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Can’t These People Read?

I keep seeing things that make me wonder, “Can’t these people read?”

I get emails from people who say they liked what I had written about various subjects that I have never written about; for instance, food customs in other countries. Can’t these people read? What are they thinking? And when I write my weekly article for the Science-Based Medicine blog, there are always commenters who don’t read the article but just use it as an excuse to jump on their own soapbox and expound on their own pet beliefs. Fortunately, there are plenty of other commenters who don’t let them get away with it.

Perhaps my most disturbing encounter with poor reading comprehension was when I reviewed Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage for Science-Based Medicine. What I tried to say was that the science of transgender was far from settled and that Shrier had asked some good questions that deserved to be addressed with further research. I have nothing against transgender people, but it bothers me when opinions are falsely claimed to be backed up by settled science.

In response, I was immediately accused of being a transphobe, of not being a skeptic, of promoting the ideas of TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), and of spreading scientific misinformation. I am one of three editors on SBM. The other two editors, Steven Novella and David Gorski, said they and “one other editor” had concerns about my book review; but there are no other editors. It turns out they were talking about a contributor who is not an editor, and they never corrected that error. They argued that the science of transgender is settled. They said my book review was insufficiently scientific and unworthy of SBM, and they took the unprecedented step of retracting it, something that had never happened in the entire 13-year history of the blog.

Michael Shermer promptly re-published my review, which can be read in the Skeptic Reading Room. A heated debate ensued over whether the retraction was justified. Many people thought it was not; one called it censorship and “defenestration.” Others pointed out the many errors they found in SBM’s subsequent defense of transgender science. Jesse Singal identified 19 errors, false claims, made-up quotes, endless misinformation, and even an instance of misdemeanor plagiarism. I will probably get some hate mail just for mentioning transgender again, but that will only be more evidence of poor reading comprehension.

Another common example of poor reading comprehension (or perhaps just failure to read?) is when people cite articles in support of a claim. All too often, when I read the cited article, it fails to support the claim or even argues against it. Is this a careless oversight, or are they intentionally trying to deceive? I can’t help suspecting they listed references after just reading article titles, without bothering to read the text.

And then there are the credulous media reports about scientific studies. An article on the webpage for Scientific American enthusiastically praised the new prescription eyedrop Vuity, saying “These drops could replace your reading glasses.” The truth is that some users might be able to dispense with their eyeglasses for a few hours3 if they didn’t notice any decrease in visual acuity.

Reporters are seldom scientists, and they can be lazy. Sometimes they regurgitate a press release without going to the trouble of reading the study and trying to understand the details. They may think that correlation means causation: if eating kumquats is correlated with living longer—that might be because those people have other healthy habits—but the media report may convince readers that they will live longer if they start eating kumquats. Preliminary studies based on animal or test tube research or even on unsupported speculation may be portrayed in the media as proof. If the researchers mention that the evidence was of poor quality and that further research is needed, the media reports often omit or downplay that information.

The Science-Based Medicine website has a prominent tab at the top of its home page explaining “How to submit a guest post.” It mentions that the people who write for SBM are not paid; our contributions are pro bono, for the public good, not for profit. Nevertheless, we editors are constantly bombarded with inappropriate inquiries. They ask if we will publish something they have written or would like to write, sometimes on a subject that is totally at odds with the values of SBM. They ask what publishing their article will cost, or how much they will be paid. As I was writing this, we received yet another inquiry asking, “What is the per post price on your website.” Can’t these people read?

My personal website is dedicated to making all my writings available in one place, with a searchable database. There is nothing on it by any other writer. I do not accept guest contributions. Anyone who has looked at my website could have noticed this. And yet people are constantly asking if I will publish their content and how much I will charge or pay. Can’t these people read?

I keep having to say the same things over and over: correlation is not causation, and personal anecdotes and testimonials don’t count as evidence. Many readers fail to understand. I received an email telling me I was wrong about dietary supplements. It said I should learn the truth by reading a dog food bag to learn which supplements were added to it. I had to explain, once again, why a dog food bag is not a reliable source of evidence and why a scientific study with a control group can provide more accurate information.

Is this a perverse refusal to acknowledge facts that contradict ideology, or is it a failure in reading comprehension? I can’t help but suspect the latter. Can’t these people read? END

About the Author

Harriet Hall, MD, the SkepDoc, is a retired family physician, former flight surgeon, and retired Air Force Colonel who writes about medicine, pseudoscience, alternative medicine, quackery, and critical thinking. She is a contributing editor and regular columnist for both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer magazines and an editor at, where she has written an article every Tuesday since its inception in 2008. She wrote the book Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. The full texts of all her many hundreds of articles can be read on her website

This article was published on January 31, 2023.

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