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How to Recognize Good Environmental Science Using Information Literacy

In today’s culture of fast-paced media, blog posts, blurbs, sound bites, and talking heads, knowing how to spot good environmental science when you see it is more important than ever. The ability to distinguish between reliable information and unreliable information in the media is called information literacy.

As a global citizen and a citizen of your community, you can use your information literacy to assess environmental issues and the scientific data used to make policy decisions.

To increase your information literacy, you need to be aware of the three types of sources for scientific information:

  • Primary sources: Primary sources have the most recent and newly acquired scientific knowledge, and they’ve been evaluated by multiple other scientists to ensure that their methods are appropriate and their conclusions are logical. Peer-reviewed journals are an example of primary sources.

  • Secondary sources: Secondary sources explain the information from primary sources in a way that average readers can better understand. Magazines, newspapers, and books are all examples of secondary sources. Articles in secondary sources aren’t peer reviewed and can contain bias from the author or editor of the publication. They may also contain mistakes in how they interpret or represent the results of the scientific article.

  • Tertiary sources: Even further from the original source of information are tertiary sources, such as blogs and news commentary. These sources of information include a heavy dose of opinion by the writer or commentator.

    Tertiary sources can be a great place to learn the impact of new scientific knowledge on the cultural or political landscape, but often the scientific facts get lost in the heated debates and strong opinions. These are the least reliable sources of scientific information.

This table summarizes these three types of information sources so you can more easily see how they’re different.

Sources of Scientific Information
Source Type Characteristics Examples
Primary Peer reviewed and includes technical details Scientific journals
Secondary Easier to understand for non-scientists and may have some errors in interpretation Magazines, newspapers, books
Tertiary Includes opinion, is likely to have more errors, and is far removed from the original source Commentary, blogs, editorials

The best way to improve your information literacy and become more adept at recognizing bad science when you see it is to get out there and read. The next time you read a magazine, newspaper, or online article about any environmental science-related issue, look for the following characteristics to know that your source is presenting you with good scientific information:

  • The author cites a primary source (scientific journal) for any data presented.

  • The author of the article identifies people quoted by name and professional association (where they work, who they work for, and similar details).

  • At least some of the people quoted in the article are scientists or researchers in the field being discussed.

If your source doesn’t include any of these characteristics, consider the information they present with a healthy dose of skepticism. Fortunately, these days so much knowledge is available on the Internet that if the topic really interests you, searching key words online may help you find primary or secondary sources that provide the scientific facts you’re looking for.

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