Read with some skepticism
Do Americans take female-named hurricanes less seriously than those with male names? Is your sunscreen or birth control giving you cancer? Are organic foods really more nutritious?
If you've read the news lately, chances are you'd answer "yes" to these questions-even though the scientific research behind those news stories doesn't necessarily support those conclusions. But before you chuck your sunscreen or birth control pills, it's important to take the time to evaluate the research behind the headlines.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Most research papers are dense and written to be read by fellow scientists. Determining just how strong a study's findings are, or looking for flaws in study design, isn't easy for the casual reader. It's not even that easy for science journalists who are trying to report on a wide array of topics from chemistry to biology to nutrition while coping with fewer resources as traditional media outlets suffer budget cuts.
But even if you don't have the time or the expertise to sift through piles of research, you can certainly use common sense and a basic understanding of science to make scientifically-sound health decisions.
For instance, consider whether the study is an outlier-does it run counter to the vast majority of scientific research on a particular topic? As a general rule of thumb, trusting the scientific consensus is advisable.
In the case of sunscreen, on one hand activists at the Environmental Working Group claim that the majority of sunscreens on the market in the United States contain ingredients that cause cancer or reproductive harm. On the other hand is the American Academy of Dermatology and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which stand by sunscreen's safety and urge consumers to use the product to protect from skin cancer-a much larger threat.
When it comes to organic foods versus genetically modified foods, the scientific consensus overwhelmingly says that nutritionally they're essentially the same and genetically modified foods are perfectly safe to eat. Scientists all over the globe, including those with the World Health Organization, European Union, and U.S. FDA, agree.
You should also consider the source of your information. In many cases, the scary headlines popping up on your Facebook or Twitter feeds about the new danger discovered in some consumer product is coming from a blogger that probably isn't accurately reporting the study's actual findings.
Trusting these sources can have serious public health implications. There are still a number of widely-read bloggers, celebrities, and activist groups that regularly talk about the supposed danger of vaccinations despite the fact that there's no evidence that vaccinations cause autism or the other scary ailments linked to them. What the medical and scientific community overwhelmingly says is that refusing vaccinations has led to an uptick in diseases that were once largely eradicated in the U.S.
A little education is the cure for the common headline.
Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Center for Accountability in Science, a project of the nonprofit Center for Organizational Research and Education.