The Pathological science reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Pathological science

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Pathological science is a term created by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Irving Langmuir during a colloquium at The Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953. Langmuir used the term to describe ideas that would simply not "go away", long after they were given up on as wrong by the majority of scientists in the field. Sadly the term is semantically loaded, and has often been taken as a personal insult implying some sort of mental disorder in the speaker. Indeed, some scientists use the term to imply scientific misconduct on part of other researchers.

Critics of the concept argue that it fails to offer criteria that distinguish lasting discoveries (and other scientific studies) from mere fads and fallacies and that it could be applied to many revolutionary discoveries of the past. Critics also urge others to abandon the phrase.

Table of contents
1 Pathological science
2 Criticisms
3 See also
4 External links and bibliography

Pathological science

Pathological science describes a psychological process in which a scientist, originally conforming to scientific method, unconsciously veers from that method, and begins a pathological process of wishful data interpretation. Criteria for pathological science are:


Langmuir discussed the issue of N-rays as an example of pathological science, one that is universally regarded as pathological.

The discoverer, Blondlot, was working on X-rays (as were most physicists of the era) and noticed a new visible radiation that could penetrate aluminium. He devised experiments in which a barely visible object was illuminated by these N-rays, and thus became considerably "more visible".

After a time another physicist, R.W. Wood, decided to visit Blondlot's lab, where he had since moved on to the physical characterization of N-rays. The experiment passed the rays from a 2 mm slit through an aluminium prism, from which he was measuring the index of refraction to within a 1/10th of a mm.

Wood asked how it was possible that he could measure something to 1/10th of a mm from a 2 mm source, a physical impossibilitity. Blondlot replied, "That's one of the fascinating things about the N-rays. They don't follow the ordinary laws of science that you ordinarily think of."

Wood then asked to see the experiments being run, and watched as Blondlot repeated his most recent experiments and got the same results. However since the experiments required the room to be very dark so the target was barely visible, Wood had reached over and removed the prism.

Other examples

Langmuir also covered a small number of other examples of pathological science in his original speech, but most of these have since faded from discussion. However a number of newer examples have since been offered.

Certainly the example of polywater is one of pathological science. In this case the problem spread beyond a single lab however; largely as a result of much better publishing and international talks, polywater experiments were being carried out around the world. Moreover polywater made some scientific sense, although unlikely, it was certainly within the realm of possibility. With considerably more brainshare invested in the concept, polywater took much longer to die than N-rays, which basically had a single supporter.

Lysenkoism is named after Trofim Lysenko and refers to a period of Soviet science in which political ideas superceded scientific rigour. Lysenko was an influential political figure, but his ideas were devoid of scientific merit; many scientists of the time were forced into publicly recanting politically unacceptable ideas such as evolution (those that refused were imprisoned).

A more recent example is cold fusion, the very mention of which continues to spark debate. However, the historical record is clear: cold fusion shows exactly the same sort of research patterns as polywater did in the 1960s. After the announcement, a huge number of research projects started to investigate the effect, the vast majority of which turned up nothing. Still, the few that did became cause celebre and justified further research. To date cold fusion has not completely "died", even though there is a complete lack of repeatable, clear evidence that the effect ever existed.


Ironically, Langmuir was a supporter of the cubical atom, a theory that ultimately befell the same fate as N-rays.

Whenever a subject is branded as pathological science, its defenders flock to its defense. In general the arguments claim that in the past "people didn't consider <> to be real, but it was later proved to be true". However these arguments tend to miss the point. The issue is not whether or not an effect actually exists, nor whether or not people "believe in it", the issue is how the support for the claim is given.

Nevertheless the term remains a difficult one to use. Most of the problem appears to be the use of the word "pathological", which to many people implies mental illness. Some other term with a less loaded term may be more acceptable.

Moreover a pathological science can only be shown to be one in retrospect. For instance many people consider cold fusion to be pathological, yet research continues. The possibility certainly exists that one of these experiments will suddenly prove the effect exists -- but the same is true for N-rays. In fact it is the very nature of the "next experiment will work" claims that makes the effect pathological in the first place.

Mainstream sciences have failed historically to approve of certain sciences till years later and inappropriately label them as pathological. Examples of sciences that have been misappropriately described as pathological sciences:

See also

External links and bibliography