nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
See here for more discussion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Diagnosing Unscientific Claims...Some History

Looking back on scientific nonsense.

There are a number of good books on how to judge whether research claims or health care policy proposals have merit.  Books like Snake Oil Science by R. Barker Bausell, and Science Under Siege by Kendrick Frazier, look at the ways we get fooled by bad science or implausible data.

Nostrums follows the same pattern of trying to show when a medical claim or policy proposal doesn't make sense, by looking directly at the data.

But these authors weren't the first to do so.  Enter Irving Langmuir, over fifty years ago.  What follows is my review of his work in diagnosing "Pathological Science."

Langmuir's Pathological Science, A Reappraisal

Irving Langmuir (1881-1957) won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1932. In 1953, he gave a talk during a colloquium at The Knolls Research Laboratory that detailed his experience with “the science of things that aren't so.” During the course of that presentation he listed the symptoms associated with “not-science” under the moniker Pathological Science (Physicist Robert L. Park later developed the Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science, which overlaps a bit, but contains new signs inspired by the impact of 24/7 influence unknown in Langmuir's time). However, most scientists and authors give Langmuir credit for being among the first to define the common implausibilities of unscientific claims.

Although Dr. Langmuir lived through an era of quackery and nostrums in medicine, his focus was on science-less notions in the physical sciences. At the time of his speech the Great Explosion in alternative medicine had yet to occur--after all, the Sixties were still to come--so it's appropriate to ask if his initial diagnosis is still useful or just an anachronism.

Do his symptoms still tell a tale that applies to alternative therapies? What would he have thought of "testimonial evidence" and all the other Ways of Knowing, that have grown up since his time.  In 1953, the science of "things that aren't so" was confined to legitimate scientists who went off the rails, unwittingly, but used the scientific method.

I thought it was interesting to look back and see Langmuir's pathological symptoms in light of today's medical claims.
Characteristic Symptoms of Pathological Science

Langmuir's list, as transcribed by R. N. Hall, and preserved by Kenneth Steiglitz of Princeton University, is as follows:

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.

Note that Langmuir is targeting reputable scientists engaged in false theories. He grants them integrity of method, grounded initially in reputable science, but not the validity of the result. By contrast, today we are confronted not only with invalid claims, but also a rejection of methodological integrity.

In our day, there are undetectable rays, invisible forces, miraculous herbs, supernatural talents, and super vitamins.  As a culture we have gone so far as to reach back to prehistoric animism, yanking primitive man's groping for understanding (shamanism) forward into the age of reason in ways that Enlightenment thinkers would have ridiculed.

The science changes, but human nature doesn't.

Doc D

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