” says Calamai.

Scientists are uncertain.


It is extraordinarily rare to find a scientist who will label anything as certain.

In terms of the safety of Wi-Fi, a study called Interphone by the World Health Organization in 2010 revealed there is no solid evidence that mobile phones increased the risk of developing brain cancer. However they said more research was warranted. Mobile phones and Wi-FI use the same radio waves, and the UK’s Health Protection Agency says people are even less exposed while using Wi-Fi than when using a mobile phone.


Wi-Fi access points like this one are hard to avoid, but experts say their signals are harmless.

Health Canada says there is no need for precautionary measures since the radio wave levels for Wi-Fi are low enough to be compared to AM/FM radio.

Yet  scientists will  probably never say for certain whether and to what degree mobile phones or Wi-Fi cause health problems, too many factors are involved. But the story cannot be reported on without these details.

“Take away the complexity- or the truth, or facts, or context- it ends up being misleading,” explains Pearson.

Take away the context the Interphone study lends the Wi-Fi question, and it’s simply the parents speaking about their fears.

Take on-line information with a grain of salt


It gets even trickier with social media since emotional stories tend to fare best online, as does their proliferation through social networks. The nitty gritty, and often confusing details, are easily available online but can overwhelm the reader.

Even worse, online, “everybody is a publisher,” says Calamai, and so web sources lack the checks and information gatekeepers of a traditional news outlet.

It takes more sifting to get the facts sometimes, but both traditional and non-traditional media remain excellent sources of information for readers.

The key is to put on a critical thinking cap and dig into your news with a knife and fork. You can distinguish between the meat and the gristle. Spoon feeding can get sloppy if the people feeding you miss their mark.

Photo © A. Fielder

Story produced by Lauren Mitsuki

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