I'm a total layman, but sometimes I have really random specific questions, like What does science say about the transfer of learning, or what is the distribution of different of sexual fetishes in the population, or what do we know about how English warbow training evolved, etc.

Honestly, I'm a total noob, sometimes I find interesting things in google scholar by using it kinda like google but usually, I don't. If I'm very lucky a science journalist has written something on it, but often they don't and even when they do they can totally mislead, especially the popular ones.

For posterity, the answer I have found is that intro textbooks are the best in the very likely event there is no good popular science right up.

Though I was hoping for a faster way to find out what the consensus view is, especially for topics where I want to know what it is without having to wade into anything else or learn the how.

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    I think your question could be reduced to "How can I get an expert understanding without being an expert?" To which the answer is: You should study the topic until you are an expert. It's never easy to become an expert. May 12, 2019 at 2:20
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    I must sadden you. My general impression is that even for a professional scientist, getting acquainted with material not directly within one's area of expertise typically requires significant effort.
    – Blazej
    May 12, 2019 at 13:11
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: that's not the same. An expert is someone that participates to the establishment of the consensus, and know how this consensus was reached. It is not necessary to be an expert to know the consensus about global warming.
    – Taladris
    May 12, 2019 at 13:23
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    @Taladris No. For example, one can become an expert in classical mechanics without contributing to consensus views on the nature of classical mechanics. As for global warming, you do not need to be an expert to know it is happening, but you do need to be an expert to understand what academics conducting research on global warming are thinking about. That was part of the question. May 12, 2019 at 13:42
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Honestly, if the only people that ever know what the academic consensus is are academics in that field, it makes you wonder why people should fund research at all.
    – sgf
    May 12, 2019 at 15:41

5 Answers 5


Good question! If you are a total layman popular scientific magazines or blogs like the Scientific American from Nature Publishing Group or scienceblogs.com are a first source to spot which kind of views are represented in the community. Articles therein are mostly written by current or former academics and scientists with educational background in a scientific branch and contact to universities and researchers. And they skim the most important articles in the primary literature or visit conferences in their branch. But don't rely on single articles, always compare several sources, but the necessary background to understand such articles is often lower as a broader audience is focused by those publishers.

From there you could dive deeper into the scientific primary and secondary literature over Google Scholar/Books by searching and reading review articles that summarize the longer or recent past of a distinct scientific field. In the best case such review articles are written by several authors. In scientific fields like for example dark matter physics you will not be able as a layman to get a picture how much percent roughly believe in the current paradigm or an alternative theory. Searching on Google Scholar with intitle:"name of theory/paradigm" might give you some hint how much researchers work/favor alternative theories and open questions.

(Hand) Books written by several leading scientists in a field are in general a reliable source, though often not covering most recent developments in a distinct field. Textbooks will often need a solid background in distinct underlying theories (consensus on these?), even for academic graduates and interdisciplinary researchers in a field. I think a total layman cannot understand them and textbooks are often written by experts of a distinct view/theory, not of competing theories, and not the main spot to discuss alternative theories, rather journals.

Concerning life sciences, published meta studies that analysed and evaluated the data of many published smaller former studies that refer to a distinct scientific question like for example "dying of bees" are a good first source. So here we have to distinguish between views/theories and data. But, if meta studies show that the data amount is too low or contradicting other data, then there can be no consensus concerning a distinct question.

If this all doesn't help you, skeptics.stackexchange.com is a very good site to ask which theory/cause is currently favored by the majority of the scientists or what the data favors. But like Scholarpedia and Wikipedia you cannot be sure the answers or articles are written by scientists with educational background in the related field. But as a layman, I think it is rather important to know if the majority agrees, are there ongoing discussions, is the scientific community in a field split up, what is the current paradigm and how much research is ongoing on alternative theories and open questions. Popular scientific magazines/blogs normally cover such questions. If you are interested in more details, asking on a related scientific sites on Stack Exchange is another option to get often a discussion/answer by several scientists or students in a field.

