Recently I re-read the famous 1953 talk by Irving Langmuir on Pathological Science. This time, one quote stuck out.
The set-up is that Langmuir describes how he visited the lab of someone performing a supposedly breakthrough-producing type of experiment, and through some canny actions, are able to show that really the experimenter is deceiving himself into believing he’s observing phenomena when really he’s just interpreting noise. Langmuir didn’t publish an expose of this guy’s work or anything. Instead:
“I sent a copy of the letter [explaining that this experimental technique did not work] that I had written to Davis to Bohr asking him to hold it confidential but to pass it on to various people who would be trying to repeat these experiments. To Professor Sommerfeld and other people and it headed off a lot of experimental work that would have gone on. And from that time on, nobody ever made another experiment except one man in England who didn’t know about the letter that I had written to Bohr. And he was not able to confirm any of it. Well, a year and a half later, in 1931, there was just a short little article in the Physical Review in which they say that they haven’t been able to reproduce the effect.”
Here the audience laughs. Me, I felt angry on behalf of the guy in England. Sounds like he wasted a bunch of time trying to work with a result that had been published, and for which there existed no contradiction in the official record. This happened because he was an outsider, not one of the people who were in-the-know to receive the information through personal networks that people already knew decisively that the experiment didn’t work. All he had was the official published record, in which there existed no contradiction.
As Langmuir tells the story, you feel sorry for the guy who came up with the wrong findings to begin with, as it was clear he really believed them and clear he was being deluded by seeing what he wanted to see in date. But, basically, in order to spare the reputational damage to this sincere guy who had produced erroneous findings, Langmuir was willing to cost the completely innocent (maybe gullible) guy in England a bunch of time. And, who knows, maybe other people tried to get this to work as well.
The guy in England, already out of the science loop, falls further behind ever getting there because he’s wasting his time on something the insiders have had the luxury of knowing via confidential letter doesn’t work.
When an issue comes up about how there’s a finding in the literature that isn’t true, there can be lots of fretting about the interpersonal angle of publicly demonstrating this. Couldn’t you just, you know, spread the word privately–isn’t being public about it just gratuitous and mean? Of course, this assumes basically that the efforts of everybody outside-the-know isn’t worth worrying about. In this respect, the hero of the study isn’t Langmuir, but the guy in England, who at least took the time to write up his negative findings, so that maybe other people after him didn’t waste their time the way he had.
Larger point: when people are wrong, we think about the consequences for them of being publicly shown to be wrong. But we should also think of the costs that wrong ideas have for others, including people outside the networks where we privately share our opinions. This can go on for years if people don’t put work into the record showing the problems with existing research.