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pathological science

"Pathological science" is a term coined by Nobel-laureate in chemistry Irving LangmuirIrving Langmuir in a presentation he made at General Electric's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory a few years before his death in 1957. Langmuir described typical cases as involving such things as barely detectable causal agents observed near the threshold of sensation which are nevertheless asserted to have been detected with great accuracy. The supporters offer fantastic theories that are contrary to experience and meet criticisms with ad hoc excuses. And, most telling, only supporters can reproduce the results. Critics can't duplicate the experiments.

He gave several examples, including ESP experiments and  Blondlot's N-rays, and stated that

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 on them. Sometimes they have lasted for 15 or 20 years and then gradually have died away.

Langumuir visited J.B. Rhine's lab at Duke University where Rhine was claiming results of ESP experiments that could not be predicted by chance and were probably due to some sort of psychic power. Langmuir found that Rhine was not counting all his data, however. He was leaving out the scores of those he believed were guessing their Zener cards wrong on purpose. "Rhine believed that persons who disliked him guessed wrong to spite him. Therefore, he felt it would be misleading to include their scores" (Park 2000, 42). Rhine determined that some of his subjects were deliberately guessing wrong because their scores were too low to have occurred by chance. "Indeed, he was convinced that abnormally low scores were as significant as abnormally high scores in proving the existence of ESP" (ibid.).

A. Cromer, commenting on Langmuir's characteristics of pathological science, noted that scientists are often not very good judges of the scientific process. Even the best intentions can be subverted by self-deception. Good science is not simply a matter of honesty or wisdom. Furthermore,

Real discoveries of phenomena contrary to all previous scientific experience are very rare, while fraud, fakery, foolishness, and error resulting from overenthusiasm and delusion are all too common (Cromer 1993).

Do Langmuir's observations imply that scientists should shy away from controversial topics such as prions, facilitated communication, cold fusion, orgone energy, ESP, and zero-point energy? No. What follows is that any scientist doing any research must proceed with caution, tentativeness, a sense of the history of science and an awareness of the tendencies in human nature which can easily lead the wisest of men or women astray. What also seems to follow is that to show little or no interest in allowing oneself and others to try to prove one's fantastic theories to be wrong, while immediately meeting every objection with ad hoc hypotheses, is a sign of pathological science if not pseudoscience.

See also ad hoc hypothesis, Blondlot and N-rays, communal reinforcement, confirmation biascontrol study, Occam's razor, placebo effect, post hoc fallacy, selective thinking, science, subjective validation, testimonial evidence,  and wishful thinking..

further reading

books and articles

Cromer, A., "Pathological Science: An Update," Skeptical Inquirer, SUMMER 1993 (vol 17, no. 4).

Langmuir, Irving (transcribed and ed., Robert N. Hall). Pathological science. Physics Today 42 (Oct. 1989): 36-48.

Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford U. Press, 2000).


Toward a general theory of pathological science Nicholas J. Turro

Books on pathological science from the North Texas Skeptics

‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct (nor is it pathological) by Henry H. Bauer (Note from R. Carroll: the expression may not be the most descriptive, but it has never implied misconduct, which is intentional.)

Last updated 08-Mar-2012

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