Symptoms of Pathological Science & Technical Problem Solving

Irving Langmuir had an interesting career in science. He made countless discoveries an inventions including the diffusion pump, atomic hydrogen welding, submarine detection devices and the gas-filled incandescent light bulb, and even coined the word “plasma”. What is really interesting for me, however, is that in 1953 he coined the term “pathological science“, describing research conducted with accordance to the scientific method, but tainted by unconscious bias or subjective effects. This is in contrast to pseudoscience, which has no pretense of following the scientific method. In his original speech, he presented ESP and flying saucers as examples of pathological science; since then, the label has been applied to polywater and cold fusion.

As a side-effect of all his right-on inventions and amazing science, he also excelled at keeping an eye open for scientists who had unconsciously broken with the scientific methodology. Langmuir described it as “These are cases where even when no dishonesty was involved, people were 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.”

He did a lecture in 1954  where he proposed a list of “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.

Now what does this have to do with us techies? Coming into a typical SharePoint, IIS, ASP .NET or indeed any other technical issue with many actors and moving parts, I find that the notion of pathological science is really something to watch out for. There are a few key risky neighbourhoods around some of the harder IT issues when they involve parachuting in to a lot of unknowns.

A major contributor to pathological science in the IT realm these days is, in my opinion, the “Let me Google/Bing that for you” effect – As far as I can tell, the world did not go off it’s axis when Google went globally down for a period. Global internet traffic dipped a bit, some people might have been induced to try an alternate approach or go take a break.

Although it’s a bit cynical to paint search engines with a broad brush as they give so much information out freely, there are schools of  thought that propose search engines make people dumber. 🙂  At the least, people such as, let’s say, Irving Langmuir, managed to crank out stunning inventions without such aids.

In the Microsoft world there are generally enough technical documents, forums, blogs, snippets and personal experiences that one can rapidly use a search engine to zero in on “a” fix for a particular symptom, but the problem is that these channels need to be vetted to exclude all the following critical factors as complications:

– software versions
– software interdependencies
– personal opinions
– known bugs
– unknown bugs
– known unknown bugs
– hardware
– networking
– OS
– End user or external system interaction patterns
– .. and so forth.

When trying to isolate a cause for these types of issues, it’s important to stick to the patterns of these old school science greats. While things these days in the IT sector may be almost childlike in comparison to what these scientists dreamed up in their heads with no acronyms or decades of progress to back them up, the silo’s of logic that we have created around modern code mask huge underlying complexities. The problems we encounter daily normally are not so simple in that we have a square peg and are trying to fit it in a round hole- it’s that we have a bunch of pegs of various diameters, many of which will fit the pattern despite not being a true fit for the problem.

The cure for having many “so-so” answers to an issue and no definitive “right” answer is to fall back on experience, reason, and research and peer review.

Oh and what became of Irving Langmuir? Well, he went on in his latter career to pitch the concept of controlling weather via cloud seeding, so that humans could spawn rain clouds and such- with huge potential for agriculture and of course military uses. Unfortunately, he wanted to believe his weather spawning solution worked so much, he became an ironic victim of his own Pathological Science.

“Utilizing his own criteria for pathology, Langmuirʼs claims for cloud seeding qualified on several counts: they rested on observations close to the threshold of detectability, on apparently meaningful patterns generated in field trials; on the inability of critics to reproduce the experiments; on the intervention of the courts, legislature, and the press; and on overreliance on the credentials of a Nobel laureate rather than proof.”

In essence, despite knowing better, he pursued the result instead of getting a result from pursuit. I think this is something that all of us involved in IT can keep in mind in our daily problem solving.

causative agent, maximum effect, pathological science, pseudoscience, scientific method, statistical significance, subjective effects, wishful thinking

Comments (2)

  • Great post Keith! Agree with the observation that search engines can make people people dumber. Like when technologists give up because they couldn’t find the answer on Google 🙂


    • Thanks Steve.. I like to think of how funny it’d be if in the middle of surgery, a Doctor had to suddenly Google something to know what to do next. We expect pro’s to know their stuff – the IT field is admittedly filled with huge amounts of changing trivia, but if one is on a righteous path (like .. let’s say.. SharePoint 😛 ), one should get enough familiarity in one’s niche to be able to do things intuitively and with clarity.

      We’re all victims of convenience sometimes, who knows, maybe surgeons do Google stuff at night. 😉

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