Media is increasingly filled with miracle vegetable and scare journalism stories, all that say they are based on scientific studies. When faced with a headline that suggests an Alzheimer's drug increases the risk of heart attack or that watching TV is bad for children's mental health, or that pesticides are causing a decline in bee populations, how do people know which can be taken seriously and which are just 'scares'? Checking for peer review is a good first step. The 'alar scare' over apples in the US, for example, was produced by a shoddy activist group and then promoted by health and science journalists who latched onto the outrageous claim of the week. It would never have passed peer review in a legitimate journal.
A few months ago a group in France produced a suspect article claiming that genetically modified food can cause cancer, but without any data such a study would never have passed legitimate peer review.
Sense About Science has a new document explains the peer review process, the system researchers use to assess the validity, significance and originality of papers. It captures experiences and insights from editors and scientists and encourages people to ask "Is it peer reviewed?" when reading science stories. Peer review is not perfect, of course, and nothing at all stops homeopaths, astrologers and activists from getting a group together and 'peer reviewing' articles that advance their agendas, but it is an easy way to separate wheat from chaff without being overrun by silly claims in mainstream media. Reading Science 2.0 instead of mainstream media is also wise.
A UK version is now used by health workers, librarians, public-health officials, policy-makers, technology companies, safety bodies, popular writers, educators, parenting groups and local government who speak directly with the public every day and answer their questions. Basically, understanding peer review and asking about the status of claims is important to society because it helps people make decisions.
Tracey Brown, Managing Director of Sense About Science, says, "We have to establish an understanding that the status of research findings is as important as the findings themselves. This understanding has the capacity to improve the decisions we make across all of society."
Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), says, "Kids! Parents! Teachers! The secret of science can be yours! By reading Sense about Science's invaluable guide "I Don't Know What to Believe," you'll learn what peer review is, why scientists use it, and how it makes science such a powerful tool! A must for anyone whose life is touched by science—oh, wait. That's everyone."
Deborah Kahn, Publishing Director at BioMed Central, said, "The ultimate purpose of all scientific endeavour should be for the public good, but how can the public trust the results of scientific research? Peer review plays a crucial role in informing public judgement through improving the quality and reliability of scientific output. The process of review and feedback is key in determining if science is robust and conducted in an appropriate manner. BioMed Central warmly welcomes the launch of the US version of the public guide to peer review"I Don't Know What to Believe…" as an important step towards helping the public make sense of science."
Dr. Peter R. Jutro, Deputy Director for Science and Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said, "Sound science is essential to the formulation of sound public policy; a robust peer review process is what helps ensure the quality of science the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency uses for decision making. Efforts that help the public recognize the role of peer review and insist on its use inevitably benefit public health and the environment."
Bob Meyers, President and COO of the National Press Foundation says, "Evidence-based journalism needs evidence-based science". Though it also needs impartial journalists, which science media is lacking.