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Critical appraisal of science communication: Exploring the Science behind the News

GRAD700R Section 002- SEM (1491) 
Conveners: Cecile Janssens, Epidemiology & Marta Gwinn, Epidemiology

TUESDAY 3-6pm; Location TBD

This course focuses on the coverage of scientific research in the media and other (non-scientific or semi-scientific) sources. The goal of the course is to make students aware of how scientific research is covered and what relevant details are typically left out or overlooked. The aim of the course is to develop a critical attitude toward reported scientific facts (‘the News’). The intent of the course is to encourage curiosity, increase scientific perceptiveness, and develop a healthy skepticism.

The course addresses science communication from various disciplines including public health, law, global health, medicine, sociology, anthropology and others. Each discipline has its own issues regarding accurate presentation in the media, including unique ways in which topics are misrepresented. Examples will come from newspapers, magazines, gray literature (informally published written materials, such as reports from government agencies and working papers) and other sources. The course consists of lectures about key theoretical concepts and discussions of timely examples from the news and other non-scientific sources. 

This course is particularly recommended for students who want to be critical ‘consumers’ of the news. The course focuses on science news but many of the topics addressed apply to all news. 

This course has three main goals:

  1. To understand the scientific process. What is evidence? What is the difference between data, information and knowledge? What can be concluded from scientific studies, and what not? What is the scientific method? What is knowledge synthesis?

  2. To understand the strategies and dynamics in the process of science communication. Science journalism: how does science get in the news? Science communication process: who is involved and what are their interests? What are heuristics and how do they impact interpretation of the news? Numbers in the news: how are numbers presented and how are they made bigger than they are? Who is the messenger and why is that important to know? What is framing and how is it used to impress? What are cues to enhance the credibility of the research findings? What are different ways to present the same (simple) statistics, and how do they tell a different story?

  3. To know where and how to search for evidence. Where do you find the latest evidence? How do you know it is the latest and best evidence available?