Microbe Mythbuster

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.

John F. Kennedy

What is Truth?

Truth is a philosophical construct whose meaning has been debated since humans invented language. That’s not the focus of this endeavor.

This project is more about Reason, also a philosophical construct. Reason provides a path for pondering the truth. According to some, truth results when people apply reason appropriately about an issue at hand. This is the goal of science.

Maybe you have recently heard a claim about a nutritional supplement or seen an advertisement for a pharmaceutical drug touting amazing benefits if you take it, and wondered if you should. Or you thought about the health risks associated with getting a flu vaccine, or considered taking a probiotic because your cousin’s friend said you should? How can you know what would be best for you?

There exists a vast body of scientific studies conducted on an infinite number of topics in science and medicine that is published in scholarly journals and stored in searchable databases. By conducting an organized review of the published research on the topic and applying “appropriate reason,” you can decide for yourself what would be best for you, rather than relying on advice from ads or people you don’t know.

The conduct of scientific research is guided by practices collectively referred to as the scientific method, in which experiments are designed to answer questions about a hypothesis. In a perfect world, experiments are carefully designed to ensure that the data collected and the results derived from them are objective and without bias. If the results are significant, the science gets published in a journal as a way to communicate the findings to other interested people. Volumes of journals have historically been stored in libraries, where articles contained therein could be read and copied if relevant. It is no longer necessary to hunt through dusty “stacks” of print journals to find a scientific article, because a huge number are now “open access” or available electronically through a library interface.

There are differences between articles published in scholarly journals and those in other types of publications, and the major difference is peer-review. It’s important to note that use of the term “publication” includes papers published in electronic form as well as in print.

You should view a short video available at http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/peabody/tutorial_files/scholarlyfree/, which explains how to tell the difference between a source reference from a scholarly publication and one published in the popular media.

Your instructor will be providing you with a microbiology-themed notion that you may have heard about before starting this project. Depending on the preferences of your instructor, you may investigate your assigned idea as a written assignment, or you may be asked to format the assignment in presentation software (such as PowerPoint) and make a formal presenation.

Before doing any research, reflect on and then write down your first impressions and personal views about the idea you’ve been provided. If you are unfamiliar with the idea, or even if you feel you understand it well, do a little background searching of the topic using popular sources (such as Google and Wikipedia) to gather background information before embarking on your scholarly search.

Debunk the Myths, Support the Truth

So much of what you hear on the evening news related to discovery in science and medicine comes from research conducted at universities and medical colleges. The funding for this research may come from government sources, and is therefore paid for by the taxpaying public. However, given the limited size of the pot, research is also conducted by private companies who then profit from research that culminates in a profit-bearing product. When research leads to publication in a “highly ranked” journal (ranked according to the journal’s “impact factor,” based on the number of times articles published in the journal are cited as a reference in other publications), a brief description of the study and its outcome are released to the popular media for reporting to the general public. Sometimes government policy is developed using published studies as a foundation for legislation.

Scholarly and non-scholarly reporting of scientific discovery means that people today have the unprecedented opportunity to make informed decisions about things that may affect their lives. However, it also provides fertile ground for the dissemination of information designed to “market” the idea to gain popular support. Once entrenched in the public conscience, misapplied “facts” may become “myths”—persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. How do you tell the difference?

For this project, you will investigate whether a common microbiology idea is scientifically conceived and the degree to which it is “true,” by evaluating and reporting on research published in scholarly journals. The components to be included in your report or presentation are specified below.

1. Review popular opinion and develop a thesis

Once you know your Mythbuster subject, look for background information and opinions among sources that are not considered “scholarly.” This includes popular press sources such as newspapers, magazines, internet sources, or Great Aunt Martha who knows everything.

From your accumulated knowledge on the topic, develop a thesis on the topic, and assert what you think about it in a thesis statement—a one or two sentence prediction of what you believe to be true. The thesis statement should be focused and specific enough to be provable within the boundaries of your investigation.

As you search for the “reason” to back up the “truth,” you may find that your thesis can’t be supported by the available scientific evidence. However, you have to be flexible, objective, and honest when you construct and conduct your search of the scientific literature and not just look for ways to make your opinion seem true.

