5 ways to spot if someone is trying to mislead you when it comes to science

From The Conversation

  1. The ‘us versus them’ narrative
  2. ‘I’m not a scientist, but…’
  3. Reference to ‘the science not being settled’
  4. Overly simplistic explanations
  5. Cherry-picking

Items 1. and 2. are an effort to take the talk away to somewhere else. 2. is particularly popular in many contexts, it has a close fellow viz, “I am still entitled to my opinion” which translates as “I don’t want to try to find any relevant facts”.

As mentioned in the article 3. was the stand by for the tobacco industry, as one executive put is succinctly “doubt is our product”. Any time you can confuse things you tend to prevent or delay action and for those who want to keep the status quo that’s a win.

There are areas of public policy and marketing in Oz where all of these techniques have been used to great success and they are still being used daily.


I recently discovered a neighbour with a financial background is a climate denialist and weak in science. He mentioned his scepticism about CO2 being relevant and as the discussion progressed it became apparent he did not grasp things like super saturation, effects of pollution, air-sea-atmospheric interactions, etc. I finally tried ‘simple’. -> If you put a little bit of salt on a steak you usually do not notice it; if you put way too much on it makes the steak inedible; even that amount of salt is very small compared to the size or weight of the steak. He nodded although it was not clear if it had any real impact.

Sometimes simple is necessary - and sometimes Very Very Simple depending on the audience.

Sadly many of our ‘honourable members’ seem to struggle even with such simplistic examples of salt on a steak unless accompanied by appropriate donations, and their donors focus on the steak not the salt, and the outcome is usually pork. :frowning:


This is one which isn’t overly correct and misleading as only uses by those using the term for mischievous purposes. Such terms is often used by scientists as a result of reviewing other’s articles or even testing their own hypotheses if they prove to be different to other peers.

This is often used by scientists too when the media takes part of a research outcome and uses this to communicate a meaning which necessary isn’t the conclusion of the public paper. An example is when a hypothesis is tested but isn’t conclusive…and a recommendation for further works is needed. The media or someone else takes the inconclusive result indicating that it is more conclusive (which often happens with cancer treatment breakthroughs) giving an impression that the results are better than reality. This is cherry picking.

  1. Reference to ‘the science not being settled’

True, scientists are often more cautious than (say) journalists. I think the article points out the approach can also be very mischievous. Those pushing a contrary point of view use the logical limitations of the scientific method, that induction never absolutely proves anything, to reach the position that we cannot know anything - or at least about their pet topic. The tobacco industry pushed out doubt long after the probability of smoking being very harmful was near certainty.

Yes in a restricted sense of being naive and only paying attention to the headline from the latest wonder news and not looking at the broader context. We see that here from time to time.

This deception can also be employed in a much less innocent and forgivable way when the proponent sets about emphasising the data and views in favour of their position and pretending that data and views against it don’t exist.


Yes, but insinuating that using such terms is sinister is misleading as they can be used by both the scientific community and those with non-scientific ulterior motive.

This is the key issue and why pointing to these terms as being mischievous in intent, is mischievous in itself.

The Conversation should have said that the key is to verify information from credible sources, and not from those who are known to be unreliable sources,


Yet the term is most widely used by conspiracy theorists… ‘published’ interviews with the legendary Pete Evans whose sole expertise is in the kitchen and hosting cooking shows smugly starts near every answer about vaccines, climate change, [name something beside cooking and hosting] with ‘I am not an expert,I am not a scientist, I have an open mind, blah blah’.



Many noisy Ducks waddling past so not just a single Quack, lots and lots of Quacks.


My response to that is sometimes: Yes, you are entitled to your opinion, not matter how wrong it is.

Especially when funding from an interested party is involved!


That’s what’s so great about about an opinion, it doesn’t have to be right. Credibility on the other hand?

Does an opinion attain greater status when it is qualified, or even more when an ‘expert opinion’? Is it also prudent to consider the source, and what’s in it for them?

