We are all laymen in most areas. How do you avoid the trap (assumed in many questions) of accepting scientists as authorities or their conclusions, "on faith?"
Ask for a review of all the evidence: either find and read the original papers yourself, and evaluate them yourself, or ask someone who has read the papers to summarize all the evidence (quickly, without repeating). Then go through the points of evidence one by one, weighing their value as evidence. You have to evaluate it honestly yourself--- how likely is this evidence to be coincidence? How likely is it that it was something else, including something else we haven't thought of? Is there any smoking gun--- something which can't be explained any other reasonable way other than the hypothesis being tested? It's just like anything else, you use common sense. Common sense usually is formalized in science by calling it Baysian statistics. If your common sense doesn't match Baysian statistics, then you should change your common sense.
Do NOT use any social method, including "follow the money" (sometimes people say something in their self-interest which coincidentally also happens to be true). Or "trust the experts with politics I like" (the politics and accuracy don't correlate), or "trust this smart lady/fellow" (this smart lady/fellow are often wrong).
If you don't understand something, ask in a forum like this what it means. At the end, you will understand the evidence, for example, the evidence for dark matter I summarized here, and it should be pretty persuasive: Are there reputable physicists who don't believe dark matter exists? . How do I know it's persuasive? It persuaded me!
At the end, you are usually sure, or sometimes, you just end up thinking there isn't enough evidence (generally, people tend to underestimate the strength of certain kinds of evidence, like a very strong objectively certain reproduced fact, and overestimate the strength of lots and lots of non-evidence, like a bunch of really authoritative experts saying some anecdotes--- the latter counts as zero evidence).
Finally, once you are done, you compare with the social knowledge in the review papers, and see if everyone agrees with you. Nearly all of the time, all the reviews say the same thing as what you reached from reviewing. If not, they usually explain exactly why certain evidence was unreliable, either becuase someone committed fraud, or else there was a mistake in the analysis, and so on. If you don't have time to do a review, please, don't be lazy and just socially go along with the review article or consensus, because this is how false consensus is perpetuated. Let people who did read the papers duke it out, and join in when you've gotten some sense of what's what.
I am not being naive here, but in such cases, you are not in a position to make a judgement. You only have the option to take a stand based on perceived trustworthiness of the source, and/or based on communal credibility.
Unhelpfully, the 'perceived trustworthiness' is often based on subjective reasons, and in polarizing topics of research, it may be affected by one's own political biases. For example, in nature vs. nurture debates in genetics and psychology, social reformists are more likely to align with research that downplays the role of nature. In contrast, LGBTQ organizations are more likely to support research that emphasize such a role.
For more technical and deep research, unfortunately, I don't think the solution offered by Ron Maimon and Malcom Sergeant are practical. Their answers trivialize the multi-layered brain acclimatization that experienced academics have, but educated laymen don't. For anything beyond media-friendly subjects such as sociology and economics, even when presented with enough evidence, the educated layman may not be able to 'join the dots' and construct an explanation that appears convincing.
Take, for example, the theory of abiogenesis of oil - a theory that claims that crude oil-formation is predominantly through geological processes that don't involve organic matter, thereby raising the possibility that the oil will never run out. Most people in the US, including the department of energy don't accept the idea of abiogenesis. On the other hand, there is a small minority of abiogenisis supporters who draw evidence from soviet research in the cold-war era.
Most educated people in the US see the abiogenesis camp as truthers who try to attract cheap attention. But more importantly, hardly anyone looks are primary evidence, which is often quite old, propreitary, or in Russian. Worse still, information regarding these theories is often obtained in the form of vitriolic criticism of the 'other' camp and lateral attacks such as "the Russians used terrible methods" or "the Americans conspired to keep oli prices high".
I for one, know that I have neither the time, nor the depth and breadth of knowledge to objectively evaluate all the primary evidence. Since I trust the DOE, I go with the biogenetic theory. And I know many educated laymen do the same.
Science is not immune to reputations.
Ok, let's test your hypothesis using your example. You are probably an educated layman regarding geology and chemistry, I have no special expertise either, except for some knowledge of quantum mechanics, some familiarity with chemistry and biology, and a lot of familiarity with academic papers and with academic politics. Let's review the evidence. There is a whole body of literature at our disposal.
If you use political metrics, nearly all the Western experts are in a consensus against abiogenic petroleum, while the old Soviet literature supports this idea (I can't read Russian either, I am largely relying on Thomas Gold for the insights in the Russian literature, he read Russian and also worked on this theory)
The evidence for abiogenic petrolium is listed by Gold. Let's review it. I will give you a summary of the main points, free of vitriol:
First, the two hypotheses:
Biogenic: Oil is made from biological sea-creatures, with a form of kerogen as an intermediate. Coal is petrified forest, land-plants where everything but the carbon was removed.