2. Search the scholarly literature

Scientists who think their research is significant communicate the results through publication in scientific journals. Most medical and scientific organizations publish journals related to a professional field—the American Society for Microbiology, for example, publishes several journals such as Applied and Environmental Microbiology and Journal of Clinical Microbiology, among others. Manuscripts submitted to scientific journals are sent to a panel of other scientists, who review them for scientific legitimacy and integrity. This insures that the data and results are obtained from carefully designed, reproducible experiments, and the conclusions are evidence-based. Once they are peer-reviewed and approved, they are incorporated into a volume of the journal and published.

It is important to consider that in a perfect world, using science and the scientific method to understand nature is a logical, objective, and totally unbiased process, that peer-reviewers are always honest, and that peer-reviewed articles represent the “truth.” As several recent high profile cases illustrate, in which published studies have been “retracted” due to fraud on the part of the researchers and/or their reviewers, the process isn’t perfect. This is particularly true when the financial or personal stakes are high.

Once you have developed your thesis statement, the next step is to look for published research studies pertaining to your topic. You can refer to http://www.wikihow.com/Find-Scholarly-Articles-Online/ for a concise overview of how to construct and conduct a search for scholarly articles on a topic of interest.

Many libraries at colleges and universities, such as the State University of New York library system, have access to huge databases containing millions of scholarly articles. Therefore, another excellent starting point is to enlist the assistance of a reference librarian in your college library, who can tell you what article databases are available and can help you construct your search. Reference librarians are particularly helpful when it comes to deciding on the right words or phrases, so that your search yields a manageable number of returns, not too few or too many.

Be objective when you decide on which articles to read further. Don’t limit yourself to only those that agree with your thesis 100%. Peruse the abstract, and if it sounds like the article will be relevant to your idea, download the entire article (full text) and read the full content.

3. Create an annotated bibliography of selected scholarly articles

At this point you have (hopefully) browsed through a large list of articles pertaining to your subject. For those that you decided to read in greater depth, prepare a bibliography using the citation format preferred by your instructor. Some of the databases will actually write the citation for you, and again, your reference librarian can help you locate and access the citation application if it exists for that database.

You should provide citations for all of the articles you selected. Of those you include in the bibliography, select three of the articles that you feel exemplify your idea, and write a brief annotation to accompany the citation. “Annotated” means that after the citation, write a brief one to two paragraph summary of the objectives and outcomes of the research presented in the article. The final sentence of the summary should discuss how the article relates to your thesis. An example of an annotated reference is shown below (the citation format is APA).

Fava, F., Lovegrove, J. A., Gitau, R., Jackson, K. G., & Tuohy, K. M. (2006) The gut microbiota and lipid metabolism: Implications for human health and coronary heart disease. Current Medicinal Chemistry, 13, 3005-3021.

Summary: Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the leading cause of mortality in Western society, affecting about one third of the population before their seventieth year. This article reviews the modifiable risk factors associated with CHD and discusses the hypothesis that diets rich in sources of dietary fiber and plant polyphenols promote better coronary health. Plant fibers are metabolized by the gut microflora, and are converted into biologically active compounds that are complementary to human metabolism. Metabolism of plant fibers by the gut microflora may prevent or otherwise beneficially impact impaired lipid metabolism and vascular dysfunction that typifies CHD and type II diabetes. Overall this article supports my thesis that the bacteria in the human gut make positive contributions to a person’s overall good health.

4. Write a summary and conclusion

Paper Option: In a paragraph (or two), summarize the scope of the project, the idea you are investigating, and restate your thesis. In two to four paragraphs, summarize the research that you discovered in your search of the scholarly literature, being sure to include the appropriate citation for each reference. In a final paragraph (or two), compare and contrast the non-scholarly information with what you learned from your search of the science, and discuss whether the scientific evidence was in support of your thesis, or if the evidence did not support your view. Consider whether you are sticking with your thesis or if you want to change it, and what amendments might be appropriate based on the scientific evidence.

Presentation Option: Using PowerPoint (or other presentation software), develop your report into a ten minute talk, which you may be scheduled to give as an oral presentation.

License

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Microbe Mythbuster by Holly Ahern is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.