• Doug Moore

Useful Science can help you conveniently keep tabs on new scientific developments

Just about every day, new findings from fields across the scientific spectrum hit the newsstands. But because coverage of newly-released studies can be diffuse and inconsistent, it's tough to track all the new science that you might find interesting or relevant to your life. If you'd like to keep an eye on applicable science news via one convenient source, try Useful Science.

Useful Science is a non-profit aggregator site whose contributors — most of whom have substantial academic backgrounds in science — compile headline-length summaries of science news, with a specific focus on recently-published studies. For example, this study on the way that proposing non-round numbers in price negotiations affects counter-offers recently appeared on Useful Science with the headline "When negotiating prices, precise offers resulted in more favorable counteroffers compared to round offers (e.g., $21 compared to $20), as it gives the appearance of being more knowledgeable about the product." Likewise, this study on the relative value of oatmeal and cornflakes for breakfast appeared with the headline "Having oatmeal instead of cornflakes for breakfast led to feeling more full and subsequently eating less at lunch."

The site has a number of features that make it an appealing and efficient resource for those who approach science with a healthy balance of curiosity and skepticism:

  • Each headline-length post links to both the study itself, and most also link to a more extensive journalistic piece about the study. This makes it easy to look more closely at the methods and findings from each study, or to read a more extensive explanation for lay people.

  • You can sort updates by relevance category, such as creativity, education, nutrition, and productivity.

  • The site features a usefulness voting function for readers. Studies that receive thousands of "useful" votes land in the Most Useful category, making it easy to see what's really catching people's attention.

Browsing Useful Science provides a telling look at both the current direction of science and the way people respond to it. Many of Useful Science's most popular posts either confirm popular wisdom about health, such as this study on the tendency of e-readers and tablet devices to disrupt natural sleep patterns, or contradict it in ways that some might find surprising, such as this meta-analysis calling the effectiveness of acupuncture into question. Another common and frequent tack in Useful Science's posting involves social science that touches on the intersection between interpersonal relationships, social and romance, such as this analysis of the way social media profile pictures reflect different friendship preferences by gender, or this study on women's preferences among highly masculinized faces. It makes sense that these types of studies tend to do well on Useful Science — they convey information on subjects that have immediate and clear relevance to subjects that matter the most to people in daily life: health, goal achievement, and relations with other people.

While using Useful Science to keep track of science news can be both informative and entertaining, it's important to remember that the kind of stories it tends to cover face a number of important limitations when it comes to reliability and accuracy.

One such limitation is the limited ability of any individual scientific study to reliably assess the truth. Even thoroughly well-designed and rigorous studies can get things wrong thanks to random variance, especially in the social and health science realms that Useful Science tends to cover. This fact, frustrating though it may be, is a function of the way that is a function of the way that even well-conducted science works — a process that tends to find the truth gradually over the course many different experiments in the long term, but frequently produces false-positive results in the short run. (This feature of the scientific process is part of why it often appears to casual observers that the scientific consensus in fields like dietary science flip-flops every other week.)

Rather than taking the results of any one study as gospel, it's important to treat each one as a single data point in a series of data points that includes all research on the subject at hand — a piece of evidence that suggests what the truth might be, rather than a conclusive illustration of the truth. For more on how to update your beliefs in proportion with a new piece of evidence such as a scientific study, try our mini-course on Probabilistic Fallacies.

Another limitation to keep in mind when browsing Useful Science is the limited generalizability of many of the studies it features. For example, one recent study that appeared on the site found that people tend to eat less pizza if the pie is cut into smaller slices and placed on a relatively large table. While this finding has implications for the way people regulate their food intake — and thus for efforts to fight obesity — it evaluates such a highly specific situation that using it as a basis for broader claims about food packaging and public health policy is risky. Again, this result would have to be substantiated by multiple similar studies that test the same general concept before it could really be taken at face value.

All of this said, reading about contemporary science is both worth doing and a lot of fun. If you bear constraints like these in mind while perusing Useful Science, it can be a great way to keep up with the latest scientific developments in real time.

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