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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.

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!

Science relies on the scientific method and institutions to discover what is true or false, rather than the authority of any individual. This is how scientific journals avoid publishing crankery, even if it is coming from a Nobel laureate.

Possible causes[edit]

Being a Nobel laureate is a license to be an expert in lots of things as long as you do your homework.
—Kary Mullis[2]

Nobel Prizes are awarded to scientists who help make a great discovery, not for being good role models. Even if the Nobel institutes required winners to be good role models, there would be nothing to stop them from going off the rails after they won.

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]

One explanation for this is regression to the mean. These awards are typically given out to people because they reached the high point of their career. Where does someone go once they reach the high point? Downhill, of course. Furthermore, if someone is universally hailed as "right" or "a genius", it may bolster their own confirmation bias at the expense of skepticism, discourage others from likewise questioning them, and encourage them to comment on topics they don't actually know anything about.[9]

It's not clear whether age is a factor. In the past, it was noticeable that scientists tended to make great discoveries before the age of 40, especially in some fields like quantum physics. Younger scientists sometimes had the edge because they were less stuck in the existing ways of thinking. Nowadays, the average Nobel laureate makes their discovery at the age of 48.[10] Nobel Prizes are however often awarded to scientists decades after the discovery or invention that earned them the prize (in no small part because of some embarrassing instances of Nobel awards for discoveries that turned out to be false), which increases the chances of senility by the time the prize is awarded.

This actually highlights another possible cause: the one thing that scientists who make great discoveries have in common with the promoters of woo is that both are willing to go against the existing ways of thinking.[11] That being said, there is no evidence that Nobel laureates are more likely to support pseudoscience, but the list of those who have is surprisingly long.

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

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.

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. Kary B. Mullis The Nobel Prize.
  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. Winter, David. "The nobel disease". Science Media Center. Retrieved 19 May 2020. 
  10. The Stroke of Genius Strikes Later in Modern Life by Charles Q. Choi (November 7, 2011 03:01pm ET) Live Science.
  11. Egnor, Michael (14 May 2020). "Thinking outside the box is not a disease". Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.. Retrieved 19 May 2020. 
  12. Pierre Curie bio
  13. John William Strutt bio
  14. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 by Janet Oppenheim (1988) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052134767X.
  15. Lenard, Philipp (1936). Deutsche Physik in vier Bänden (in German). J.F. Lehmann.
  16. Recollections and reflections by J. J. Thomson (1937). Macmillan.
  17. God's Eugenicist: Alexis Carrel And the Sociobiology of Decline by Andrés Horacio Reggiani (2006) Berghahn Books. ISBN 1845451724.
  18. Charles Richet bio
  19. Albert Einstein Endorsed a Popular Psychic in 1932. This Is the Controversy that Ensued (March 8, 1932) The New Republic.
  20. The reputation of another famous scientist is dashed to the ground Pharyngula (2014/09/08) Free Though Blogs.
  21. 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
  22. The Observer (11 January 1931)
  23. Psychic Research (1931), Vol. 25, p. 91
  24. Psychoanalysis and the Paranormal: Lands of Darkness by Nick Totton (2003). Karnac Books. ISBN 1855759853. p. 122.
  25. Chain, 1971, “Social Responsibility and the Scientist in Modern Western Society,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 1971, Vol. 14, No. 3, p. 368
  26. Wolfgang Pauli Wikiquote
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Pauli effect.
  28. Creativity and intuition : a physicist looks at East and West / by Hideki Yukawa ; translated by John Bester (1973)
  29. The Dark Side of Linus Pauling's Legacy by Stephen Barrett (revised on September 14, 2014) Quackwatch.
  30. Bill Shockley bio
  31. Fury at DNA Pioneer's Theory: Africans are Less Intelligent than Westerners, The Independent
  32. [1], where Watson clarifies he speaks as "people who have to deal with black employees".
  33. 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.
  34. Cold Fusion—Does It Have a Future? by Julian Schwinger (December 7, 1991) Talk given in Japan.
  35. Alfred Kastler, Cette étrange matière by J. Rosmorduc (1977) Revue d'histoire des sciences Année. Vol. 30, Num. 1 pp. 84-87.
  36. Hannes Alfvén, Cosmology—Myth or Science? J. Astrophysics and Astronomy, vol. 5, pp. 79-98, (1984).
  37. Ivar Giaevar, DeSmog Blog
  38. Pioneer of the Paranormal
  39. [2]
  40. John Benneth, Brian Josephson and an Absurd Talk at Cambridge by Andy Lewis (October 9, 2010) Quackometer.
  41. Brian Josephson's home page University of Cambridge
  42. Outside the Box or Around the Bend? Photon in the Darkness
  43. Beyond Kary Mullis: The Alien Conspiracy Theory of AIDS, Denying AIDS
  44. Kary Mullis — Personal ViewsWikipedia, Wikipedia
  45. Walter Gilbert Wikiquote
  46. 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).
  47. Creation Scientists in Three-Way Debate with Intelligent Design, Evolution The Christian Post (Dec 22, 2005).
  48. 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).
  50. Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier hits a new low: Age of Autism rallies to defend him by Orac (June 27, 2012) ScienceBlogs.
  51. Dr. Luc Montagnier, HIV and AIDS truth exposed, Un-cuted[sic footage from "House of Numbers"] (Oct 15, 2012) YouTube.
  52. The Nobel disease meets DNA teleportation and homeopathy by Orac (January 14, 2011) ScienceBlogs.
  53. Nobel-Prize Winning Biologist: We Should Have Never Listened to Epidemiologists by David Matthews (2 Jul 20) Anti-Empire.
  54. Great Barrington Declaration
  55. He won a Nobel Prize. Then he started denying climate change. John Clauser shared the Nobel in physics last year. Now he’s a self-described ‘denier’ of the overwhelming scientific consensus on a warming planet. by Maxine Joselow (November 16, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST) The Washington Post.