Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nobel Laureates Become Pseudoscientists

There are several well-known examples of Nobel Laureates in science who later become enamored with quackery. Orac mentions a few on his blog in The Nobel disease strikes again.

Can you guess who holds the record for the swiftest turn around from getting the Nobel Prize to endorsing quackery? (Hint: mentor of Richard Dawkins).

Of course this record only applies to scientists who became quacks after getting the Nobel Prize. That lets Kary Mullis off the hook.


  1. While science may have no unquestionable 'authorities' (and I'd question even that), the sad truth is that we still have celebrities. It's even sadder when, as the post describes, these people are invited to speak as luminaries at conferences.

  2. Newton predated the Nobel Prizes by a few years, but he certainly should have served as fair warning.

  3. Mullis is not a quack AFAIK. He decided to use his Nobel Prize to go surfing. This seems an eminently sensible decision, to me, even if it does piss off Jim Watson.

  4. Name that immediately comes to mind is Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate in Physics (superconductivity) and proponent of ESP.

  5. Some of Mullis's opinions are certainly quacky, but scientists aren't any different from anyone else. He is an HIV and climate-change denialist and LSD proponent. So what? He has absolutely no expertise whatsoever in those fields. He is a clever amateur. A bright guy. But outside of microbiological lab work, I'm not sure why anyone would get either upset or excited by anything he has to say or write. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was one of the most gifted legal minds in U.S. history, and anything he had to say regarding the U.S. Constitution ought to be seriously considered. But he also was a proponent of eugenics, specifically the forced sterilization of the mentally handicapped. But he was a J.D., not an M.D. or a PhD (Biology). Mozart and Beethoven were anti-semitic. Charles Lindbergh was pro-fascist. Thomas Jefferson fathered a significant portion of his own household servants.

    Geniuses and otherwise accomplished people ought not to have presumed competency in fields in which they are as uniquely unqualified as any other educated person.

  6. John Wilkins says,

    Mullis is not a quack AFAIK.

    Hmmm .... his strange beliefs are well known. Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia.

    In his 1998 autobiography, Mullis expressed disagreement with the scientific evidence supporting climate change and ozone depletion, that HIV causes AIDS, and asserted his belief in astrology. Mullis claims climate change and the HIV/AIDS connection are due to a conspiracy of environmentalists, government agencies and scientists attempting to preserve their careers and earn money, rather than scientific evidence. Mullis has drawn controversy for his association with prominent AIDS denialist Peter Duesberg, claiming that AIDS is an arbitrary diagnosis only used when HIV antibodies are found in a patient's blood.

    There's lots more where that came from.

    Perhaps you don't think any of those things qualify as quackery?

  7. Re transientreporter

    Prof. Josephson is also a believer in PK and cold fusion.

    I would also add a couple of formerly prominent scientists who did not win Nobel Prizes.

    Astronomer J. Allen Hynek, who at one time was president of the American Astronomical Society came to believe in alien visitations and alien abductions.

    Biologist Lynn Margulis is an HIV/AIDS denier.

  8. Tinbergens quackery in his Nobel lecture seems to be a promotion of some of his and his wifes current (1972) research.
    Any yes, Mullis is definitely a quack!

  9. "He decided to use his Nobel Prize to go surfing."
    There's nothing wrong with that and that has nothing to do with the disdain Mullis is held by many molecular biologists. He won the prize for PCR and thus should be familiar with the basics of detecting viral nucleic acid as a means of diagnosing disease. For a long time, however, Mullis has taken a denialist stance towards the issue of HIV and Aids.
    I think his action has had a subsequent effect on the more recent choice of Nobel winners.
    I work in Sweden at one of the institutions that chooses winners of one of the prizes and notice a switch in preference amongst those involved in nominating and choosing winners (profs at the institute) from individuals who have made a single breakthrough discovery towards individuals who have made a longer term contribution to the field in question.
    I suppose its all swings and roundabouts, however. We probably avoid giving the prize to young individuals who are not too scientifically minded (like Mullis) but more likely to give the prize to individuals who are at the end of their careers - and prone to more wild flights of fancy.

  10. Everybody comes up with dumb ideas from time to time. It has probably even happened to Larry. But when a Nobel laureate comes up with a dumb idea, he does it on stage in the public spotlight.

    So maybe there isn't anything going on here, other than that Nobel laureates get more publicity.

  11. @nwrickert There is an OCEAN of differences between "coming up with dumb ideas" and the kind of quackery discussed here. Nobel laureates are incredibly underrepresented among the likes of quacks, and therefore it's interesting to note the rare cases.

    I instantly thought about Luc Montagnier (Physiology or Medicine 2008) and his spiel about electromagnetic signals from diluted DNA changing the "energy" of water molecules... supposedly giving support to homeopathy. I think he even tried to set up a business around it.

  12. Duh... I should have read Orac's post before writing my previous comment. My bad.