What is Pathological Science?

Have you ever been told something that seems somewhat unbelievable, but the person doing the telling is simply so convincing that it must be true? Even though something just does not seem quite right? Politicians do it all the time; so do used car salesmen. Upon reflection and a little research you find you have been sold a bill of goods. Hopefully, you learn the truth before it costs you too much.

As an engineer, I think I have a pretty well calibrated BS detector. In fact, most people are pretty good at identifying when someone is trying to pull a fast one. This healthy skepticism is a common defense mechanism, and is learned through years of experience. It is hard to quantify the thought process that sets the BS detector flashing red.

However, back in December of 1953, Irving Langmuir, Nobel Laureate of isotherm fame, gave a talk on what he termed “Pathological Science”.

Langmuir had no time for people who performed bad science. He did not ascribe nefarious motives to them, but he called them out on their poor methodology and logic. The link above relates some of his close encounters of the bogus kind. As a scientist, he looked for a pattern of common elements to this phenomenon, and he came to note what he referred to as the Symptoms of Pathological Science.

Symptoms of Pathological Science:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Claims of great accuracy.
  4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  6. Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

Essentially, the determination of whether science is good or not is based on observations about the claims the “scientist” makes and the rationalizations used to silence critics – unfortunately, discrediting through association has become a favorite tactic of people who have no rational argument. Note that Langmuir makes no mention of either A) who funds or benefits from the research, or B) the political leanings of the proponents or skeptics.

The symptoms are based on the nature of the claims and observable behavior once the claims are questioned. The difference between “good” and “bad” science goes to the integrity of the investigator and how they react to honest skepticism. In the context of this blog, the terms “good” and “bad” science refer to the methodology of the research and not the result of a set of experiments or the motivation of the researchers.

These symptoms will be discussed in detail in later posts.


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