sidebar: Symptoms of Pathological Science

Irving Langmuir1 has identified several recurring patterns in cases 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.

  • Theories outside the field's paradigm are suggested.

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

  • The ratio of supporters to critics rises and then falls gradually to oblivion.

To these we may add the following:

  • The remarkable result is specific for a "special" system.

  • Some special technique or equipment is involved.

  • The result requires a stunning departure from the paradigms that fully determine results in all other comparable systems, including those studied by the authors. -- N.J.T.

1. Langmuir, Irving (transcribed and ed., Robert N. Hall). Pathological science. Physics Today 42 (Oct. 1989): 44.