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I've been forwarded a four-page outline of some sort of "theory of everything" whose ambition is to explain just about everything in the universe in terms of particles oscillating in and out of some kind of hidden anti-universe. I've been asked to give my opinion on the theory.

It has all the hallmarks of bogus science written by someone with only the vaguest notions of quantum physics and cosmology (no equations, electrons being defined as the antiparticles of protons, cute drawings). Perhaps more telling is that most of the ideas are unfalsifiable, in the sense that I couldn't think of an experiment that would prove or disprove any of it.

I'd like to give my frank opinion about it without hurting the person's feelings. How should I go about it?

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    You've been asked by whom? A student, a colleague, someone you've never met, a professor, your plumber...? The answer depends. Anyway this is not a question for academia.SE, rather ips. – user9646 Mar 10 '18 at 8:37
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    Just ignore it. Replying to crackpots is a waste of time as they generally can't accept that their "theories" are bonkers. – astronat Mar 10 '18 at 9:01
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    The stack exchange site on interpersonal skills might be better suited for a question on how to avoid hurting someone's feeling without accepting nonsense. In fact, there may already be a question about this topic. – henning Mar 10 '18 at 9:59
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    @henning: While this question would also be on-topic on IPS, I do not consider it off-topic here as this case is very specific to academics. – Wrzlprmft Mar 10 '18 at 13:47
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    You might be interested in this: "What to do when the trisector comes" by Underwood Dudley. web.mst.edu/~lmhall/WhatToDoWhenTrisectorComes.pdf – Allure Mar 10 '18 at 20:33
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So, I see that you're conflicted by the desire to give your honest opinion and your desire to be nice. While some say you should let go of the desire to be nice, I think in this case it might be more productive to first look at how you can be nice. But first, let me briefly talk about 'cranks':

What are cranks?

The following quote from Nature is prominently placed on the Wikipedia article on cranks:

A crank is defined as a man who cannot be turned.

Less cryptically, an important property of crank is the unwillingness to change their line of thought or accept being wrong (they likely admit to make 'unimportant' mistakes and will immediately explain what they 'actually' meant). This will become a very useful definition. Suppose for the moment that exactly one of the following is true about the motivation of your correspondent:

  1. "I have a brilliant idea about the universe and by showing this to an expert, I'll get the recognition I deserve."
  2. "I don't know much about Physics, but I think this is a good theory and want to know what the experts think."

Note that person 1 is a crank, for when you tell (1) that this idea is 'bogus', the reaction will be likely hostile, as (1) will refuse to be 'turned'. Any conversation with (1) is a waste time. If your know for certain that you're dealing with person 1, ignoring, aborting and running away in the most polite way possible is recommended. However, as you desire to be kind to your correpondent, I doubt you are certain that you're dealing with person 1. (Also, assuming 1-ness might be dangerous. Applying Hanlon's razor seems like a good idea.)

How to be nice to person 2

Now, is person 2 a crank? (2) could be a crank, but not necessarily. Perhaps (2) is simply a layman who always had an interest in physics, but never had (or took) the chance to pursue this interest with proper study and thinks this is how physics can be done.

For person 2, I think the best way to be nice is to not give your opinion on the work, other than that it simply is hard for you to judge (2)'s actual ideas as they are very non-standardly presented. (This can be a lie. But I think it is a very useful lie.) It is important that you add the advice that if (2) has an interest in physics, (2) should learn more about physics so that (2) can properly present the theory. It is good to add some explicit method for (2) to do this, such as some introductory books, courses or videos.

In the best case, (2) will start learning things and eventually will realize that his theory is 'bogus' by themselves! In the worst case, (2) will show the inability to 'turned'. But thereby, (2) reveals to be (1) all along and you can therefore safely abort communications with your correspondent.

Conclusion

I think it is good you ask this question, because I believe there is a true dilemma here. You must choose at most one of:

  • Share your (brutally) honest opinion with your correspondent.
  • Help your correspondent by gently directing them to the path of learning.

Any combination of the two will likely act as a discouragement for your correspondent from attempting to learn, for your correspondents idea that they might be able to do some physics is likely crushed by the weight of an experts opinion.

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    Sharpening the advice a little for person (2) may be helpful. E.g. "You are assuming things about electrons that have not been shown to be true, so reviewing [introductory material] would help you." And explaining WHY some of it is non-standard would help; explaining that most of the theory appears to be nonfalsifiable and WHY falsifiability matters may help. – cactus_pardner Mar 16 '18 at 20:48
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    @cactus_pardner Yes, being more specific and relating to the work provided may help, but be careful to remain gentle. Most of this is very specific to the individual correspondence, so I leave this to the 'academic' receiving the 'cranky' paper. Also be careful when 'poking' too much at the paper: this triggers the "I made a mistake, but I'm still basically correct, here let me rewrite everything (and make it slightly more convoluted) and send again."-instinct of the correspondents 'inner crank'. You do not wish to summon the 'inner crank' by poking too much. – Discrete lizard Mar 16 '18 at 21:04
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I believe feelings must be set aside while conducting science.

