Symptoms of Pathological Science

  Engineers and scientists pride themselves on careful application of the scientific method. In many engineering applications, much is at stake - human life, integrity of the environment, material losses, etc. Because of the importance of good engineering practice, I often use in my courses at Berkeley the transcript of a lecture given by a Nobel Prize winner Dr. Irvin Langmuir at the GE Research Center in Schenectady, N.Y., on December 18, 1953. In his lecture, Dr. Langmuir identified the following symptoms of pathological science, i.e., unscientific rambling and speculation:

A.     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 magnitude of the cause.

B.     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.

C.     Claims of great accuracy.

D.     Fantastic theories contrary to experience.

E.      Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.

F.      Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.


Archive 2004