How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists

Violent metaphors

Update (8/30/14): I’ve written a shorter version of this guide for teachers to hand out to their classes. If you’d like a PDF, shoot me an email: jenniferraff (at) utexas (dot) edu.

Last week’s post (The truth about vaccinations: Your physician knows more than the University of Google) sparked a very lively discussion, with comments from several people trying to persuade me (and the other readers) that their paper disproved everything that I’d been saying. While I encourage you to go read the comments and contribute your own, here I want to focus on the much larger issue that this debate raised: what constitutes scientific authority?

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Quack Economic Doctors

Keith Weiner Economics

Suppose you go to a doctor. You are in pain and you tell him that you feel like you are going to die. He takes your temperature, and sees that it is a perfectly normal 98.6F. He tells you to go home, you must be fine. He does not seem to be aware of any problem that can cause pain but not a fever (e.g. a broken vertebra, cancer, or bleeding). He is a quack.

It’s a good thing that real doctors have many diagnostics and indicators. They are not limited to just body temperature.

Let’s turn our attention to the monetary system. The quacks focus their attention on prices. The rate of change of prices—which they improperly define as inflation—is the monetary equivalent of body temperature in medicine. In some cases, it’s an important part of making a diagnosis.

And it is far from the only indicator.


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