Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims

William J. Sutherland, David Spiegelhalter& Mark Burgman in Nature:

ScreenHunter_412 Nov. 23 16.11We are fully aware that scientific judgement itself is value-laden, and that bias and context are integral to how data are collected and interpreted. What we offer is a simple list of ideas that could help decision-makers to parse how evidence can contribute to a decision, and potentially to avoid undue influence by those with vested interests. The harder part — the social acceptability of different policies — remains in the hands of politicians and the broader political process.

Of course, others will have slightly different lists. Our point is that a wider understanding of these 20 concepts by society would be a marked step forward.

Differences and chance cause variation. The real world varies unpredictably. Science is mostly about discovering what causes the patterns we see. Why is it hotter this decade than last? Why are there more birds in some areas than others? There are many explanations for such trends, so the main challenge of research is teasing apart the importance of the process of interest (for example, the effect of climate change on bird populations) from the innumerable other sources of variation (from widespread changes, such as agricultural intensification and spread of invasive species, to local-scale processes, such as the chance events that determine births and deaths).

No measurement is exact. Practically all measurements have some error. If the measurement process were repeated, one might record a different result. In some cases, the measurement error might be large compared with real differences. Thus, if you are told that the economy grew by 0.13% last month, there is a moderate chance that it may actually have shrunk. Results should be presented with a precision that is appropriate for the associated error, to avoid implying an unjustified degree of accuracy.

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