After a hard year, still ” coronaviritised “, everybody is longing for some rest.
So, leaving aside for a moment the serious subjects, let’s take an interest in a new pathology “the Nobel disease” or nobelitis.
What is it about?
The Nobel Prize is not awarded to just anyone! Recipients of the most prestigious scientific award are generally elevated to the rank of “genius”. It is in a way the Holy Grail in the minds of researchers around the world.
However, a certain number of them are led to adhere one day or another to a doubtful, polemical or even conspiracy theory, to the point of denying the fundamentals of science!
But what is it that has bitten them?
The Nobel Prize
It was created in 1901 according to the last wishes of Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite. When he died, he left an inheritance of 32 million Swedish crowns (179 million euros). This money is invested and the interest is distributed annually to those “who have brought the greatest benefit to humanity”, by their work for peace, knowledge and culture in five different disciplines: peace or diplomacy, literature, chemistry, physiology or medicine and physics. As you may notice, there is no prize for mathematics. We do not know the real reason, but the legend says that Alfred Nobel’s girlfriend had an affair with a mathematician, the Swedish Gösta Mittag-Leffler, whom Nobel hated. Alfred Nobel never explained this point. It is in this context that a friend of Mittag-Leffler, the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, created the equivalent of the “Nobel Prize in Mathematics”, the famous Fields Medal.
In 1968, the Bank of Sweden instituted the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences” in memory of Alfred Nobel, which was assimilated to a Nobel Prize: “the Nobel Prize in Economics”.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary (by Robert Todd Carroll) defines Nobel disease as “an affliction of some Nobel laureates that leads them to embrace strange or scientifically unfounded ideas, usually later in life.
Sebastian Dieguez, a neuroscience researcher at the Laboratory of Cognitive and Neurological Sciences at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), explains that these brilliant scientists end up adhering to dubious theories because of a “deliberate desire to go for the strangest, the most taboo, the most shocking, to thumb their noses at the scientific community, to point out its difference, its audacity, its open-mindedness. In short, his greatness” and he specifies “that there are people who think they are always right and that, even if they are wrong, they have the right to propose provocative, unusual things”.
Another characteristic of nobelitis is that a Nobel Prize winner starts working on subjects in which he or she has no expertise.
He adds, “After receiving the prize, you can develop a kind of romantic view of science that is based not on obedience and respect for the norms of rationality and reasoning, but rather an ability to place yourself on an intuitive plane, perhaps a little irrational, in any case, to dare to ask the forbidden or taboo questions.”
In short, intelligence does not protect against irrationality.
Who are these sick people?
Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
One example is the American chemist and physicist Linus Pauling, who received two Nobel Prizes (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 for the nature of chemical bonds and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his campaigns against nuclear testing).
He did not hesitate to assert that high doses of vitamin C (by intravenous injection) could be effective against cancer or the common cold, or to hypothesize that students’ grades improved after drinking orange juice for several months.
But the studies published by the Nobel Laureate were full of bias and error. It is true, however, that many researchers are questioning the effects of vitamin C. But for the moment, no study sufficiently controlled to be representative has given satisfactory results. Pauling (in 1968) also claimed that megadoses of vitamin C were effective against schizophrenia.
James Watson (1928-)
This American biochemist won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 with Francis Crick for having described the double helix structure of DNA (which is not really their discovery but that of Rosalind Franklin whose results they obtained without her knowledge!)
He was controversial when he categorically argued that Blacks are inherently less intelligent than Whites: the difference in IQs would be due to genetic factors. In addition, exposure to sunlight in equatorial regions would increase the sexual drive of Blacks. Watson also suggested that obese people are less ambitious than others. In response, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory revoked his honorary titles (Chancellor Emeritus, Professor Emeritus, and Honorary Administrator).
Kary Mullis (1944-2019)
American biochemist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 with Michael Smith for having developed the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) which makes it possible to rapidly copy a small quantity of DNA billions of times.
