Reading research for non-scientists – Part 1 of a Series


I taught myself how to read science, even going so far as to dive into statistics so I could understand what “p” meant. I did so originally so that I could understand the hygiene hypothesis, old friends hypothesis, and what came to be known as helminthic therapy. Later I continued to read it so I could do a better job helping clients, but primarily because I had grown to enjoy it.

Reading scientific papers is one of my favourite activities. I even have a “greatest hits” list of my favourite papers, which I reread. I have learned an enormous amount from the activity, and derived even more pleasure. Because of that I wanted to encourage others to do likewise.

Most of what I discuss I developed or thought in relation to my interest in and reading of medical research. But I found my attention drawn to other areas of knowledge as I become more comfortable, and have read papers on anthropology, human history, medical research, who gets admitted to medical school, what medical specialities attract the brightest (not brain surgery, that was number two), genetics, game theory, gambling, economics, the history of medieval, and Elizabethan, London, human evolution, ecosystem collapse, climate change, ocean acidity, biofilms, whatever catches my eye.

When I started I was openly ridiculed for having the audacity to read science, and to apply what I learned to my life.

How could I, a non scientist, be so arrogant? Why, I never even went to university.

I find that attitude very depressing. Science of all things should not be the preserve of specialists alone, nor should people be so quick to exclude themselves, or to disqualify themselves, from any activity so central to our world. So much of our lives is affected by it. We pay for it, we consume and live within it’s output, we live with the consequences. Who decides certain areas should be explored or developed?

For instance, who decided at the dawn of the atomic age that we should develop nuclear reactors that produce highly carcinogenic, dangerous, but weaponisable waste products with half lives of almost a quarter million years. But ignore an inherently safe alternative that does not produce, that actually destroys, such waste products? 

Clearly such choices have had, and will continue to have an enormous impact on our lives. For that reason alone, never mind our interest in taking more control over our health and well being, I think it should be more open, more democratic, and more participatory. Don’t forget, it is also a lot of fun.

It also provides enormous benefits, and very quickly. How often have you been told you need to take some new drug and wondered about it? Is the drug or therapeutic option being offered really better? What does better mean? How much better? Better for whom?

If you want to know after visiting the doctor whether the drug or surgery they recommend is as advertised, then the ability to find and understand the science concerned is of importance. If you want to go to the doctor and tell them what to do, then you have no choice at all.

The answers to some of those questions in relation to some of the most popular or commonly used drugs may surprise you. I will discuss some in later posts, hint: don’t waste your money on Claritin.

Originally I had thought to write it all as one post and to publish when finished. But the task is too large, and the result will be too long, so I am going to break it up.

I plan on discussing the following things, published here in a series of posts, currently outlined as follows*:

  1. Overview
  2. What is science (October 18th, 2014)
  3. Where science is published and how to find it (October 23th, 2014)
  4. Peer review (October 29th, 2014)
  5. Evaluating science (November 3rd, 2014)
  6. Type of scientific paper, their structure and interpretation (November 7th, 2014)

*Changed list of planned posts on October 17 to accommodate increase in number of planned posts and compressed publication schedule, moving dates up.