Abiogenic: Methane is flowing from the mantle through cracks, and carries with it longer chain hydrocarbons. These progressively oxidize the hydrogen away, making heavier oil, finally oil-shales, and the terminal stage of this process is just a carbon layer with all the hydrogen gone, which is coal.
Ok, it's two hypotheses. Let's look at the evidence for 1. The main evidence is the following:
1. Oil has been looked for and found in sedimentary rocks, usually with a cap-stone, and commercial quantities of extracted oil are generally found in sedimentary layers. This means that the biogenic theory is what has made more money so far, at least in the West.
2. The oil is contaminated by biomarkers, so that there are complex organic compounds sometimes associated with plant photosynthesis, except with different metals occupying the position usually occupied by some other metal when in chloroplasts.
The first of these is consistent by simple search bias. It is expensive to drill down to bedrock, and oil which is trapped in sedimentary layers close to the surface is much more accessible. One must remember that the biogenic theory predicts that no oil at all should be found in regions without sedimentary rocks, and that no oil should be ever be found trapped underneath bedrock. But there are oil-fields in the Soviet Union in bedrock (they didn't believe the biogenic theory), producing commercial quantities of oil, and a major oil field in Vietnam producing commercial quantities of oil from bedrock.
Further, Gold dug for oil in a region of Sweden where there is no sedimentary rock to speak of, he selected this place precisely because it cannot form oil biogenically, and still he found 80 barrels of oil. This is a tiny amount for commercial purposes, but not for scientific purposes--- he was testing the biogenic theory, and it failed. This is at the Siljwan (sp?) crater. This experiment was attacked in unscientific ways in the literature, but it is not an isolated event. The critics claimed that Gold was contaminating the site with a drilling oil. So Gold repeated the experiment with water as a drilling fluid, and found the 80 bbl, but it was poor quality oil which gunked up the pipes, because it was contaminated with sludge of some kind. Still, people refused to accept this result. But Gold was simply replicating in the West something that has long been known in Russian and the Ukraine, that you can find oil in bedrock. That didn't surprise the Russians, they didn't think oil was biogenic.
The second point, about biological markers in the oil, is much stronger evidence, because it shows that the oil has biological molecules, and these just can't be formed in the mantle. To explain this, you must hypothesize that there are bacteria deep in the Earth, living off of oxygen in the rocks, and these contaminate the oil. Without this, the theory is inconsistent with the evidence. Gold found these bacteria, and his findings have been confirmed by others, there are archaea in deep rocks, the deep hot thermophillic bacteria are established today, they are real without doubt. I encourage you to look up the references if you dispute this. This is a major successful prediction of the abiogenic theory.
There are further claims in the biogenic literature against the abiogenic idea which are just known to be false in the Soviet literature. The one that is most salient in my memory:
3. Long-chain hydrocarbons are thermodynamically unstable to breaking up in the crust, and they cannot form from methane.
this is true in the crust, but it is surprisingly false in the mantle! Under mantle pressures, the thermodynamic stability reverses, and you spontaneously form chain-hydrocarbons from short-chain hydrocarbons. This is both confirmed by theoretical calculations of the thermodynamic stability, but more importantly in experiments in pressure anvils, where both the Soviets, Gold, and recently a Western team reproduced the result that short-chain hydrocarbon spotaneously form when you subject methan to mantle pressures.
Further the dehydrogenation of the upwelling methane, Gold explains, is through binding of hydrogen to more electronegative atoms than carbon, so the hydrogen in the oil is stripped away, making even heavier chains.
Compared to this straightforward story, the biogenic theory has to make an extraordinary thing happen--- to remove all Nitrogen and Oxygen from Kerogen, leaving only hydrocarbons behind. This is just flat out impossible, nobody has been able to do it, but you have to look deep in the literature to see this. Becuase there is another false claim:
4. Oil can be produced from Kerogen by breaking up shales.
This is true, but the shales are only "kerogen" in the sense of the biogenic theory. They are not Nitrogen rich, oxygen rich compounds like in normal kerogen, instead, this kind of "kerogen" is long-chain hydrocarbons which are too long to be a liquid and are stuck as a goop in rocks, like super-duper heavy oil. When commercial oil is extracted from these fields, the stuff is just chopped into shorter chains which are then extracted. It has no resemblance to the normal biological stuff people call kerogen, and calling it "kerogen" is simply misleading.
Now that the biogenic theory evidence is explained, I will go through the abiogenic theory evidence:
1. Kudryavtsev's rule: hydrocarbon deposits are found next to each other, so that oil is found in association with coal, and methane outgassings.
This by itself shouldn't be surprising, since these are all carbon compounds. But it is surprising in the biogenic theory, because coal is supposedly made by a completely different path. The abiogenic theory accounts for this, and this was Kudryavtsev's motivation for proposing the idea
2. Both petroleum and coal are contaminated with heavy elements, and oil is often contaminated with quantities of Helium much larger than the concentrations in any surrounding rock (so it cannot be explained by diffusion).
