Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Friday, June 17, 2005

Characteristic Symptoms of Pathological Science

Characteristic Symptoms of Pathological Science
Dr. Irving Langmuir

The characteristics of this Davis-Barnes experiment and the N-rays and the mitogenetic rays, they have things in common. 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 threshold interactions. These are examples of pathological science. These are things that attracted a great deal of attention. Usually hundreds of papers have been published upon them. Sometimes they have lasted for fifteen or twenty years and then they gradually die away.

Now, the characteristic rules are these (see Table I}

TABLE I
Symptoms of Pathological Science:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. Claims of great accuracy.

4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.

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

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

The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity. For example, you might think that if one onion root would affect another due to ultraviolet light, you'd think that by putting on an ultraviolet source of light you could get it to work better. Oh no! OH NO! It had to be just the amount of intensity that's given off by an onion root. Ten onion roots wouldn't do any better than one and it doesn't make any difference about the distance of the source. It doesn't follow any in-verse square law or anything as simple as that, and so on. In other words, the effect is independent of the intensity of the cause. That was true in the mitogenetic rays, and it was true in the N-rays. Ten bricks didn't have any more effect than one. It had to be of low intensity. We know why it had to be of low intensity: so that you could fool yourself so easily. Otherwise, it wouldn't work. Davis-Barnes worked just as well when the filament was turned off. They counted scintillations.

Another characteristic thing about them all is that, these observations are near the threshold of visibility of the eyes. Any other sense, I suppose, would work as well. Or many measurements are necessary, many measurements because of very low statistical significance of the results. In the mitogenetic rays particularly it started out by seeing something that was bent. Later on, they would take a hundred onion roots and expose them to something and they would get the average position of all of them to see whether the average had been affected a little bit by an appreciable amount. Or statistical mea-8urements of a very small effect which by taking large numbers were thought to be significant. Now the trouble with that is this. There is a habit with most people, that when measurements of low signifcance are taken they find means of rejecting data. They are right at the threshold value and there are many reasons why you can discard data. Davis and Barnes were doing that right along. If things were doubtful at all why they would discard them or not discard them depending on whether or not they fit the theory. They didn't know that, but that's the way it worked out.

There are claims of great accuracy. Barnes was going to get the Rydberg constant more accurately than the spectroscopists could. Great sensitivity or great specificity, we'll come across that particularly in the Allison effect.

Fantastic theories contrary to experience. In the Bohr theory, the whole idea of an electron being captured by an alpha particle when the alpha particles aren't there just because the waves are there doesn't make a very sensible theory.

Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment. They always had an answer--always.

The ratio of the supporters to the critics rises up somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion. The critics can't reproduce the effects. Only the supporters could do that. In the end, nothing was salvaged. Why should there be? There isn't anything there. There never was. That’s (p.7) characteristic of the effect. Well, I'll go quickly on to some of the other things.



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