As @henning said; how would you react to a patient who claims in front of their physician that addiction is not serious (or that cancer can be cured by praying etc.)? I believe that the patient's feelings wouldn't be the priority in that case.

Similar to being a medical doctor, being a scientist is not a hobby. It is a serious business, and should be done rigorously. If a theorem or claim is obviously wrong, bogus, or plain nonsense, best way is to point that out directly:

I think your claim is not true, because you must first prove this and that before arguing about your own theory.

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    Treating patients is serious business. Science is serious business too. Therefore it is necessary to approach correcting patients and correcting crackpots similarly. Great syllogism! – user9646 Mar 10 '18 at 14:01
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    Actually, I think the patient's feelings would be important. The job of a medical doctor is not to railroad the patient's choices (at least if they are an adult), and doing so would ignore the importance of mental health. – Jessica B Mar 11 '18 at 7:52
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    @padawan But your proposed wording does take the feelings of the other side into account, as would any wording with any hope of convincing the other side. Not taking their feelings into account would be "This is bogus because A, B and C...", not "I think your claim is not true..." – sgf Mar 12 '18 at 0:44
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    I disagree with "feelings must be set aside". This question is not about doing serious science, but to hopefully educate a person about science. Doing this with hurting feelings will likely lead to "academics don't even listen, because they are scared I am so much better" or similar, while talking without hurting feelings might (!) convince them what and why they are wrong. I wanted to prove Collatz in high school by dubious means, I am so thankful to the teacher who listened and explained to me what was wrong with nice, non-judgemental words. – User Sep 26 at 7:05
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It's not your role to disprove the author's theory; it's the author's role to convince the reviewer of the theory's validity and usefulness.

As StrongBad notes, you should deal with the paper on its own merits.

Handle non-standard interpretations of electrons etc by asking for a literature review that interacts with established theories. Handle non-traditional ideas by asking to see experiment results that differentiate the author's theories from mainstream theories. If it is a purely theoretical paper, ask to see a compare-and-contrast with predictions made by conventional theories. They might not cover all bases, but it is up to the author to demonstrate that their theory is competent - either relative to other theories or standing alone, the latter requiring a lot more to make a convincing argument.

These would not be unreasonable requests on your part. The heavy-lifting needs to be done by the author. Your preliminary role as a reviewer is to check that it has been done.

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You review "bogus science" the same way you review all science: in a fair and impartial unbiased evidence based way. When peer-reviewing "bogus science" for a journal, you need to balance the time put into the review, the benefit to the editor, and the benefit to the author(s). The best reviews highlight everything that needs to be fixed so that if the author addresses all the issues, possibly with additional required revisions to address the changes, the manuscript is publishable and previously existing issues will not be then pointed out. This can take an incredibly long time and is not always worth it so sometimes you only point out the biggest flaw. As you have been ask to review a four page outline that has not been submitted for publication, this does not seem like a problem.

Quickly read the manuscript/outline. Identify an aspect that disagrees with published theory/knowledge and point out that more work will be needed to reconcile these differences to appease the skepticism of the scientific community. Then thank the author(s) for sharing their work and explain that having read the early outline, you don't think you could give unbiased advice on later versions, but if the manuscript is eventually published, they can forward on a link to the article.

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    I think that it is ok to have different standards for informal requests and academic reviews. You suggestion to hold yourself to the same standards is good, but I think there's nothing wrong with having different ones. But I do like your final sentence. It tactfully states that any further communication is unwanted unless the correspondent actually gets past some sort of serious review. (or uses a vanity press...) – Discrete lizard Mar 17 '18 at 15:46
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It is very hard to explain philosophy and rationale of the scientific method to someone who overestimates their ability to explain the world around them in relevant and reproducible terms - so, an operational approach is more down-to-earth. Having had interactions with cranks before, here's an upshot of one strategy that has been reasonably successful in making them understand what is missing:

Ask him to make one or two predictions based on his theory. Best are quantitative predictions.

If his theory is good enough to derive e.g. the fine structure constant or any quantity of his choice, you agree to review/forward it. This is a fair enough offer, he cannot complain of unfairness and if he can come up with a derivation of a fundamental constant, it's worth reviewing (even if you do not believe it).

Qualitative predictions (e.g. a particle with 2/3 electron charge and 20 TeV mass) are fine too, as long as they are derivable from his formalism. It does not matter if you believe they are wrong - more important is that he understands what an operational theory needs to be able to do.

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My advice is just "don't do it". Not "how do I do it gently". But just don't.

(1) You will hurt the guy's feelings less by blowing him off than by explaining why he's a crank. (Yes, even gently.)

(2) He is going to waste your time further and contest your comments. Will lay money on that prediction.

(3) He won't get an aha flash. He won't learn. He's a crank. Or else he would have known better to start with. This is not a fixable situation.

(4) You should have many better uses for your time.

