Pathological Science

A while back I brought up the subject of scientists who support very non-mainstream ideas and how these can persist in science, but more importantly (and worryingly / annoyingly) tend to be picked up by the media. There is however more to this general theme of not entirely accepted science, or perhaps rather views that are held by only a small minority of scientists and that is the concept of ‘pathological science’, that is, to quote the man who coined the term “[t]he science of things that aren’t so”.

This is a term new to me and comes from the Nobel laureate Irving Langmuir (a physicist and chemist speaking in 1953). I imagine it has not reached me (or indeed other biologists) since he was talking explicitly at the time about physics and much of the specifics of the concept as he describes it was in relation to practices of experimental data that are not really applicable to palaeontology or much of zoology. Nevertheless his comments are in essence largely applicable to any branch of science and thus I think worth discussing:

‘Unlike junk science or pseudoscience, pathological science was often the product of credentialed scientists-sometimes even great scientists-who in finding a seemingly groundbreaking result were too quick to announce their discovery. And later, as other researchers failed to reproduce those results, the alleged discoverer would cling that much closer to his original claim, coming up with ever more elaborate reasons why others had failed. [A] a major warning sign of pathological science is that the scientists’ claim that his or her experiment is so special, [that] the others are somehow missing key steps that explain the lack of reproducibility”.

For palaeontology one would have to consider only weakly supported hypotheses as opposed to odd experimental results (which are then contradicted by a weight of counter-evidence as opposed to new experiments) and the failure of others could be changed to demanding special pleading (or refutation of the data of others) but the core concept holds true. Good researchers who know better making bold claims, refusing to retract them in the face of the evidence and (I would add) ultimately appealing to the public / fringe researchers and relying on counter-evidence as opposed to dealing with the actual researchers in the field and finding new evidence to support the claim as opposed to just trying to knock down all of the counter claims. It is, sadly, not a problem that I expect to go away anytime soon, though I suspect having a convenient term that can easily be slapped onto such areas of research will make these things easier to discuss and highlight. Feel free to avoid legal action by not listing any particular researchers you might consider guilty of this in the comments.

7 Responses to “Pathological Science”

  1. 1 mythusmage 01/07/2009 at 2:56 pm

    Astronomer Fred Hoyle would be a fine example of somebody practising pathological science. Remember that “Big Bang” was his derisory term for how the universe got started. The you have Pons and Flieschman and Cold Fusion.

    Which, Cold Fusion, turns out to work under the right conditions. But, it’s not really fusion, it is really touchy, and the pay off sucks. The vendettas over Cold Fusion don’t reflect favorably on those involved.

    Everybody comes up with a goofy idea or two, it takes a mature person to admit to error.

  2. 2 Thomas R. Holtz, Jr. 01/07/2009 at 8:23 pm

    Robert Park’s Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud has a good discussion on pathological science.

  3. 3 Michael 01/07/2009 at 9:35 pm

    I daresay the term is ‘politically incorrect’ – it implies a polarization between those who are allegedly doing sane science and those outsiders who are not. (“We are the establishment, the mainstream science. We are fighting the cancer of pathological science and who is not with us is against us.”)

    I would rather put emphasis on the pluralism of scientific ideas, methods, models. Four researchers – even though they are abundant co-authors – rarely favour less then five hypotheses explaining a certain phenomenon. It is normal to disagree.

    Perhaps if there is consensus about sth it is easier to sell to the public as a truth. (If we really think we have to let us be theatrical – but talking scientist-to-scientist we can put down the mask.)

    • 4 David Hone 01/07/2009 at 10:23 pm

      I think the term ‘outsiders’ is awkward here since the term as described implicitly states that such practioners are formally trained researchers, experts even. (Though of course they can be ‘outside’ sane science yet inside science as a whole or within othber areas of their work as opposed to simply outside science, one could read your comment either way).

      Certainly it is normal to disagree and to argue and debate and learn. But I think it is not normal to pursue a line of research or hold true a hypothesis that has long since been demonstrated false or contradicted by overwhelming counter evidence. True there must be, there are, as in all things, degrees from a mild disagreement over a technical issue through to full on pseudo-, junk-, non- or pathological science but this end of the spectrum certainly has soem characteristics that can be identified in individuals or the literature.

      To take an extreme hypothetical example, would a professor of geophysics who supported flat-earth or was against plate tectonics be considered to merely be disagreeing with his colleagues or be practicing non-science?

  4. 5 Michael 02/07/2009 at 7:28 am

    I think time will show whether criticism or an alternative view on something was justified or not.

    Less well founded competing views often die out only together with their principal exponents. (I remember this sentence attributed to Konrad Lorenz that every morning for breakfast a scientist should abandon his pet theory – unrealistic: I suppose not one followed…)

    However, even if their alternatives are no better explanation the criticism provided by “pathological scientists” can be justified in the way that it points to fishy aspects of the generally held paradigm.

    (Example: Fixism survived the continental drift hypothesis – and justifiably so – because Wegner could not well explain a mechanism behind his horizontal (as opposed to merely vertical) crustal movements. However Wegner was correct with some of his arguments, i.e. concerning paleobiogeography, and so some of his data and considerations played a role in the rise of plate tectonics.)

    If the geophysics professor breeds a new nice data set or method or a way to look at things – who cares that his interpretations are far-fetched. You can take the data and use them more wisely if you like.

    • 6 David Hone 02/07/2009 at 8:03 pm

      Nothing wrong with controversey and debate per se, and there is definately a gradient. But I *think* the situation you are describing would still fit with more regular definitions of science – we are not talking (I think) about hypotheses that are still evolving and being created and require thought, debate, and change, but tings that have come up, been shown to be incorrect and disregarded. Thoug quite how and where you draw the lines and set the boundaries would vary enormously from one worker to another and by theory – no-one should be out there challenging the fundamentals of gravity for example.

  1. 1 COACHEP » Blog Archive » Posts about Junk Science as of June 30, 2009 Trackback on 01/07/2009 at 9:13 am
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