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Nobel disease

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nobel disease or Nobelitis is an informal term for the embrace of strange or scientifically unsound ideas by some Nobel Prize winners, usually later in life.[1][2][3] It has been argued that the effect results, in part, from a tendency for Nobel winners to feel empowered by the award to speak on topics outside their specific area of expertise,[4][5][6] although it is unknown whether Nobel Prize winners are more prone to this tendency than other individuals.[7] Paul Nurse, co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, warned later laureates against "believing you are expert in almost everything, and being prepared to express opinions about most issues with great confidence, sheltering behind the authority that the Nobel Prize can give you".[8] Nobel disease has been described as a tongue-in-cheek term.[5]



While it remains unclear whether Nobel winners are statistically more prone to critical thinking errors than other scientists, the phenomenon is of interest because it provides an existence proof that being an authority in one field does not necessarily make one an authority in any other field, and, to the extent that winning a Nobel Prize serves as a proxy indicator of scientific brilliance and high general intelligence, such characteristics are not incompatible with irrationality.[9][7]

Nobel disease also serves to demonstrate that, for some prize winners, being universally hailed as correct appears to bolster the individual laureate's confirmation bias more than it does their skepticism.[10] Milton Friedman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1976, said of the Nobel disease, as it relates to his economic thinking towards an "antidote", the following:[11]

I myself have been asked my opinion on everything from a cure for the common cold to the market value of a letter signed by John F. Kennedy. Needless to say the attention [from receiving a Nobel prize] is flattering, but also corrupting. Somehow we badly need an antidote for both the inflated attention granted a Nobel laureate in areas outside his competence and the inflated ego each of us is in danger of acquiring. My own field suggests one obvious antidote: competition through the establishment of many more awards. But a product that has been so successful is not easy to replace. Hence, I suspect that our inflated egos are safe for a good long time to come.[11]

Winners reported as examples


Phillip Lenard


Phillip Lenard won the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on on cathode rays. He was a supporter of the Nazi party, and promoted the idea of Deutsche Physik and Jewish physics.[9]

Alexis Carrel


Alexis Carrel, winner of the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the invention of perfusion pump, became an advocate of eugenic policies in Vichy France.[9]

Charles Richet


Charles Richet won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on anaphylaxis. He also believed in extrasensory perception, paranormal activity, dowsing, and ghosts.[7]

Linus Pauling


Linus Pauling won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on chemical bonds and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his peace activism. A decade before winning the first prize, he was diagnosed with Bright's disease which he treated in part by ingesting vitamin supplements, which he claimed dramatically improved his condition. He later espoused taking high doses of vitamin C to reduce the likelihood and severity of experiencing the common cold. Pauling himself consumed amounts of vitamin C on a daily basis that were more than 120 times the recommended daily intake. He further argued that megadoses of vitamin C have therapeutic value for treating schizophrenia and for prolonging cancer patients' lives. These claims are not supported by the best available science.[9][1][2]

William Shockley


William Shockley, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the transistor, promoted racialism and eugenics.[4][9]

James Watson


James Watson was awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, "for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids and its significance for information transfer in living material". Since at least 2000, Watson has consistently and publicly claimed that black people are inherently less intelligent than white people, and that exposure to sunlight in tropical regions and higher levels of melanin cause dark-skinned people to have a higher sex drive.[9][12][13]

Nikolaas Tinbergen


Nikolaas Tinbergen won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries concerning the organization and elicitation of individual and social behavior patterns in animals. During his Nobel acceptance speech, Tinbergen promoted the widely discredited[14] "refrigerator mother" hypothesis of the causation of autism, thereby setting a "nearly unbeatable record for shortest time between receiving the Nobel Prize and saying something really stupid about a field in which the recipient had little experience."[2] In 1985, Tinbergen coauthored a book with his wife[15] that recommended the use of "holding therapy" for autism, a form of treatment that is empirically unsupported and that can be physically dangerous.[1][9]

Brian Josephson


Brian Josephson won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 for his prediction of the Josephson effect. Josephson has promoted a number of scientifically unsupported or discredited beliefs, including the homeopathic notion that water can somehow "remember" the chemical properties of substances diluted within it, the view that transcendental meditation is helpful for bringing unconscious traumatic memories into conscious awareness, and the possibility that humans can communicate with each other by telepathy.[9]

Kary Mullis


Kary Mullis won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for development of the polymerase chain reaction. Mullis disagreed with the scientifically accepted view that AIDS is caused by HIV, claiming that the virus is barely detectable in people with the disease. He also expressed doubt in the evidence for human-caused climate change. In his autobiography, Mullis professed a belief in astrology and wrote about an encounter with a fluorescent, talking raccoon that he suggested might have been an extraterrestrial alien.[4][9]

Louis J. Ignarro


Louis J. Ignarro, winner of the 1998 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for his research on nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system, became a consultant of Herbalife, and helped to promote dietary supplements. He studied its effects on mice, and is known for his quote "What’s good for mice is good for humans".[9]

