Friday, 19 April 2013

Pathological science

Irving Langmuir

While reading Amfortas’ recent post I was reminded of Irving Langmuir, the American physicist and chemist. In 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work in surface chemistry.

One of Langmuir’s many interests was what he called pathological science. He never committed his views to paper, but in 1953 he gave a famous lecture on pathological science – what he called the science of things that aren't so.

During his talk, Langmuir presented a summary of what he believed to be the common symptoms of pathological science.

These are cases where there is no dishonesty involved but where people are tricked into false results by a lack of understanding about what human beings can do to themselves in the way of being led astray by subjective effects, wishful thinking or threshold interactions.

These are examples of pathological science. These are things that attracted a great deal of attention. Usually hundreds of papers have been published upon them. Sometimes they have lasted for fifteen or twenty years and then they gradually die away.

Symptoms of Pathological Science:

  • The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  • The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  • Claims of great accuracy.
  • Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  • Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  • Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

The parallels with climate science are surely obvious and striking. One exception may be Langmuir’s view on duration - fifteen or twenty years. , Presumably that doesn’t take into account politically motivated funding.


Demetrius said...


A K Haart said...

Demetrius - yes, I think complexity is a real scientific headache because of the way it spawns bad science.