Probing the Phenomena Called Ghosts - Ghost Evidence and Pathological Science

By Krivyanski, J. Michael; Strait, G. Carroll | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Probing the Phenomena Called Ghosts - Ghost Evidence and Pathological Science


Krivyanski, J. Michael, Strait, G. Carroll, The World and I


G. Carroll Strait is an editor in the Natural Science section of The World & I.

In a speech he gave in 1953, Nobel laureate chemist Irving Langmuir coined the term pathological science, and the name has remained in circulation ever since. It is used to describe the syndrome in which subtle, unrecognized bias leads honest, trained scientific researchers into "discovering" and experimentally verifying bogus phenomena that are then detected and reported by other scientists as well. In instances described by Langmuir, discoveries such as n-rays, mitogenetic rays, and the Allison effect were independently verified by numerous other scientists before one scientist proved a clear failure of experimental method and then, over time, others could no longer verify the phenomenon either.

Langmuir identified six symptoms of pathological science. Here we have simplified and paraphrased them:

1. (a) The maximum observable effect is produced by a barely detectable causative agent, and (b) the magnitude of the effect is independent of the magnitude of the cause.

2. The observations are near the threshold of visibility.

3. There are claims of great accuracy.

4. Proposed explanations require fantastic theories contrary to experience.

5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses.

6. The ratio of supporters to critics rises to somewhere near 50 percent and then falls gradually to zero.

Regarding J.B. Rhine's tests of extrasensory perception, Langmuir (who spent a day visiting him at his lab) pegged Rhine's work, in which experimental subjects guess the pictures that are on a set of face-down cards, as meeting criterion 1. (b), because the experiments worked just as well if the subjects guessed the pictures before the cards were shuffled or after they were shuffled. Further, Langmuir reported that Rhine, with a clear sense of honesty and integrity, selectively published only the results of studies that supported his ideas.

Langmuir was involved with the military after World War II in evaluating reports of flying saucers. …

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