Luc Montagnier


Luc Montagnier co-discovered HIV in 1980, for which he won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. In 2009, in a non-peer-reviewed paper in a journal that he had founded, Montagnier claimed that solutions containing the DNA of pathogenic bacteria and viruses could emit low frequency radio waves that induce surrounding water molecules to become arranged into "nanostructures". He suggested water could retain such properties even after the original solutions were massively diluted, to the point where the original DNA had effectively vanished, and that water could retain the "memory" of substances with which it had been in contact – claims that place his work in close alignment with the pseudoscientific tenets of homeopathy. He further claimed that DNA sequence information could be 'teleported' to a separate test tube of purified water via these radio waves. He explained this in the framework of quantum field theory.[16][2][17] He has supported the scientifically discredited view that vaccines cause autism and has claimed that antibiotics are of therapeutic value in the treatment of autism.[9]

Other Nobelist who held "weird ideas"


Scott O. Lilienfeld et al. list more examples of "Nobel laureates who held/hold weird ideas": Pierre Curie, who participated in spiritual seances; John William Strutt, who "was fond of parapsychology"; J. J. Thomson, who was interested in psychic phenomena; Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who wrote a book "on hypnosis, spiritualism, and metaphysics"; Wolfgang Pauli, who, together with Carl Jung, "developed the concept of synchronicity"; Egas Moniz, for his belief that lobotomy can treat mental ilnesses; Julian Schwinger, for his work on cold fusion; Ivar Giaever, for global warming skepticism; Arthur Schawlow, for his support of a debunked "technique of facilitated communication for autism"; and Richard Smalley, for promotion of anti-evolutionary ideas.[18]

See also



  1. ^ a b c Gorski, David (18 August 2008). "High dose vitamin C and cancer: Has Linus Pauling been vindicated?". Science Based Medicine. sciencebasedmedicine.org. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d Gorski, David (4 June 2012). "Luc Montagnier and the Nobel Disease". Science Based Medicine. sciencebasedmedicine.org. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  3. ^ Robson, David (6 August 2019). The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-65143-0.
  4. ^ a b c Winter, David (8 October 2011). "The Nobel disease". The Atavism. Sciblogs. Wellington, New Zealand: Science Media Centre. Archived from the original on 20 January 2021.
  5. ^ a b Berezow, Alex (18 December 2016). "Paul Krugman Now Has Nobel Disease". American Council on Science and Health. Retrieved 19 May 2020.
  6. ^ Weigmann, Katrin (April 2018). "The genesis of a conspiracy theory: Why do people believe in scientific conspiracy theories and how do they spread?". EMBO Reports. 19 (4). doi:10.15252/embr.201845935. ISSN 1469-221X. PMC 5891410. PMID 29491005.
  7. ^ a b c Sternberg, Robert J.; Halpern, Diane F. (16 January 2020). Critical Thinking in Psychology. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-75530-6.
  8. ^ Nurse, Paul (11 October 2013). "Attention, Nobel Prize winners! Advice from someone who's already won". The Independent. Archived from the original on 21 June 2022. Retrieved 19 September 2021.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Basterfield, Candice; Lilienfeld, Scott; Bowes, Shauna; Costello, Thomas (May–June 2020). "The Nobel disease: When intelligence fails to protect against irrationality". Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 44, no. 3. pp. 32–37. ISSN 0194-6730. Retrieved 12 January 2024.
  10. ^ Diamandis, Eleftherios P. (1 January 2013). "Nobelitis: a common disease among Nobel laureates?". Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine. 51 (8). Walter de Gruyter GmbH: 1573–1574. doi:10.1515/cclm-2013-0273. ISSN 1437-4331. PMID 23729580. S2CID 37703125.
  11. ^ a b Friedman, Milton; Friedman, Rose (1998). Two lucky people : memoirs (Paperback edition 1999 ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 454. ISBN 0-226-26415-7.
  12. ^ "Fury at DNA pioneer's theory: Africans are less intelligent than". The Independent. 18 September 2011. Archived from the original on 21 June 2022.
  13. ^ Harmon, Amy (1 January 2019). "James Watson Had a Chance to Salvage His Reputation on Race. He Made Things Worse". The New York Times.
  14. ^ Folstein, S.; Rutter, M. (1977). "Genetic influences and infantile autism". Nature. 265 (5596): 726–728. Bibcode:1977Natur.265..726F. doi:10.1038/265726a0. PMID 558516. S2CID 4283843.
  15. ^ Tinbergen, N.; Tinbergen, E.A. (1985). Autistic children: New hope for a cure. London: George Allen and Unwin. ISBN 978-0041570106.
  16. ^ Montagnier, L; Aissa, J; Giudice, E Del; Lavallee, C; Tedeschi, A; Vitiello, G (8 July 2011). "DNA waves and water". Journal of Physics: Conference Series. 306 (1): 012007. arXiv:1012.5166. Bibcode:2011JPhCS.306a2007M. doi:10.1088/1742-6596/306/1/012007. S2CID 1810576.
  17. ^ Hall, Harriett (20 October 2009). "The Montagnier "Homeopathy" Study". Science Based Medicine. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  18. ^ Lilienfeld, Scott O.; Basterfield, Candice; Bowes, Shauna M.; Costello, Thomas H. (2020). "Nobelists Gone Wild: Case Studies in the Domain Specificity of Critical Thinking". Critical Thinking in Psychology (2 ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–38. ISBN 978-1-108-49715-2.