A bubble:
If it looks like a cruise ship, rolls on the waves like a cruise ship, smells like a cruise ship below decks and you feel a little queasy after last nights buffet, don’t blame the cruise ship. It’s that slick speaking expert sales rep that sold you the package holiday with a promise that in their opinion you’ll never feel better. They certainly will when the commission goes on the sales report.

IMO The Conversation’s “plain speaking” is a breath of fresh air. Although I doubt I could adjust to a world built only on fact and opinion free. What would Spock say?


The term itself isn’t innocent or sinister. The intent and practice of the user determines that. It may be quite appropriate for a scientist to say in a collegiate way ’ the science isn’t settled yet’ as another way to say it is work in progress. It is quite another for a contrarian to say the same thing on behalf of vested interest when as far as they are concerned the science will never be settled if it is not in their favour while for the rest of the scientific community it is settled.

That mode of checking veracity was suggested in another topic of mine linked to The Conversation. This article is not aiming to cover every aspect of sorting misleading from not. Within a word limit it picked 5 modes of argument that are often employed by deceivers. It didn’t say every time you see these 5 phrases the material is misleading nor did it claim to be a treatise on epistemology.


Sometimes a white elephant.


I subscribe to The conversation. Not just the Australian version but the UK and US versions as well.
The trouble I find is that sometimes quite complex issues are ‘dumbed down’ to present to a non-academic audience and also kept to no more than a few pages.
The five criteria, because they are kept simple, could be looked at from many angles. and some posters have indeed done just that.
For example, cherry-picking has been a favorite technique for global warming dennialists for years in selecting points to start and end in the temperature charts. But scientists also use cherry-picking of a sort in statistical analysis to exclude outliers and anomalies in data.

I could also add a sixth issue that care should be taken with.
Correlation does NOT necessarily indicate causation. Too many times I see problems with this in reporting.

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Those are the boundaries. I think they are sensible as there are people who want to get good information in a non academic format and I think some readers would be lost by allowing articles to be much longer as the very serious students who would get more would be more than offset by others who would switch off and say TL;DR.

If I am going to trust a publisher to provide an environment where material is simplified in a constructive and unbiased way I pick TC. One can always take it further by reading the original papers. They are of course not perfect. I don’t agree with every conclusion and some articles are not top flight but compared to much of the media TC is well worth my time.


I wouldn’t trust TC to present articles in an unbiased way at all.

A classic one is from 16/10/2020 about cat borne diseases costing Australia 6 billion dollars a year. A link to it is on this site. Mainly about toxoplasmosis.

When I checked the disclosures of the seven authors, all but one received funding from an organization that had as its mission to eradicate cats. Not just the feral kind.

Based on what?

  • a sample of one article
  • an assumption that the article is scientifically in error
  • the source publication of the research paper being incorrectly reproduced
  • data that is unfounded

It is a summary from a research paper. The original in full is on the CSIRO publications list for $35. Thanks to TC we all get to know about it and what it concluded. It’s not a detailed study that has collected independent evidence. Perhaps the difference is not widely appreciated.

It’s always informative to know the backgrounds of the respected scientists involved in producing a research paper. What ever the perception!

How likely a multi national cat food products company would be so keen to go down the same path? Only when it has a patent on an additive for it’s cat food that could destroy the parasites without killing the cat or it’s paying owner. Billions of reasons to be successful. More so in the unmeasured effects on native wild life fatalities due to the spread of the parasite by cats.


Diverging now. What has that got to do with the way complex topics are summarised? Is TC generally better than other media in scientific accuracy or not?


I have cited one article as an example that you need to be aware of the motives and possible biases in published articles.
TC is good in that it requires the author(s) to declare their possible conflicts of interest and funding. It is also good in that it provides links to other similar articles that may have differring ideas.


Don’t know what other’s have said.But i came up with my own saying is…If you don’t believe in science you don’t believe in reality


Well @Buzz3, “believe” is a word you shouldn’t use around science.
accept that (something) is true, especially without proof.

I have absolutely NO problems with using the term “believe” in reference to science. I accept that the vast majority of scientific studies have concluded that climate change is real and that it is caused by human activities, mainly around our use of fossil fuels and agriculture among others. Therefore I “believe” in the science of climate change.