How can a person who is not scientifically trained can assess the validity of the scientific claims made in published articles, on television, on the Internet, in advertisements, etc? There is no easy answer, but here are a few principles that might prove helpful:
1. Check if the author claims that something has been proven or declares something to be a fact; remember that this in itself is a very unscientific statement. Scientists are trained to be skeptical and ask questions.
2. Check if the author makes claims to have accomplished something that is beyond what has actually been done or is even possible to do. For example, is it possible to show that ALL mammals are controlled by anything?
3. Check if what is said is scientifically accurate–an elementary science mistake in the article is a give-away. For example, if the article says that something goes double the speed of light, distrust everything else it says, too!
4. Beware of grandiose claims. If the article or book says that it will cure all ills and reverse 100% of a particular condition, remember that if it looks like snake oil, sounds like snake oil, and tastes like snake oil…
5. Check if the claims can be tested scientifically, that is, can they be measured. If they can’t, then it is possible that the claims being made are not scientific. For example, the assertion that all girls would secretly like to be princesses is not scientific. After all, what double blind study showed that? Did they ask all girls? But, the girls were keeping it secret, so how could they? You get the idea.
6. Be careful when an author makes too much of the scientific qualifications of those involved or disparages those who do not agree his/her views; it may mean their argument is weak. For example, a scientist who says that “all research scientists agree with me” is using an argument from authority, not scientific reasoning. One who says that those who do not agree are “scientifically illiterate” is doing the same. Also, keep in mind that being a scientist or a physician does not make one infallible and that, just because the website says someone is world-renowned, it does not mean that they are.
7. Check that the “satisfied customers,” “experts,” study participants, and promoters of the idea or product do not stand to gain from their testimony or participation.
8. Finally, be skeptical. Do not be quick to believe people, especially when it involves your health and/or your money!
Take the AITSE Science Challenge: Can You Detect The Bunk?