His nobilitis is characterized when he doubts that AIDS is caused by the HIV virus by judging fraudulent the use of his PCR process in the determination of the viral load, a process of detection of the seropositivity.
He also denies the presence of the hole in the ozone layer and the responsibility of man in global warming (currently fewer and fewer scientists believe that man bears no responsibility in this warming).
As for his encounter with a fluorescent raccoon (an alien?) it may be due to the use of illegal substances…
Luc Montagnier (1932-)
It is probably the one that marks us the most : This French virologist received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, for their discovery of the HIV virus responsible for AIDS, coupled with a fight (not always clear) against the American Robert Gallo whose experiments were essential to the identification of the virus. Then came the slippage:
- he maintains that the diluted DNA of pathogenic bacterial and viral species can emit electromagnetic waves;
- he asserts that in a homeopathic preparation diluted to 10-18 and in which there are no more DNA molecules, he can detect an electromagnetic signal;
- he supports the theses of the memory of water of the very controversial J. Benveniste whose results are only the result of scientific frauds or experimental artifacts;
- he proposed to Pope John Paul II to cure his Parkinson’s disease with fermented papaya capsules, whose antioxidant effect would protect against aging.
Even worse, on November 7, 2017, he participated with the well-known conspiracy theorist Henri Joyeux in a press conference where he declared that he agreed with several arguments of the anti-vaccines, arguments refuted by the medical community:
- vaccines are said to be responsible for sudden infant deaths, with Montagnier declaring that he has “an American legal file concerning a baby who died in the United States after being vaccinated”;
- they would also cause hepatitis B or multiple sclerosis;
aluminium salt-based adjuvants would be “responsible for an immune storm in infants”;
- paracetamol, which is given to infants when they have a reaction to a vaccine, “is poison”;
- finally, he claims that vaccines can cause autism. He also asserts that autism can be treated with antibiotics. He is supported by the deputy of Isère at the time, Olivier Véran, who wrote to Marisol Touraine, Minister of Health, to ask her to finance a clinical trial on the effectiveness of antibiotics in the treatment of autism! This shows the very dangerous influence of this kind of character whose reputation can mislead ill-informed or interested minds.
And many others
Brian Josephson, Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 (superconductivity), was convinced that quantum mechanics would open the doors to mental telepathy.
William Shockley, winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on transistors, agreed to donate his sperm to a so-called genius sperm bank, after he, too, claimed that whites were genetically superior to blacks.
Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for his work on vascular suturing and blood cell and organ transplantation promoted eugenics and Nazi racial theories.
Richard Smalley (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of a third form of carbon), promoted anti-Darwinian ideas.
Do you have to be a nobelist to have nobelitis?
But beware! Nobelitis also exists among some non-nobelized scientists. It seems that intelligence does not make one immune to cognitive biases: therefore, even highly intelligent people may neglect to exercise critical thinking skills when they are not sufficiently motivated to do so, especially when they are certain that they are right.
Because personality studies suggest that highly creative scientists tend to be more self-confident than other scientists (Feist, 1998), intellectual humility may be more the exception than the rule among Nobel Prize winners in science. As a result, Nobel laureates must guard against “intellectual overreach” (assuming too much about one’s abilities), the mistake of assuming that because one is an expert in one area, one is likely to show comparable levels of expertise in other areas (Dubner, 2014).
Greatness and decadence: personally, I find these characters very worrying in these troubled times due to the outbreak because, crowned with their prestigious prize, they give a pseudo-scientific guarantee to the pseudo-scientists of all stripes and to the conspiracy theorists who spread on the amplifying social networks.
Any resemblance with great scientists who spoke strongly to defend dubious and unscientific theses during the Covid crisis can only be coincidental…
Feist, G. J. 1998. A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2: 290–309.
Dubner, S. 2014. Intellectual Overreach (July 24). Available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hbnFQu4Cgw.