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Nobel disease

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Nobel disease, also known as nobelitis,[1] is a phenomenon where a Nobel Prize-winning scientist endorses or performs "research" in pseudoscientific areas in their later years, generally (though not always) after having won the esteemed prize for some legitimate scientific achievement.

What makes the term special is the fact that you'd think Nobel laureates (of all people) would be the most resistant to crankery. On the contrary, however, the Nobel "disease" underscores the fact that human beings simply aren't "immune" to falling for crank ideas — accomplished scientists included.

The Nobel disease also serves to demonstrate how being universally hailed as "right" would appear to bolster the individual laureate's confirmation bias more than it does his or her skepticism.

In a wider sense, the Nobel disease might be indicative of the fact that — just like with milk — even the greatest minds can have a "best before"-date of sorts. The longevity human beings enjoy today is a relatively new concept for Homo sapiens, and as such, more and more people live long enough for their brains to start showing various signs of deterioration.

Interestingly, scientists who make great discoveries usually do so before a certain age — formerly before age 30, but nowadays before approximately age 50.[2]

Furthermore, Nobel Prizes often aren't awarded until a relatively long period of additional research has been performed, after the initial discovery has been confirmed and its importance is more fully understood.

This can mean that by the time the prize is awarded, the recipients may well have descended into woo unrelated to their award-winning discovery of years (or even decades) past.

One thing is certain: creeping dementia — coupled with confidence, media attention and funding — rarely spells success in the end.

As a comparison, many other awards are claimed to be followed by a career decline or other misfortune, often called a "curse": the Oscars (both careerwise[3] and in personal life[4]), best new artist Grammy[5], English Premier League Manager of the Month[6], the Mercury Music Prize[7], and even the Nobel Prize for Literature[8]. This almost certainly reflects a combination of confirmation bias and regression to the mean.

A meager upside to all this is that at least the existence of the Nobel disease cancels out the oft-repeated argument from authority:

If a Nobel prize-winning scientist supports X, it must be true!

(In)famous Victims of Disease[edit]

Inverted Nobel Disease[edit]

Here, we show a picture of Tu Youyou to you.
See also: stopped clock

In a more bizarre case, Tu Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of artemisinin, a drug used to treat malaria and that is saving millions of lives. She discovered this while testing thousands of different herbs that were in her field of study: Traditional Chinese Medicine.

It should be noted that if the Scientific Method had not been developed yet, many parts of TCM would be considered proto-science rather than pseudoscience. Shamans, medicine men, cunning men, witch doctors, and the likes would often perceive an apparent correlation between administration of herb or practice X with the outcome of ailment Y, and would pass these hypotheses down through the generations.

Oftentimes, no causation was actually present, of course, and a lot of superstitions were formed in this manner, but without things like rapid communication, peer review, an understanding of cognitive biases or access to well-equipped laboratories, any better form of acquiring knowledge was simply unavailable. Then when society did reach a point where a city could afford the resources for the labs, many early scientists began testing various herbal remedies that had been passed down from the shamans. What worked was carefully recorded and kept, such as aspirin from willow bark tea, while what didn't was discarded as proven ineffective stays in use to this day in the realm of alternative medicine. Many have not been tested, or have been tested in studies without sufficient controls or sample size. Such results are disregarded as statistically insignificant and disregarded on the assumption of the negative until further data is available.

