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the Nobel disease

The Nobel disease has been defined as "an affliction of certain Nobel Prize recipients which causes them to embrace strange or scientifically unsound ideas, usually later in life."*

Examples of the Nobel disease include:

Pierre Curie, physics (Eusapia Palladino)

Ivar Giaever, physics (global warming denier)

Louis J. Ignarro, physiology or medicine (Herbalife Niteworks)

Brian Josephson, physics (psi)

Philipp Lenard, physics (Nazi ideology)

Luc Montagnier, medicine (autism)

Kary Mullis, chemistry (supports astrology, denies anthropogenic climate change, denies HIV causes AIDS)

Linus Pauling, chemistry (vitamin C)

Charles Richet, physiology (ectoplasm/mediums/telepathy)

William Shockley, physics (race & IQ)

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, physics (president Society for Psychical Research)

Nikolaas Tinbergen, physiology or medicine (autism)

James Watson, physiology or medicine (race & IQ)

The first use of 'the Nobel disease' that I am aware of occurred in one of David Gorski's Science-Based Medicine blogs where he not only discusses several instances of the affliction but attributes the expression to "a few wags." Gorski describes the affliction as "a tendency among Nobel Prize recipients in science to become enamored of strange ideas or even outright pseudoscience in their later years."

There are many reasons why smart people sometimes believe dumb things. The smarter one is the easier it is to see patterns, fit data to a hypothesis, and draw inferences. The smarter one is the easier it is to rationalize, i.e., explain away strong evidence contrary to one's beliefs. Also, smart people are often arrogant and incorrectly think that they cannot be deceived by others, the data, or themselves.

Is the Nobel disease a real disease and does it infect an unusually large percentage of Nobel laureates? It's about as real and infectious as the MD disease: an affliction of certain medical doctors that causes them to embrace strange or scientifically unsound ideas, even outright pseudoscience, not necessarily later in life.

Examples of the MD disease include:

Nas Amir-Ahmadi (detox)

Herbert Benson (healing prayer)

Russell Blaylock (anti-vaccination)

Bennett G. Braun (mpd)

Randolph Byrd (healing prayer)

Kwang Cha (prayer and fertility)

Deepak Chopra (quantum healing)

David Dosa (psychic cat)

Larry Dossey (healing prayer)

Richard Gerber (vibrational medicine)

Max Gerson (cancer quack)

Nicholas Gonzalez, (the Gonzales protocol)

Jay Gordon (autism/anti-vaxxer)

Bill Gray (homeopathy)

Ernst Hartman (E-rays)

David Hawkins (applied kinesiology)

Peter Hinderberger (anthroposophic medicine)

Alan Hirsch (magic diet crystals)

Suzanne Humphries (no vaccine is safe)

Wayne Jonas (homeopathy)

Mitch Krukoff (healing prayer)

Robert Lanza (biocentrism)

Rauni-Leena Luukanen-Kilde (UFOs)

Mary A. Lynch (energy healing/Consegrity)

Jacob Mirman (homeopathy)

Will Meecham (acupuncture)

Robert Mendelsohn (anti-vaxxer)

Raymond Moody (life after life)

Richard Niemtzow (medical acupuncture)

Sam Parnia (life after life)

Lawrence Pazder (SRA)

Diane Hennacy Powell (ESP)

William C. Rader (bogus stem cell therapy)

Matthias Rath (vitamins to cure AIDS)

Hans-Heinrich Reckeweg (homeopathy)

Robin Sicca (chelation)

Bernie Siegal (love and miracles)

Stephen Sinatra (earthing aka grounding)

Andrew Wakefield (autism)

Andrew Weil (integrated medicine)

Brian Weiss (past life regression)

It is not surprising that it is easier to find a longer list of MDs than of Nobel laureates defending wacky ideas. The former grandly outnumber the latter. But the point to draw from all of this is the same: being an authority in one field does not make one an authority in any other field. Many people love to cite a Nobel laureate, a scientist, or an MD to support their position, but once an expert begins to make claims outside of his or her field of expertise, the authority is no greater than yours or mine.

There are, of course, as many "diseases" of this type as there are types of experts or authorities. I'll let others construct those lists, especially the list of PhDs in philosophy who defend wacky ideas.

See also Blondlot and N-rays, the hidden persuaders, Reich's orgone energy, and Reichenbach's odic force.

further reading


Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons. 2010. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Crown. (my review of this book)

Gardner, Martin. Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1957).

Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. HarperCollins. (my review of this book)

Jastrow, Joseph. 1935. Wish and Wisdom: Episodes in the Vagaries of Belief. (Published in 1962 by Dover Books as Error and Eccentricity in Human Belief).

Sternberg, Robert J. ed. Why Smart people Can Be So Stupid. (Yale University Press 2002).

Van Hecke, Madeleine L. (2007). Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Prometheus.

blogs and websites

dumb beliefs about intelligence

Bright Scientists, Dim Notions

4 Nobel Prize Winners Who Were Clearly Insane

High dose vitamin C and cancer: Has Linus Pauling been vindicated? - David Gorski

Luc Montagnier and the Nobel Disease by David Gorski

Crystal bawl: I blew $700 on a famous psychic whose best talent was predicting my gullibility by Janet McDonald


Last updated 05-Nov-2015

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