I agree with the comments and want to explain that one major problem with finding a "consensus view" in the scientific literature is that basically it is the job of scientists to try to falsify the current paradigm/theory/consensus, especially when there exists a strong consensus, but the theory is incomplete or doesn't explain everything sufficiently. But one also has to distinguish here between theories and facts/data. If you ask for instance if dark matter can be the only add-on to explain rotation velocity of stars in galaxies, then most astrophysicists would currently favor this explanation/view, though there are also astrophysicists who work on alternative theories/explanations. Those might get also attention (more than they deserve) in popular scientific magazines and this good from my point of view to foster falsifying theories. You could also ask is there a consensus on the general relativity theory and likely most of the astrophysicists would say it is currently the best theory we have before a unification of all physical theories. There would probably be a bigger consensus that space-time is a physical entity than general relativity is the final theory because, again, there are few theories in physics that have a "final" tag. The evolution theory in biology is maybe not perfect and covering everything, especially genes and epigenetics, but mutation and selection is the paradigm I would say 99% of biologists agree with. For climate science, to my knowledge, most in the community (>90%) agree that the data in conjunction with theoretical simulations points to human-made global warming. I show these examples to explain to you that there might be a strong consensus on data rather than a theory concerning a distinct question. In popular scientific magazines/blogs this difference can be more undermined than in scientific journals or books.

The minorities are and have to be covered in popular science, maybe also in a stronger kind than their alternative theory/view is really represented in the community. So if you really want to know if the majority believes in one theory, if there is a consensus, always check several of above sources like wikipedia, popular scientific magazines and blogs! You can also make a poll among scientists on consensus on data and/or theory, and Stack Exchange is maybe the best place for this currently, if you chose sites with a high density of scientists or expert/layman ratio frequenting it like mathoverflow.se or cstheory.se, stackexchange sites like physics.se are too much diluted by laymen for a poll to a mainly scientific audience.

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    Most of your suggestions do not indicate consensus. Instead they indicate the views of a few people. Of your suggestions, meta studies are the only ones that might be interpreted as consensus. However, usually meta studies show the consensus data, which is different from the consensus views of scientists. May 12, 2019 at 2:18
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    The problem with Scientific American (and, ever more so, the New Scientist) is that they tend to report on "exciting" things which are often the new interesting thing and thus not the stuff over which consensus has developed. They're also prone to being the views preferred by a small group of scientists who are pushing their take. Books written by scientists have the same problem, they are usually a personal view rather than a consensus take. Textbooks are drier but better for this. May 12, 2019 at 9:43
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    Scientific American is a very bad source if you want to hear the whole story. You get a lot of individuals ranting that the consensus is wrong because their personal theory solves everything, while conveniently neglecting to mention any of its many problems. People often write in Scientific American and similar popular sources when they can’t convince real scientists but would like to pretend they can.
    – knzhou
    May 12, 2019 at 10:40
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    I would like to add the caveat that Skeptics SE, while usually quite good in terms of depth of research for the answers, occasionally falls victim to opaque modding practices (for example, wholesale deletion of threads without the usual "Comments deleted" message, leaving no evidence that a discussion took place at all), so the answers and discussion you receive from them may not exactly be representative of a broader consensus either. May 12, 2019 at 22:25
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    In general I think Wikipedia - as much criticized as it is - is the ideal place for a layman to look and should be definitely the first place to look. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but even in the case of opposing views at least both views will be clearly laid out. And given the two example questions (transfer of learning and fetishism epidemiology) posed by the OP both are touched upon in their respective Wikipedia articles. It definitely seems to be a more balanced source than popular science magazines (even if it makes for a far less interesting read). May 13, 2019 at 10:20

First off

sometimes I find interesting things in google scholar by using it kinda like google but usually, I don't.

you should not be doing this, because it will mostly result in you not finding much, as you've experienced. This is not because you're a layman, but rather you are not asking a very specific question. Scientists in general do not probe questions which are as broad as

what is the distribution of different of sexual fetishes in the population

This question is extremely broad and complicated because it talks about "different sexual fetishes" in the entire population. It needs to be more specific after taking into account a lot of different factors. Let's take for example fetish A, and the country of England. We can then start to formulate a very specific question.

