Pathological science

While reading Amfortas’ 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.

4 comments for “Pathological science

  1. junican
    April 20, 2013 at 2:33 am

    There are so many examples that it is hard to believe that politicians have allowed themselves to be misled again and again and again.

    It is all about funding. One wonders who funded the Climate Change bods and why. What organisation acquired the funding to attack energy-based civilisation? Who provided the funding? And why?

    These questions are not frivolous. What organisation funded the IPCC in order to get it off the ground? It may be true that mankind is causing global warming, but why should these organisations care? What do they have to gain?

    It strikes me that some individuals in the UN see themselves as RULERS OF THE WORLD. Sadly, our home-grown politicians do not have the sense to realise that THEY WILL NOT be part of the ruling elite. They think that they will, but they will not.
    The whole edifice needs to be demolished. I remember that silly woman, Milton MP, a former Health Dept junior minister, saying that the UK is “legal obliged” to put into effect the provisions of the Tobacco Control Treaty. Nothing could be further from the truth. The UK is NEVER obliged, legally, by any Treaty. Treaties are just temporary agreements, which have no force of law at all.

    “claims of great accuracy” could easily apply to Doll’s Doctors Study. When the opportunity arose for the results of the Doctors Study to examined in court (McTear V Imperial Tobacco), the Zealots chickened out and did not produce in court Doll’s Doctors Study conclusions for the court to examine.

    The lack of certainty is pervasive in all of the IPCC stuff and in Tobacco Control.

    For lack of a better phrase, it is all LIES.

  2. amfortas
    April 20, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Yes, the funding has a ‘bottomless pit’ element which was not so bottomless in Langmuir’s day. Nor I suspect did the scientists of his day have such a cosy, symbiotic relationship with lefty politicians and their righty counterparts. Crikey, in 1953 people were still cheering about the end of the greatest disaster to befall the world. After a while they needed, it seems, another disaster to occupy themselves and there were plenty of scientists with a list. Global Cooling kicked off. Remember the upcoming Ice Age?

    • April 20, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      I also think people such as Langmuir saw it as their duty to debunk poor work. That spirit hasn’t died out, but today poor work can be both well funded and politically favoured.

  3. Greg Tingey
    April 22, 2013 at 8:31 am

    Only because you WANT it to be so – you have been bullshitted by US ultra-right special interests, specifically Koch bros & Exxon.

    I suggest you go off & proclaim the effectiveness of homeopathy, instead?

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