How can we know whether a claim someone makes is scientific or not? The question is of the utmost consequence, as we are surrounded on all sides by claims that sound credible, that use the language of science—and often do so in attempts to refute scientific consensus. As we’ve seen in the case of the anti-vaccine crusade, falling victim to pseudoscientific arguments can have dire effects. So how can ordinary people, ordinary parents, and ordinary citizens evaluate such arguments?
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. Test it this way”:
Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word “energy,” tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.
Feynman’s insistence on ordinary language recalls the statement attributed to Einstein about not really understanding something unless you can explain it to your grandmother. The method, Feynman says, guards against learning “a mystic formula for answering questions,” and Oxenham describes it as “a valuable way of testing ourselves on whether we have really learned something, or whether we just think we have learned something.”
It is equally useful for testing the claims of others. If someone cannot explain something in plain English, then we should question whether they really do themselves understand what they profess…. In the words of Feynman, “It is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudoscience.”
Does Feynman’s ordinary language test solve the demarcation problem? No, but if we use it as a guide when confronted with plausible-sounding claims couched in scientific-sounding verbiage, it can help us either get clarity or suss out total nonsense. And if anyone would know how scientists can explain complicated ideas in plainly accessible ways, Feynman would.
via Big Think