How has the portrayal of fetish A through long-duration televised media affected its perception in the millenial Indian population in England?

or a bit broader

Exploring the positive and negative sentiments millenial Indians hold towards fetish A across England

I do not think, this is a question you would ask.

You need to take a holisitic approach towards exploring science. In no certain order,

  • One of the best ways you can learn about science is by connecting with scientists and science communicators via twitter.
  • Use Wikipedia as much as you can
  • Become a part of citizen science projects
  • Subscribe to science channels on youtube (my favourite one is Kurzgesagt)
  • Subscribe to print publications like the Atlantic, which has an extremely good science section. I would suggest New Yorker, but personally I don't find it to be very consistent.
  • As said before, ask your question on Skeptics.SE
  • If you do keep on using google scholar, use the filter panel on the left to look for only Reviews and filter for articles published in the last five years.

Scientists will almost always have differing viewpoints regarding the existence, reasons behind, and median income relationship of fetish A. So when you do read a review, be sure to pay close attention to the authors. If you have read a review by the same author before, skip it. We scientists are humans, and we tend to push our own views in the reviews we write. A completely impartial review is hard to come by.


For a layman, listening to the podcasts could be a nice shortcut. But not just any. There are some podcasts out there in which scientists discuss their ideas and their challenges. I personally found it a great way to understand the consensus of their field.

Of course, since it's a conversational medium, there can't be much math/dirty works. Yet, it's not free of it either, meaning that you should have some prerequisite on the concepts at least to follow.

The main problem maybe is that and not all the fields have such podcasts. Additionally, I also find it hard to find the correct podcast. I list the ones I know, hoping that the recommendation system of the podcast app you use guides you to some show that you might be into.


I like this question very much, and was curious to see the answers and hoped I might be able to apply some of them.

On reflection I realized that, unfortunately, this question cannot be sufficiently qualified such that it becomes answerable.

Academia and study are fundamentally an imprecise process of guesswork. Our brains are not 100.0% perfect at derivation, inference and system modeling. The majority of our most significant and useful discoveries were accidental and/or the result of arbitrarily being in the right place at the right time.

Not only are we using torches with all-but-flat batteries in them, we're really touchy about the correctness of the mental models we've worked on thus far. (Especially when research trusted for years abruptly gets thrown out...)

We cope by this by banding together and forming superstitious cliques of agreement about which is The Correct Answer (or, in some cases, The Correct Opinion) to a particular problem or domain. Those with the best marketing skills stay in the race as long as the perspectives and models they propose remain just beyond our abilities to fully reason about them.

I may well be wrong, but I think that you're not really asking for information, but are instead trying to find the social group you resonate the most with.

I don't fit in either. It's okay.

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    This has been anonymously -1'd. I am very interested in constructive feedback regarding misunderstanding of the question on my part.
    – i336_
    May 13, 2019 at 13:45
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    It's not a misunderstanding. I simply disagree with your relativistic epistemology. Most scientist would. Also, I'm not sure how practically useful this answer is for someone who, like OP, is a non-expert and tries to identify the scholarly mainstream view on some topic. May 13, 2019 at 14:14
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    and sorry for the fly-by downvote. May 13, 2019 at 14:20
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    Thanks very much for adding the constructive criticism behind the -1. I agree that my view is relativistic (and TIL epistemology :) ). It's something I'm still figuring out. I also know I'm not great at articulating ideas properly yet; the above is a bit of a lopsided caricaturization.
    – i336_
    May 16, 2019 at 4:11

If only there were a network of Q&A websites where you could post such queries and get answers from experts, with a voting mechanism to establish consensus (or lack thereof). ; )

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