Monday, October 26, 2009

Evaluating Sources as a Part of Science Literacy

Today information is readily available. But, how does a student evaluate the literature available? "Hype" and sales pitches are easy to read, but, do they provide accurate information? Some do. Some do not. How do you know?

There is much controversy over human chorionic gonadotropin, better known to the general public as HCG. How can we use science literacy skills to evaluate this compound? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know we typically start with general information and progress through Reach Reading TM to the refereed journal articles, which are peer reviewed.

Obesity is a problem. HCG is a product touted to contribute to lasting weight loss(Here's one website, but, there are many: Is that a factual concept? We know money is made from people trying various products or surgery to lose weight. How can one use science literacy to determine which information to believe? I am not saying use this example, HCG, for students. Pick something of interest to them. For example, if they have a pet cat, they might be interested in pet food advertisements and research that has been done on pet nutrition.

Do a search engine search for HCG (or a student- or teacher- selected topic). Pick a few articles. Evaluate them. How difficult is the vocabulary? Are the claims backed up with fact? Take some notes on points that interest you and remember to note the information to site the sources (left hand column of the blog has some style manual links if you need assistance with that).

Now, using some words or phrases that you find in the general literature to help you find information in the technical literature...the laboratory reports. Remember. the laboratory reports follow a format that is international in nature and are peer-reviewed (evaluated by other scientists in the same field):

  • Introduction (background information, and hypothesis to be tested),
  • Materials and Methods (procedures)
  • Results (data)
  • Discussion and Conclusions (discussion of the data, suggested public policy, suggested future experiments and requests for funding...)
  • Literature Cited (gives complete source information)

These "laboratory reports" will be easy to recognize if you follow the same format for your own classroom laboratory experiments (granted, simplified as per student ability).

Here are some examples of peer-reviewed ("refereed") journal articles on HCG:

1. Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG) in the Treatment of Obesity: A Critical Assessment of the Simeons Method by Frank L. Greenway, MD and George A. Bray, MD. West J Med. 1977 December. Vol. 127. No. 6. Pp. 461-463. PMCID:PMC1237915 pmc/articles/PMC1237915/

2. Effect of human chorionic gonadotrophin on weight loss, hunger, and feeling of well-being by W. L. Asher M.D.1 and Harold W. Harper M.D.1 From the American Society of Bariatric Physicians Research Council, 333 West Hampden Avenue, Englewood, Colorado 80110. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 26. Pp211-218. (c) 1973 by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition, Inc.

These two articles have opposing conclusions, so, to formulate my own opinion on this topic, I would have to find more research. Knowing myself, I'd probably do an exhaustive search. The idea is not for students to take my opinion, nor for them to take their teacher's opinion, but, rather for them to learn to form their own opinions and be able to back those opinions up with information from refereed journals.

Check who paid for the research. Does the article support or attack or remain neutral on the points of interest to you? Were the research methods sound? (This type of analysis must be done at the students level...but even pre-school children get the concept of control versus experimental, even if they may not know all the vocabulary.) Is the vocabulary tougher? If we want to know something, we learn the vocabulary. (I have seen students in elementary and high school science classes use the refereed journal articles and stay much more engaged in science class as a result. But, even if the articles are too hard to read, the students get the idea that research exists and if they have a need to know, they will find and learn to read the articles. Students have come back years later to thank me for introducing them to the journal articles. Two more notes: 1- Journal articles exist in all case you are an artist, or a history buff... 2- People that win the national science fairs typically read a few refereed journal articles.)

Sometimes you might come across related articles that are a bit off topic, yet peek interest in further study, such as research ...

on HCG and breast cancer risk (or lack of risk).; Accessed 10-26-09.

Find some refereed research articles on your selected topic(s).

Plan to write a persuasive essay based on your findings.

Most of all, have fun. I think of this as, "mental recreation."

Edit, Nov. 4, 2009:
Not convinced that refereed journal article reading is an important part of science literacy?
Want one parent's viewpoint on reading journal articles, which concurrently explains basic biology and genetic engineering? Try reading The Unhealthy Truth: How our Food is making us Sick and What We can do about It, by Robyn O'Brien [and] Rachel Kranz (Broadway Books (Random House), New York. 2009). Read more.

(c)2009 J S Shipman All rights reserved. Portions (c)1985-2009 J S Shipman. Used with permission of the author.

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