On 18 December 1953 at General Electric
's Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory
winner Irving Langmuir
gave a colloquium on a certain type of
pitfalls into which scientists may stumble. Langmuir coined the term
to describe a category of questionable
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
This concept differs from pseudo-science with respect to the
scientific honesty of the work. In pseudo-science, the researcher is
aware of the lack of value of the work, and poorly applies the
scientific method to fool the audience. In pathological science, the
researcher is convinced of the validity of the work but ignores all
evidence that may disprove this.
In his (now famous) colloquium, Langmuir describes several examples
of pathological science. One experiment in which Langmuir himself was
involved to debunk the erroneous results was the Davis and Barnes
experiment. Columbia University researchers Bergen Davis and
Arthur Barnes believed they were detecting a phenomenon called
electron capture by alpha particles in a magnetic field. This was
done by counting scintillations on a screen in a
darkened room, for several hours straight. Langmuir observed that the
researchers were also counting visual hallucinations (a
common occurrence under those work conditions), and discarding undesired
observations as instrumental errors. Other examples include the
discovery of the fictitious N-rays, the equally fictitious
Mitogenetic Rays that would allow plants to grow faster, and the
discovery of certain peculiar elements and isotopes by the so called
Although some of the examples that Langmuir described in his 1953
colloquium are unthinkable by today's standards, the scientific community
nevertheless remains vulnerable to the dangers of pathological research.
For instance, consider the Cold Fusion fiasco from 1989. Although Martin
Fleischmann and Stanley Pons unquestionably reported their findings
to the press too soon (i.e. before publication in a
peer-reviewed journal), they made their claims in good faith.
Langmuir describes several Symptoms 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.
- There are claims of great accuracy.
- Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.
- Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the
- The ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and
then falls gradually to oblivion.
However, it is not difficult to expand this list with several other
- The results are only obtained under highly specific "special" conditions
- Special equipment or measurement techniques are involved
- Experiments that would prove the validity of the results beyond
any reasonable doubt are not conducted
Langmuir is most famous for his research in surface chemistry
which he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry
in 1932 . He also spent many years investigating the topic of
, although he never published any work in this
field. His colloquium at the Knolls Atomic Power
in 1953 is considered to be of great historic value.
Unfortunately, the tape recording that was made of this colloquium was
lost for several years, until a copy was found at the Library of
A transcript of the colloquium (highly recommended) can be found in:
Irving Langmuir (transcribed and edited by Robert N. Hall), Physics
Today 42: 36-48, October 1989.