The heavy elements concentrate in the mantle, and Helium is the product of heavy element radioactive alpha decay. Both of these contaminations are inexplicable in the biogenic theory, since there is no association of life with Uranium or Thorium or alpha decay anything, life is made from light elements only.
The association is correctly interpreted cleanly the other way--- the heavy element deposits in the crust are brought up by diffusion of methane from the mantle, which carries heavy elements and petroleum up with it in solution. The heavy elements precipitate out gradually, forming veins of heavy metal deposits. This explains why hydrocarbon deposits and heavy-metal deposits are correlated.
The Helium is a smoking gun type evidence--- it cannot be reasonably produced in any other way than through the assumption that the oil is abiogenic mantle product. Commercial Helium is usually derived from oil fields, it is a byproduct of oil drilling.
3. Methane outgassings are completely uncorrelated with biological residue, they are in enormous quantities, the methane comes out of volcanos, the existence of diamonds show that there is carbon in the mantle,
This evidence is overwhelming enough that the west now accepts that Methane is largely abiogenic (although they cling to the idea that some methane is biogenic).
4. Fossils in coal cross seams
This means that the fossilized plants you see in coal were fossils that were present in the rock before the rock turned to coal, it is conclusive evidence that some fluid flow turned the rock to coal, fossils intact. The fossils are used in the biogenic theory to date the coal. Finding that the fossils cross the seams means that this idea is not tenable.
I forgot the other arguments, but these are more than sufficient to persuade. If you doubt any one claim, you can look in Gold's book, and also in the mainstream literature.
But when you look at the mainstream literature, you need to ignore stuff that isn't evidence, stuff like calling people names, criticizing the politics of Soviet science, or talking about fanciful speculations about "source rocks" and "migration" as if they were established facts. Nobody has shown how biology can chemically turn to oil and then tons and tons of this stuff then migrating deeper down, then back up.
Oh, there is one other thing I forgot:
5. Oil fileds constantly replenish themselves, with new light oil coming from deeper below.
This is consistently observed in many oil producing regions, it is a reproduced well-known phenomenon, and it has led to estimates for a given oil field's productivity to double and triple.
I should point out that the abiogenic idea is scientifically extremely important, because it closes the Carbon cycle of the Earth, since it allows carbon to be cycled through living things, get trapped in limestone at the sea floor, and go back into the mantle at subduction regions as the limestone reenters the mantle. Without new methane emissions from deep below, carbon would be permanently disappearing from the biosphere, and the biosphere would be slowly shrinking.
The methane fluid flows give a two-fluid model of deposits in rocks, at the moment, Western geologists only admit water flow as the fluid which leads to elemental deposits. Also, primordial petroleum is an ingredient in understanding the origin of life from non-life, as it can account in a plausible way for the lipids and aromatic amino acids in living things, which are not formed under normal conditions from prebiotic precursors without some petroleum lying around at the origin point.
If you google each of the claims I made, you can't help but support the abiogenic theory. The DOE experts are shown up, they are incompetent. Layperson with internet connection beats experts yet again. It shouldn't be surprising anymore.
In short - the biogenic theory is incomplete - the origin of oil deposits remains unexplained in terms of biogenic processes.
In short, the biogenic theory is a crock of shit.
:-) One of the interesting features of the abiogenic theory that I was reminded of: a source of phospholipids and fatty acids independent of life. An essential requirement for the origin of life is to distinguish self from non-self - and phospholipid liposomes and fatty acid vesicles provide such possibility, allowing life to subsequently emerge:
Origins of life: The first cell membranes
Exploring Life's Origins: Fatty Acids
- there was a website focused upon the topic which appears to have disappeared :-(
Absolutely. This is my angle on it. It also provides aromatic amino acids--- the hard ones to make by Miller-Uray, and lipids, which don't have another abiogenic source. The complete origin of life.
But abiogenic is correct on the evidence, it is a scandal that it is rejected by anyone.
The problem is, that the experts in this field were taught the biogenic theory, and they in turn teach new undergraduates etc. Those outside the field of study are, therefore, more likely to accept an alternative idea than those within the field.
It's not an "alternative idea", it's the correct idea, and this is why you need to make them uncomfortable by constant heckling, in public, in the literature too, until they give up their moronic stance.
In physics, this type of thing was made standard operating procedure in the 1920s, so that "nuclear electrons" (wrong common idea) were gone the moment the neutron was discovered, it didn't take 20 years. Path integral quantum gravity was gone the moment string theory was discovered, it took about 10 years, but no longer.
The physicists do the politics right, or at least did, in the last century. The geologists obviously are doing the politics wrong since this is happening. In this field, the Soviets did the politics right.