The Nobel Disease

By David Winter 08/10/2011

Bruce A. Beutler, Jules A. Hoffmann, Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, Ralph M. Steinman and Dan Shechtman. Seven new Nobel Laureates and seven new names to include in the most exclusive club in science.

The Nobel prize comes with a trip to Stockholm, a gold medal and a share of million dollar prize. But perhaps even more than that, it provides a cachet that extends beyond the world of science and into the every day. Nobel lauretes are recognized as the best of the best: people whose intellectual achievements have changed the way we think of the world. The gravitas we attach to people who can put ‘Nobel Prize winning scientist’ in front of their name means their opinions are afforded special status. Indeed, listening to people who ought to know what they’re talking about is a pretty good way to learn about the world. But a Nobel Prize doesn’t represent a barrier to sloppy thinking. In fact, if anything there seems to be tendency for acknowledgement of expertise in one area to provide an unfounded confidence to speak out on other subjects. Some laureates have fallen for the most appalling anit-scientific rubbish. So much so, the term “Nobel Prize Syndrome” or “Nobel Disease” has been coined to describe this phenomenom. So, without wishing to take any of the gloss of this year’s Nobelists, here is a list of some of those that were brought low by the Nobel Disease.

Linus Pauling (Chemistry and Peace, Vitamin C fanatic)

Surely the saddest case. Pauling was a supreme scientist, one of the first chemists to get serious about using the tools of physical chemistry to understand the basis of biology. His most famous contribution was pioneering methods that use what we know about the nature of chemical bonds to find the structure of biological chemicals. Evolutionary biologists like me remember him as the guy the first proposed that we could use the rate of change in chemical structures to measure evolutionary time between species. He’s also the only person to have won a real science Nobel and the Nobel Peace Prize – the latter coming for his activism for nuclear nonproliferation.

Then there was the vitamin C business. Pauling became convinced that high doses of vitamin C would cure.. well, amost everything. The initial results of Pauling’s research were promising, but it soon became clear they wouldn’t hold up to more rigourous tests. It seems Pauling’s belief was stronger than any evidence, and he doubled down, advoacting high does of vitamin C in popular and scientific works. Today it’s almost impossible to talk to an advocate of these cures without having Pauling’s name thrown add you.

Kary Mullis (Chemistry, HIV denialist)

If Pauling is the saddest case of the Nobel Disease, Kary Mulllis might just be the oddest. Mullis is credited with inventing the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) – a method used  hundreds of thousands of times every day in molecular biology labs around the world to amplify small, specific regions of DNA. I can’t even imagine how you’d do genetics without PCR, so his achievement is certainly worth the prize. But he is seriously strange. When people talk about Mullis’ personality, they emphasise his use of LSD and his love of surfing and motorbikes. I guess that’s quirky, but science takes all sorts and none of those would make him unique among Nobel Laureates. However, I’m not sure there has ever been an acceptance speech quite like his. Before Mullis embarked on his career in biochemistry he had a go at being a novelist, and his speech reflected this:

And now as December threatened Christmas, Jennifer, that crazy, wonderful woman chemist, had dramatically left our house, the lab, headed to New York and her mother, for reasons that seemed to have everything to do with me but which I couldn’t fathom. I was beginning to learn tragedy. It differs a great deal from pathos, which you can learn from books. Tragedy is personal. It would add strength to my character and depth someday to my writing. Just right then, I would have preferred a warm friend to cook with. Hold the tragedy lessons. December is a rotten month to be studying your love life from a distance.

So, I don’t think much of his writing, but he won a Nobel Prize and I’m some guy writing a blog – so it’s hard for me to pick on him for that. Sadly, he’s done much worse. In his autobiography he claimed the theories of Ozone depletion and climate change were the result of a conspiracy between scientists and government organisations seeking to continue their funding. Even worse, he is an HIV denialist. Mullis has never done any scientific research on HIV or AIDs, but PCR is, on rare occasions, used to diagnose HIV. You can imagine the mileage that those strange people that deny the link between HIV and AIDS get from being able to say “the inventor of the PCR test doesn’t even believe it!”Mullis has gone to say anti-retrovirals don’t work and agree that  AIDS isn’t a disease that people who lead “normal, American lifestyles” run much of a risk of developing.