Tu Youyou tested various herbal remedies and found another important drug, and for that we are thankful. Science works.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Diamandis EP. Nobelitis: a common disease among Nobel laureates? Clin Chem Lab Med. 2013 Aug;51(8):1573-4. doi: 10.1515/cclm-2013-0273. PMID: 23729580.
  2. The Stroke of Genius Strikes Later in Modern Life by Charles Q. Choi (November 7, 2011 03:01pm ET) Live Science.
  3. 13 Actors Hit With The Oscar Curse, CNBC, 22 Feb 2013
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Oscar love curse.
  5. A Grammy Curse? Milli Vanilli's Fab Morvan, Others Reflect on Best New Artist Award, Billboard, 2018
  6. Mundane statistics lift the lid on the curse of the manager's award, The guardian, 19 Oct 2014
  7. Curse of the Mercury, The Independent, 13 July 2006
  8. Patrick Modiano, Beware: The Curse of the Literature Nobel Prize, Time, Oct 9, 2014
  9. Pierre Curie bio
  10. John William Strutt bio
  11. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 by Janet Oppenheim (1988) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052134767X.
  12. Lenard, Philipp (1936). Deutsche Physik in vier Bänden (in German). J.F. Lehmann.
  13. Recollections and reflections by J. J. Thomson (1937). Macmillan.
  14. God's Eugenicist: Alexis Carrel And the Sociobiology of Decline by Andrés Horacio Reggiani (2006) Berghahn Books. ISBN 1845451724.
  15. Charles Richet bio
  16. Albert Einstein Endorsed a Popular Psychic in 1932. This Is the Controversy that Ensued (March 8, 1932) The New Republic.
  17. The reputation of another famous scientist is dashed to the ground Pharyngula (2014/09/08) Free Though Blogs.
  18. My View of the World Erwin Schrödinger chapter iv. What Is life? the physical aspect of the living cell & Mind and matter — By Erwin Schrödinger
  19. The Observer (11 January 1931)
  20. Psychic Research (1931), Vol. 25, p. 91
  21. Psychoanalysis and the Paranormal: Lands of Darkness by Nick Totton (2003). Karnac Books. ISBN 1855759853. p. 122.
  22. Chain, 1971, “Social Responsibility and the Scientist in Modern Western Society,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 1971, Vol. 14, No. 3, p. 368
  23. Wolfgang Pauli Wikiquote
  24. See the Wikipedia article on Pauli effect.
  25. Creativity and intuition : a physicist looks at East and West / by Hideki Yukawa ; translated by John Bester (1973)
  26. The Dark Side of Linus Pauling's Legacy by Stephen Barrett (revised on September 14, 2014) Quackwatch.
  27. Bill Shockley bio
  28. Fury at DNA Pioneer's Theory: Africans are Less Intelligent than Westerners, The Independent
  29. [1], where Watson clarifies he speaks as "people who have to deal with black employees".
  30. Eccles, John (1973). "6 'Brain, Speech, and Consciousness'". The Understanding of the Brain. McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. p. 189. ISBN 0-07-018863-7.
  31. Cold Fusion—Does It Have a Future? by Julian Schwinger (December 7, 1991) Talk given in Japan.
  32. Alfred Kastler, Cette étrange matière by J. Rosmorduc (1977) Revue d'histoire des sciences Année. Vol. 30, Num. 1 pp. 84-87.
  33. Hannes Alfvén, Cosmology—Myth or Science? J. Astrophysics and Astronomy, vol. 5, pp. 79-98, (1984).
  34. Ivar Giaevar, DeSmog Blog
  35. Pioneer of the Paranormal
  36. [2]
  37. John Benneth, Brian Josephson and an Absurd Talk at Cambridge by Andy Lewis (October 9, 2010) Quackometer.
  38. Brian Josephson's home page University of Cambridge
  39. Outside the Box or Around the Bend? Photon in the Darkness
  40. Beyond Kary Mullis: The Alien Conspiracy Theory of AIDS, Denying AIDS
  41. Kary Mullis — Personal ViewsWikipedia, Wikipedia
  42. Walter Gilbert Wikiquote
  43. Creation Scientists Applaud Pa Judge's Ruling Against 'Intelligent Design' — Dressing Up Id Is No Substitute For Real Science Montana News Association (Apr 14, 2015, archived copy).
  44. Creation Scientists in Three-Way Debate with Intelligent Design, Evolution The Christian Post (Dec 22, 2005).
  45. Nobel Prize Winner Didn't Disclose Herbalife Contract (Update1) by David Evans (December 8, 2004 11:38 EST) Bloomberg (archived from 27 Nov 2013 20:01:52 UTC).
  46. Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier hits a new low: Age of Autism rallies to defend him by Orac (June 27, 2012) ScienceBlogs.
  47. Dr. Luc Montagnier, HIV and AIDS truth exposed, Un-cuted[sic footage from "House of Numbers"] (Oct 15, 2012) YouTube.
  48. The Nobel disease meets DNA teleportation and homeopathy by Orac (January 14, 2011) ScienceBlogs.