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bogus science

You could start by not being judgemental (Please note I'm not implying that you are!). In history and today today, there are people running around with theories that seem crazy ("Jesus rode dinosaurs!", "The earth is at the center of creation!", "Light travels through the ether!", "We evolved from apes!", "The NSA listens to us all!" (See what I did here?)). In fact, String theory itself was recently called "bogus". Theories with involve government abusing power are called conspiracy theories, theories that focus on the mechanics of the universe are called pseudo science. As seen in the comments already, people developing such theories are easy negatively labeled "crackpots" or other insulting names. While there are people who could be assumed to spit nonsense for a living (example in German) there are also people who genuinely believe what they do is correct. And sometimes such people are somewhat ignorant and can't understand why their idea cannot work or is extreeeeemly unlike to do so (e.g. the person portrayed by the woman in this video).

But one in a thousand times if not less, people with different ideas are right. The most prominent example is Galileo, the most prominent of this century until now would be Snowden in my opinion. But there were many critics of Einstein, "Evolution is only a theory", and the current president of the united states doesn't believe in climate change. But to be fair, the country he rules has made its own steps of ignorance before his presidency. And people believe or don't believe if Jesus was a God sent messiah. I'm kinda expecting a flame war in my comment section by now.

Perhaps more telling is that most of the ideas are unfalsifiable, in the sense that I couldn't think of an experiment that would prove or disprove any of it.

This makes it sound a little bit less "bogus" and more like the typical "Your inability to find a proof doesn't mean there exists none." If I remember correctly, it took a while until relativistic effects could be proven experimentally and the non existence of ether was proven by an experiment that tried to prove it.

However, this line you should give to whoever asked you to give your opinion.

Maybe the nature of reality is mathematically undecidable, so we will never know for sure what is true and what is just a nice approximation. I for once sinceriously believe we will never be able to check the "source code" of the universe.

Conclusion

Your inability to come up with experiments to possibly falsify or prove his theory are no indicators his theory is wrong. The implied poor understanding of quantum physics is more likely an indicator, but on the other hand, Galilei also didn't like the tried and proven methods of the time, and these were "approved by god", a much higher authority.

So tell whoever asks

most of the ideas are unfalsifiable, in the sense that I couldn't think of an experiment that would prove or disprove any of it.

Point out

only the vaguest notions of quantum physics and cosmology (no equations, electrons being defined as the antiparticles of protons, cute drawings)

is not meeting an academic standard.

If you are feeling generous and interact with the theory person him/herself, tell the person that most other scientists would probably call his theory "bogus science" (this is where you are trying to be polite), a few would even use discriminatory terms like "crackpot" and that isn't going to change until someone (preferrably he/she) comes up with a scientifically accepted method of falsifying aspects of the theory.

Appendix: Stop calling people crackpots

A few readers seem to believe I'm trying to encourage people who are wrong to go on with their way as long as they believe hard enough. This is not the case. I'm simply stating history proves that someone who may seem to have a crazy idea about things may turn out not to be crazy at all and you have no idea of knowing in advance, you can only say that it is highly improbable. I'm answering OP "state your opinion and if you want to make others feel better, try to make the "bogus" more relative." I'm not encouraging OP to do so or question his motives for doing so, I'm simply answering him his question.

Maybe some are thinking: "Well, earlier they just believed in some magical entity that somehow came into existence and was responsible for everything, but today we have the methods of science! We may make mistake now, but in the long run, our methods will prevail!" In this case you are making the same mistakes as the people back then and your magical entity is called "laws of nature". Nothing is absolute. We are unable to rigorously proof non-existence of most things in reality. A person cannot even rigorously proof that it has an exact amount of money, because that means proving that nowhere in the world there is money the person hid there. Impossible*. So please, stop trampling on those intellectually you deem less intelligent, it is barbaric behavior and not worthy in the presence of scientific endeavor.

'* Nothing is absolute, but doing this would mean something like lifelong and/or earth-wide monitoring.

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    They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown ~ Carl Sagan. – henning Mar 10 '18 at 10:32
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    "Your inability to come up with experiments to possibly falsify or prove his theory are no indicators his theory is wrong." - No, they aren't. It's worse. They are indicators that the "theory" is not even wrong, i.e. that the "theorist" doesn't understand at all what a scientific theory is. – henning Mar 10 '18 at 10:49
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    I find this --- "written by someone with only the vaguest notions of quantum physics and cosmology (no equations, electrons being defined as the antiparticles of protons, cute drawings)" --- far more telling than issues about being falsifiable. Saying Einstein is wrong and backing it up with arguments that appear studied and which at least make sense locally can be difficult for a non-expert to discredit. Saying the moon is made of green cheese and backing it up with silly arguments that don't even make sense locally is another matter, one that sounds like the OP's situation. – Dave L Renfro Mar 10 '18 at 11:47
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    "Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of school and became millionares. So, dropping out is the first step!" not true. The people labelled as crackpots, are 99.9% crackpots. These very specific examples should never, ever me a measure of couragement for a potential crank. – padawan Mar 10 '18 at 12:51
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    We are unable to rigorously proof non-existence of most things in reality. But it doesn't follow that we accept these things, e.g. tooth fairies. You're right that we should avoid calling people names in order not to hurt their feelings, but you're wrong about relaxing our epistemological principles to some lowest common denominator. – henning Mar 10 '18 at 14:00

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