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Pathological Science

by Brian Dunning, Mar 08 2012

Pathological science is a term that refers to research characterized more by obsession than by results.

It’s something that most of us are probably subject to, to one degree or another. Many researchers, even hobbyists and enthusiasts, want for some one result in particular to be true. They’re always on the lookout for data that support their desired conclusion. This is not, by itself, pathological; but for some who take it to an extreme, it can become that way. Many famous cases of pathological science began as legitimate science, and often the researcher would become distracted by tiny results that suggested an effect when in fact there was none. Belief supplanted objectivity, and the science became pathological science.

Irving Langmuir

The term was first publicized by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir in 1953, in a talk he gave discussing such cases. Anyone with an interest in scientific skepticism will immediately recognize the applicability of the term to many pseudosciences. In my own research of hundreds of pseudoscience cases, I’ve encountered many researchers who left the path of science in favor of wishful thinking. This includes legitimate professionals who get sidetracked by a poorly-supported belief, and also many armchair amateurs who often turn their beliefs into careers (think alternative therapy merchants, fad diet promoters, perpetual motion enthusiasts, Bigfoot and ghost hunters, and guys who think they’ve proven Einstein wrong).

A pathological science is usually triggered by a weakly positive result that is especially intriguing. For a scientist, this can be a result in a well-controlled experiment; for an amateur, it can be a personal experience that is misinterpreted or influenced by biases or external factors. Both compel further experimentation, and when the scientific method is thrown to the wind in favor of an emotionally-driven method — and the process becomes prolonged — a pathological science can result.

A pathological science differs from a pseudoscience in that it’s more about the method than the results. A pseudoscience has no sound foundation, or has perhaps even been proven wrong; whereas a pathological science is one that is single-mindedly pursued and driven by exaggerated results that do not justify the continued research. A pseudoscience is defined by its lack of validity; a pathological science is defined by the lack of its method’s validity.

In his famous 1953 talk, Langmuir described several such cases, and there’s a decent Wikipedia article that describes them, notably one where a physicist became so convinced of the reality of “N-rays” that he believed he saw positive results even when his machine was disabled. In shooting The Skeptologists, we pulled a really cheap trick on the ghost hunters who accepted it immediately as evidence of a ghost, when even the most basic application of science would have prevented such a conclusion. Television Bigfoot hunters accept practically anything as evidence of Bigfoot. All of these people are practicing not science, but pathological science. They’ve blinded themselves to any results but those which support their desired conclusion.

I try to take a lesson from these folks. I always keep in mind that I’m human and no less error-prone than anyone else, Bigfoot aficionados included. When I’m researching a old legend and I find the taste of hoax in the water, it’s easy to relentlessly pursue that hoax explanation. I could easily become a pathological “debunker”. What keeps me sane, I think, is the way I enjoy the unexpected roadblocks to the obvious explanations, and twists and turns that show even the popular “scientific” explanation is probably not right. Pursuing one desired result does not interest me. Finding new alternate explanations and turning over new stones does interest me. I suppose that, if anything, I’m at risk of becoming a pathological obscure-fact-finder.

Whatever your area of expertise, keep this possibility in mind. Never set method aside just to encourage a repeat of an oddball result. Keep your pathology and your science separate, such that never the twain shall meet.

16 Responses to “Pathological Science”

  1. Liki Fumei says:

    Thanks for encouraging to do so… and for bringing back to my mind that beautiful expression from Kipling.

  2. John K. says:

    Interesting stuff. I suppose a pseudo-science could avoid the mantle of pathological science only by not applying any methods at all, but otherwise the overlap seems to be almost complete.

  3. tmac57 says:

    Brian,I think that the date on the photo of Langmuir must be way off,since that would have been only about 4 years before his death at age 76.Another source put the date of that photo at circa 1920.Here is a photo of Langmuir later in life:

    • Thanks, I see you’re right. I’ll take the date off the picture, it must have been in error.

