Approaching science with a critical eye

by Kevin Boehnke

As a second year doctoral student, I have dabbled in the immense ocean of scientific research. Science is intimidating to approach, similar to any other field that relies heavily on jargon. I can claim no expertise in my abilities, but I have developed some strategies that help me cut through (or avoid) baffling and frightening titles, such as “Organozinc Chemistry:  NMR Studies of Amino Acid-Derived Organozinc Reagents”.

Thus, I will go through the process that I use when formulating an argument or trying to validate new discoveries that I find interesting in the news or scientific journalism. With all of the posts on Thought and Awe that critique and discuss research that is done by others, I thought it would be illuminating to make transparent the processes that I personally use.

My steps when approaching an interesting piece of science that I want to know more about:

  1. When I know nothing about my topic I look it up on Wikipedia. This is a great place to get an overview of the ideas surrounding the topic and to come up with relevant search terms. Furthermore, all citations for the information on the webpage can be found at the bottom of the article, making it easy to verify the sources. Wikipedia has come a long way since it started out as a free-for-all, and I strongly endorse Wikipedia as a starting point. This will give you a nice background to see if the new knowledge you’re investigating is consistent with what has been done previously. However, beware of getting stuck in Wikipedia blackhole (you may find yourself looking up Ivan the Terrible three hours after your initial searches).
    File:Black Hole Milkyway.jpg

    Aaaaannnnndddd, you’re stuck. Source: Wikimedia commons

  2. Once I have an idea of what I’m looking for, I go to Google Scholar or PubMed. Since PubMed has all free publications, I typically go there. Google Scholar is great, but without university or professional licenses, one often hits pay walls and has to do more searching to actually access articles. Then, I look up review articles (the more recent the better) to get a view of controversies, knowledge gaps, and current work that is more targeted than the overview from Wikipedia. I do realize that not all people would want to search through scientific literature, and that I have a leg up because it is what I do for a living. However, if one is so inclined, after reading a few Wikipedia pages any person can find relevant peer-reviewed articles that relate to their topic of interest. File:PubMed.gif
  3. If you decide to look up articles that aren’t reviews, I would suggest that you first look at the abstract and then the discussion section. This gives an overview of the article and then a view of the (in my opinion) most interesting part of the paper. Discussions tend to be the most conversational and argumentative section of the paper, touching on weak points in existing methods, the work of other scientists, and how the current study ties into broader themes in the literature. It also gives me an idea of the author’s personal voice and writing style. If I like someone’s voice or argumentative pace, I try to find other papers that person has written (similar to how I find novels and other media). Note: Methods sections are tricky. They are one of the most important sections to check, because they can help you determine if the study is actually valid. However, it is very challenging to do so if you have no expertise in the field, since methods sections contain some of the most technical, arcane language in the entire breadth of scientific literature. Because of this, it is likely easier to determine their validity by seeing whether they have been embraced by experts in the field (which can often be determined by reading review articles).

  4. Once I have read some review papers, I note the references that are relevant to my specific question and try to find those in my database of choice. PubMed has useful functions that can be used to see how many times the article of interest has been cited, which can be helpful for validating its standing in the scientific field. I then look at the results and discussion sections those articles to ensure that they are accurately represented in the review.

  5. After looking through reviews and primary literature, I formulate my ideas and start writing.

Having seen some poor writing and having recently reviewed some nicely barbaric examples of my own, I try to keep in mind the excellent guidelines from George Orwell’s 1943 essay called “Politics and the English Language”:

      • Never use a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
      • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
      • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
      • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
      • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a  jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
      • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

As I was writing this, I was struck by the way that the process through which I developed my own methods for approaching the scientific literature mirrored those methods that I use in the lab or doing other science. I looked into different methods to try to solve a problem (using scientific literature in a meaningful way), tried some things that didn’t work (immediately diving into primary literature) and some that did (see my steps above).Then, I documented my methods so they can be followed by someone else. This development crystallized my belief that learning to apply science is a skill, and that anyone can apply it to questions that interest them.

Adapted from my post on Mind the Science Gap


Jackson, Richard FW, et al. “Concise synthesis of enantiomerically pure phenylalanine, homophenylalanine, and bishomophenylalanine derivatives using organozinc chemistry: NMR studies of amino acid-derived organozinc reagents.” The Journal of Organic Chemistry 63.22 (1998): 7875-7884. DOI

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.”  A Collection of Essays. Garden City: Doubleday, 1954. Print.