July 12, 2010

"Pathological" and real science

On 18 December 1953, Nobel Prize winner Irving Langmuir (1932, Chemistry) conducted a colloquium on "Pathological Science" at the General Electric Research & Development Laboratory in Niskayuna, New York.

Many of those in attendance remember it as "the most seminal exposition on the topic." My father, a recent Caltech graduate, was in the audience (Robert Hall, who transcribed the talk, worked in the lab next to his), and says it reminded him of what Richard Feynman stressed in his lectures about common pitfalls in the empirical process.

Langmuir distilled his analysis into the "Six 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 percent and then falls gradually to oblivion.

As Langmuir keenly observes, "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."

Incidentally, during the 1950s and 1960s, GE R&D Labs spun off scientific luminaries as prodigiously as did Xerox PARC during the 1970s. My dad's colleagues included Tracy Hall (1919-2008), inventor of the artificial diamond (a different Hall than the one above), and Ray Noorda (1924-2006), founder of Novell (also both Mormon).

We all heard the story growing up, but this obit in the Los Angeles Times credits my dad as the first person to duplicate the "Hall process." It's nice to see it "officially" documented somewhere.

Hall repeated the experiment several times, achieving the same results. On New Year's Eve, GE chemist Hugh H. Woodbury [sic] used Hall's equipment to perform the experiment, becoming the second person to make artificial diamonds.

Just to set the record straight, it's "H. Hugh" (a Utah Mormon naming quirk) and he's a solid-state physicist, not a chemist.

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