Scientific hoaxes: why citing the references is not enough


I am sometimes questioned by friends or relatives about one of the last scientific hoaxes. Usually, their dilemma is “is it true? Or is it just a hoax?”

Internet, social media, TV, the rating of information per minute is elevate and, sometimes, it is hard to to discern what is true from what is not. Do not get me wrong. The web is a powerful mean of communication, but understanding what is a valuable information is not an easy task, due to the ocean of options that we have to fish from, once we enter a key word into the browser.

I heard scientists recommending to do not trust articles that do not report references. But what does “reporing the references” mean?

Let’s make an example. You have just run into a post where they tell that eating one avocado a day makes skin shiner (just to be clear, I am making the story up :)). The author should cite the source of the news (e.g. the scientific journal Bla Bla, with the name(s) of the author(s), year, volume and pages…).

Unfortunately, quoting the source is not enough. Reporting the reference is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Why? Because not all the sorties are alike. So, how can we tell if a reference is a good reference?

In the scientific field, only articles from peer-reviewed journals are considered valid references. Are you getting a headache? OK, I explain myself…briefly, the article, after having passed a first editorial review, is sent to 2-3 persons (or even more, it depends on the journal) who are expert in the field. Those people are called “referees” and must evaluate the goodness of the paper, by recommending or rejecting the work.

Other valid sources are the websites of official organizations as IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) or FDA (Food and Drug Administration), just to provide two examples. The information reported by these organizations are based on the analysis of hundreds or thousands research works.

But let’s get back to the avocado’s post. If the author quotes only an article found on the local newspaper, well, let’s say that the post should be taken with a pinch of salt and more investigation is suggested.

Even reporting scientific articles from peer-reviewed journals does not guarantee 100% accuracy. For example, the author of the post might have cited only the work that supports the benefits of eating avocado, while overlooking the other 10 papers that demonstrate the opposite (please, I am still making things up about avocado). This process is notoriously known as “cherry picking”. It means selecting only those sources that support our theory, while ignoring the others.

But, how is it possible that a study might affirm something, while another neglects it?

Many think that science offers solid conclusions that are written in stone. I regret to say that’s not always the case. Science’s role is to ask questions, investigate and collect evidences to support theories. Sometimes, it happens that a new study, which has employed a new technology or a different experiment tal design, denies a former one. This is why it is important that science keeps investigating even on well-consolidated matters.

When trying to tell a story such the avocado’s one, all studies should be taken into account to have a good overview. Can you imagine how demanding such a work is?

But back to the original question, how do we understand if a scientific news is real or not? And overall, how do we now if the cited references are good enough? Are you puzzled? It’s normal, no worries :)

Speaking by experience, if the author reports some valid references, the post is probably fine, as some screening effort has been done. But besides the references, there is something else we can pay attention to: the level of emotionality.

What does it mean? I am going to explain it to you in another post :)

P.s. can you guess the name of the book in the picture? Come on, it is a classical one! :)