      • tmac57 says:

        I had never heard of Langmuir before,as far as I could recall.Your article prompted me to read his Wiki page,and I found him to be a most interesting guy.In addition to winning a Nobel prize,he racked up many accomplishments in his lifetime.I think his skeptical nature would have made him an excellent speaker at TAM if he were alive today.

      • Max says:

        And he has a probe named after him.

      • tmac57 says:

        I’m not even going to go there…(not that there’s anything wrong with that).

  4. Phea says:

    Great blog, and just in time as we’re knee deep in “pathological politics”.

  5. Tim Farley says:

    Thanks for posting this, I also was unaware of Irving Langmuir and his contribution of this term to skeptical thought. I’ve made a note to add the date of his original Colloquium on the topic (December 18, 1953) to my skeptic history project. It’s 60th anniversary is coming up next year.

  6. Loren Petrich says:

    Langmuir’s criterion #2 reminds me of how psi researchers never find something that sticks very far above the statistical noise. After several decades of research, is that all that they can come up with?

    His criterion #3 makes sense only relative to #1 and #2: much more accuracy than can be justified from observations and experiments.

    However, his criterion #4, “Fantastic theories contrary to experience”, would count against some now-mainstream theories, however. Some of Sir Isaac Newton’s contemporaries dismissed Newtonian gravity as “occult”, meaning essentially #4. Relativity and quantum mechanics fit #4 even better. However, these theories are accepted because of their great successes, great violations of #1 and #2.

    • Max says:

      The Wikipedia article’s source of those criteria is actually a critique of them.
      “‘Pathological Science’ is not Scientific Misconduct
      (nor is it pathological)”

      “Langmuir made no attempt to justify these characteristics as invariably present, or some of them as being sufficient to diagnose pathology. In either case, they do not provide useful criteria for distinguishing bad science from good science; many praised pieces of research satisfy one or more of Langmuir’s criteria for pathology.”

      • Max says:

        That article’s author, Henry H. Bauer, is an emeritus professor of chemistry and science studies, and is an AIDS denialist.

      • Loren Petrich says:

        That’s an irrelevant ad hominem. One ought to criticize the article without regard to whatever other positions the author holds.

        I have, and there are problems. GB claims that Langmuir makes no attempt to justify his criteria. But Langmuir was generalizing from his experience with purported discoveries that turned out to be unsupported.

        As to his claim that high-energy physics experiments satisfy #2, he ought to look more carefully. There is a reason that particle physicists have set a threshold of 5 standard deviations for claiming discoveries. Only 2 or 3 stdevs has a strong risk of being a false alarm. That’s a way of violating #2.

        As to #4, there are people who’ve stated that round-earthism satisfies it. If the Earth is round then everything on the other side would be upside-down, and that’s absolutely absurd, of course. GB’s list of #4-satisfying theories reveals the sorts of theories that he’s accustomed to. He isn’t saying how #4-satisfying round-earthism or Newtonian gravity or relativity or quantum mechanics is.

        As to #5, ad hoc answers to criticisms, that’s a legitimate criterion because such answers tend to make a theory arbitrary and unfalsifiable. Think of psi researchers with “negative psi” and a “shyness effect” and the like. It must be pointed out that “old quantum mechanics” sometimes seemed to satisfy #5, but by the late 1920’s, physicists had worked out a strong theoretical foundation for QM, thus violating #5.

  7. @b says:

    Conservapedia articles; pseudoscience? (invalid results) or pathological science? (obsession)

  8. Max says:

    Pseudoscientists are often criticized for their arrogance, like when they think they proved Einstein wrong and discount the possibility that they’re mistaken themselves.

    But Feynman’s talk on cargo cult science criticized scientists for being too timid and not having enough confidence in their own results.
    “It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because
    it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a
    number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something
    must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why
    something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to
    Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated
    the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.”

    So it’s interesting to see how they handle the faster-than-light neutrino thing.

  9. John Blackhall says:

    One of the mistakes that those beholden to the rule of the Scientific Process is that when someone less aquainted with its rules makes an assumption in error and then is vilified for making it, they should not be harangued. If there is one thing that those well aquainted with the scientific process need to remember is to “educate”, and not make someone less aquainted with the processes of science feel lacking.