Also there is something is his book about being visited by a fluorescent alien raccoon.

William Shockley (Physics, Eugenicist)

Shockley invented the transistor and thus, changed the world. Apparently, he wasn’t happy with one revolution and wanted to change the word again, this time by creating a brighter future through genetics. Shockley was one of those people that think Idiocracy is a documentary, and that letting people make their own reproductive decissions will inevitably lead to a genetic meltdown for society. Almost all of the reasoning that goes into these eugenic panics is flawed, but Shockley really went a long way out on a short branch. His argument amounted to “Black Americans have a lower average IQ than whites, this is a result of genetic differences, therefore environmental interventions won’t alleviate  these problems”. Shockely was no inhibited by an understanding of genetics at any step of the reasoning that took from his poor data to his odious proposals.

Among other things, Shockley’s argued those with an IQ under 100 should be paid to be sterilised, and he provided samples to the wonderfully named “Repository for Germinal Choice” (dubbed the Nobel Prize sperm bank in the media”) in the hope his sperm would make the world a better place.

Brian Josephson (Physics, Parapsychologist)

Josephson won his Nobel Prize for his PhD work on superconductivity.  Having been awarded the prize while he was still a Reader at Cambridge (and academic rank equivalent to Associate Professor in many other countries) he can now pretty much do what he wants with his life. And what he mainly wants to do is explore the stange and wonderful world of “quantum mysticism” including ideas like telepathy and precognition. I don’t really know what else to say about Josephson, except read his webpage and find out for yourself.

Luc Montagnier (Medicine, Homoeopathy supporter)

Montagnier is one of the people credited with discovering HIV which, Mullis and his crew notwhistanding, has been shown to the causative agent of AIDs. A huge discovery, and one that set the basis for working on treating or even curing that disease. 
Then, in 2009, Montagnier set up his own journal, and published two papers that purported to show electromagnetic signals could be recorded in water that had once had DNA in it, but had subsequently been diluted such that none could remain. That would be a truly earth shattering result, as it would change pretty much everything we know about chemistry. That would be good news for homoeopaths, because, in order for their cures to work almost everything we know about chemistry would have to change. Indeed homeopaths jumped on Montagnier’s work as evidence for their quackery.
Of course, the papers are rubbish. PZ Myers goes into the details, but my favourite warning sing is that one paper went from submission to re-submission to acceptance in three days. The most earth shattering result in chemistry: read, reviewed,  commented on, edited, resubmitted and accepted in three days; in  Montagnier’s own journal; where he is the chief editor. Of course, none of that, or the fact the even the most sympathetic and credulous reading of Montagnier’s papers actually supports homoeopathy as it is practised will stop him being cited by homoeopaths at every chance.

Niko Tinbergen (Medicine, supported “Refigerator Mother” theory)

The Dutch ethologist gets special mention as showing the most rapid onset of Nobel Disease. Tinbergen used his acceptence lecture to advocate for the “Refigirator mother” theory of schizophrenia and autism – an unfounded  theory that led to thousands of mothers (never, it seems, fathers) being told their children’s illness were a result of their poor parenting.

0 Responses to “The Nobel Disease”

  • And I think Josephson is also a supporter of homeopathy; seem to remember Grant having an on-line argument with him about it on one of the Nature forums.

  • Michael, – hmm! 🙂 I’ve never seen that letter before, but it does echo some aspects of the “conversation” I and others had with him.

    Where I encountered Josephson was on Stephen Curry’s or RPG’s (Richard Grant’s) blog* before Stephen moved his blog to Occam’s Typewriter (one of my favourite science blogging networks for what it’s worth – lovely conversational atmosphere).

    More of that “debate” was from Stephen than me from memory. He’s a protein crystallographer. I’ve studied water molecules in and around protein complexes, so had a little bit of an understanding of what has been observed there.

    (* I think it was RPG’s blog, but my memory is failing me here and I can’t be bothered hunting around Nature Networks!)

  • One wonders whether the age of many of the laureates might have something to do with their extremely…firmly-held…beliefs, particularly wrt matters about which they clearly don’t know as much as they should.