Longevity Literacy Pt. 2: Fact and Fiction in the Popular Press

popular press literacy


Did you know that 88% of people on the Mediterranean Diet live more than a hundred years? Or have you heard about that study from MIT’s Board of Anti-Aging Researchers that connected video game play with increased fall risks?

Well, I hope you haven’t…because I just made these claims up.

In the first part of this series on science literacy in longevity research, I offered some tips for figuring out the credibility of a website and its authors. In this section, I’m going to give you some tips for discerning the validity of an article’s argument. Hopefully, you’ll get some new tools for your arsenal that will prevent you from falling prey to bogus claims about life extension and healthy aging.


Tip 1: Find the publication date.


The Internet is a weird place where information constantly circulates. Something that you saw last year has an eerily high chance of popping up again in your newsfeed or inbox. The easiest thing that you can do when reading about “breaking news” is to determine when the news actually broke. For example, if a study came out 20 years ago and claimed to have found a link between cell phones and rising dementia rates, you should be cautious.

When I find these older articles, I oftentimes stop and ask myself, “What? Why haven’t I heard about this before?” This is where you should take a moment to put the article (and its findings) into the appropriate context. In this case, research about aging and cell phone use seems strange because cell phones had barely hit mainstream consumers by the late 1990s. Researchers wouldn’t have had enough information to really understand the relationship between the two. We can see a similar scenario today when we discuss the connections between vaping and aging. Vaping hasn’t been popular for very long so the current studies will be pretty limited in scope.


Tip 2: Read the article…


Read for evidence that makes the argument make sense to you. Note any inconsistencies or some claims that seem too good to be true. Remember that research and press coverage of research aim to do completely different things. While the popular press might emphasize the potential of a research finding, the researchers in the lab highlight what they actually saw or did.

Take the young blood case as an example again. Press coverage underscored the anti-aging potential of injecting young blood into human subjects. The actual scientific article, on the other hand, described an experiment done by combining the circulatory systems of mice. If you read the article all the way to the end, you’ll usually find some indicator of the limitations of the study. In my experience with longevity research, these limitations usually arise from the fact that the study was done on animal models and not human participants.


Tip 3: Read the article…and then read another one.


I get it. We all like to be right. And we do a lot of things in our lives to prove that we make the right decisions. But we’re usually not nearly as inclined to prove ourselves wrong, are we? Perhaps for this reason, we have a tendency to read one thing, agree with it, and share that information to large groups of people.

However, just think of how differently you would react if you disagreed with something. Think of a time when you went to the doctor’s office, and you didn’t feel confident in the diagnosis. Many people will then go seek a second opinion. But you don’t see this happening as much with people who are satisfied with their doctors.

I’m not suggesting that you disagree with everything you read or encounter, but I do want to encourage you to come into longevity research findings as a skeptic. When you open an article, come in with the mindset that it has to prove something to you. You are the judge and jury of the information, not just some empty container that it fills.

Writing, whether scientific or not, is feeding you a story. And its job is to convince you to believe it. Your job is to question it, wrestle it, and gleam the useful bits from it. Then, you seek a second opinion.

Regardless of the author or webpage’s credibility, always try to find another article that talks about the same thing. Compare the multiple stories. Are they saying the same thing? What are their similarities and differences? Consider each different article as a piece of evidence. Ask yourself if the pieces make a more united or chaotic story. If you’re lucky, sometimes you’ll even find articles that approach the same issue from opposing viewpoints. And that’s great! Diverse perspectives get the closest to understanding the complexity of the full story.


Tip 4: Check their sources.


In the last part of this series, I encouraged you to check the credibility of your sources. Now, I’m suggesting that you also check the credibility of the article’s sources. Scroll back up to the bogus claims that I made at the beginning of this post. There, I used official-sounding statistics and evoked places that you usually associate with good scholarship or validity. In short, I used a similar writing style to scientific reporting—but I didn’t look up any evidence whatsoever.

Hyperlinks are the bread and butter of online credibility. These little clickable pieces of text allow you to read for yourself and make your own conclusions much like the citations in an academic text. So what should you do with these links when you see them in a news story? Click them! If it’s a reputable site, its hyperlinks will take you to primary material like a scientific journal article, an interview with researchers, or other sources of information.

Don’t take links for granted. Especially in this era of ‘fake news,’ many claims arise with little support to back them up. As online fact checkers note, this lack of credible sources leads to mass misperceptions. In short, follow the link. If the link brings you to a long-winded article that you don’t want to read, simply use the Find function (Cmmd+F on Mac; Cntrl+F on PC) to discover if and where the article mentions the thing that you’re researching. You should be hesitant if the linked article doesn’t actually talk about the topic at hand.

A lack of hyperlinks should also raise some red flags. If you find a blog article about a scientific study, it should have a link to the original document somewhere…even if it’s behind a paywall. Not using hyperlinks to support claims shows 1) a lack of rigor and 2) lessened credibility in the information. If your friend tells you that she caught a massive fish last weekend, you’ll probably ask to see the pictures as proof. The same goes for longevity research. If you can’t see actual evidence supporting its claim, then you’d be wise to doubt its wild fish stories.


From Popular Press to Academic Press


With these tips in mind, you can separate facts from their embellishments in the popular press. It only takes 2-3 minutes to find the date and check the article’s sources. Remember, you are an active participant in what you read. You get to decide if it’s believable, but you should also be able to articulate why you doubt or accept it. While these first two posts in the series have focused on articles in the popular press, the next post jumps genres and provides a map for navigating the dense language (or jargon) of scientific publications.


Image Credits: IvelinRadkov on Getty Images/iStockphoto