At Open Culture, Josh Jones discusses Richard Feynman’s suggestion for non-scientists to evaluate whether a claim is scientific or pseudo-scientific nonsense:
The problem of demarcation, or what is and what is not science, has occupied philosophers for some time, and the most famous answer comes from philosopher of science Karl Popper, who proposed his theory of “falsifiability” in 1963. According to Popper, an idea is scientific if it can conceivably be proven wrong. Although Popper’s strict definition of science has had its uses over the years, it has also come in for its share of criticism, since so much accepted science was falsified in its day (Newton’s gravitational theory, Bohr’s theory of the atom), and so much current theoretical science cannot be falsified (string theory, for example). Whatever the case, the problem for lay people remains. If a scientific theory is beyond our comprehension, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to see how it might be disproven.
Physicist and science communicator Richard Feynman came up with another criterion, one that applies directly to the non-scientist likely to be bamboozled by fancy terminology that sounds scientific. Simon Oxenham at Big Think points to the example of Deepak Chopra, who is “infamous for making profound sounding yet entirely meaningless statements by abusing scientific language.” (What Daniel Dennet calls “deepities.”) As a balm against such statements, Oxenham refers us to a speech Feynman gave in 1966 to a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association. Rather than asking lay people to confront scientific-sounding claims on their own terms, Feynman would have us translate them into ordinary language, thereby assuring that what the claim asserts is a logical concept, rather than just a collection of jargon.
The example Feynman gives comes from the most rudimentary source, a “first grade science textbook” which “begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science”: it shows its student a picture of a “windable toy dog,” then a picture of a real dog, then a motorbike. In each case the student is asked “What makes it move?” The answer, Feynman tells us “was in the teacher’s edition of the book… ‘energy makes it move.’” Few students would have intuited such an abstract concept, unless they had previously learned the word, which is all the lesson teaches them. The answer, Feynman points out, might as well have been “’God makes it move,’ or ‘Spirit makes it move,’ or, ‘Movability makes it move.’”
Instead, a good science lesson “should think about what an ordinary human being would answer.” Engaging with the concept of energy in ordinary language enables the student to explain it, and this, Feynman says, constitutes a test for “whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition.