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Nobel disease, also known as nobelitis, 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.
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 and in personal life), best new artist Grammy, English Premier League Manager of the Month, the Mercury Music Prize, and even the Nobel Prize for Literature.
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.
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.
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. That being said, there is no evidence that Nobel laureates are more likely to support pseudoscience, but the list who have is surprisingly long.
(In)famous Victims of Disease
- Pierre Curie (Physics, 1903) — His support for psychic medium Eusapia Palladino.
- Marie Curie (Physics, 1903 and Chemistry, 1911) — Her support for Eusapia Palladino (though less so than Pierre, see above).
- John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh (Physics, 1904) — Paranormal, ghosts
- Philipp Lenard (Physics, 1905) — Deutsche Physik
- Joseph Thomson (Physics, 1906) — Psychic, dowsing and paranormal
- Alexis Carrel (Physiology or Medicine, 1912) — eugenics and Nazi racial theories.
- Charles Richet (Physiology or Medicine, 1913) — ESP, paranormal, dowsing, ghosts
- Albert Einstein (Physics, 1921) — Endorsed a psychic in 1932.
- Erwin Schrödinger (Physics, 1933) — Quantum mysticism and global consciousness
and cruelty to cats
- Otto Stern (Physics, 1943) — Psychokinesis and Pauli effect
- Ernst Boris Chain (Physiology or Medicine, 1945) — Evolution denial
- Wolfgang Pauli (Physics, 1945) — Pauli effect, psychokinesis and paranormal
- Hideki Yukawa (Physics, 1949) — Intuition and mysticism superior to logic and reason, anti-science and Taoist relativism
- Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954, and Peace, 1962) — Vitamin C quackery/orthomolecular medicine
- William Shockley (Physics, 1956) — Racialism and eugenics
- James Watson (Physiology or Medicine, 1962) — Promoter of racialism
- Eugene Wigner (Physics, 1963) — Quantum mysticism
- John Eccles (Physiology or Medicine, 1963) — Quantum consciousness
- Julian Schwinger (Physics, 1965) — Pushed cold fusion as late as 1991.
- Alfred Kastler (Physics, 1966) — Paranormal
- Hannes Alfvén (Physics, 1970) — Plasma cosmology
- Ivar Giaever (Physics, 1973) — Global warming denial
- Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) — Psychic and paranormal phenomena. Cold fusion. Water memory and homeopathy.
- Nikolaas Tinbergen (Physiology or Medicine, 1973) — Crank theories of autism
- Kary Mullis (Chemistry, 1993) — Generally barking mad. AIDS denial, alien abduction, Aliensdidit, astrology, astral projection, conspiracy theories, cosmic raccoons, global warming denial, ozone denial. Possibly related to his heavy use of LSD.
- Walter Gilbert (Chemistry, 1980) — AIDS denial. Although there are claims he is no longer skeptical of the claim HIV causes AIDS, the source for that seems to be a message board post that no longer exists.
- Richard Smalley (Chemistry, 1996) — Creationism, Intelligent Design and evolution denial
- Louis J. Ignarro (Physiology or Medicine, 1998) — Herbalife
- Martin Evans (Physiology or Medicine, 2007) stem cell quackery
- Luc Montagnier (Physiology or Medicine, 2008) — Homeopathy, water memory, autism quackery, AIDS cured by nutrition and vaccine hysteria
- Michael Levitt (Chemistry, 2013) — said that COVID was "exactly as dangerous as flu". He is a signatory to the pseudoscientific Great Barrington Declaration that opposes non-pharmaceutical interventions to COVID.
Inverted Nobel Disease
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.
- Stopped clock
- Inverse stopped clock
- Dunning-Kruger effect
- Igon Value Problem
- Fun:Sudden Moron Syndrome
- Aung San Suu Kyi — the Nobel Peace Prize recipient who has denied that an ethnic cleansing occurred under her de facto leadership
- 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.
- 13 Actors Hit With The Oscar Curse, CNBC, 22 Feb 2013
- See the Wikipedia article on Oscar love curse.
- A Grammy Curse? Milli Vanilli's Fab Morvan, Others Reflect on Best New Artist Award, Billboard, 2018
- Mundane statistics lift the lid on the curse of the manager's award, The Guardian, 19 Oct 2014
- Curse of the Mercury, The Independent, 13 July 2006
- Patrick Modiano, Beware: The Curse of the Literature Nobel Prize, Time, Oct 9, 2014
- Winter, David. "The nobel disease". Science Media Center. Retrieved 19 May 2020.
- The Stroke of Genius Strikes Later in Modern Life by Charles Q. Choi (November 7, 2011 03:01pm ET) Live Science.
- 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.
- Pierre Curie bio
- John William Strutt bio
- The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914 by Janet Oppenheim (1988) Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052134767X.
- Lenard, Philipp (1936). Deutsche Physik in vier Bänden (in German). J.F. Lehmann.
- Recollections and reflections by J. J. Thomson (1937). Macmillan.
- God's Eugenicist: Alexis Carrel And the Sociobiology of Decline by Andrés Horacio Reggiani (2006) Berghahn Books. ISBN 1845451724.
- Charles Richet bio
- Albert Einstein Endorsed a Popular Psychic in 1932. This Is the Controversy that Ensued (March 8, 1932) The New Republic.
- The reputation of another famous scientist is dashed to the ground Pharyngula (2014/09/08) Free Though Blogs.
- 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
- The Observer (11 January 1931)
- Psychic Research (1931), Vol. 25, p. 91
- Psychoanalysis and the Paranormal: Lands of Darkness by Nick Totton (2003). Karnac Books. ISBN 1855759853. p. 122.
- Chain, 1971, “Social Responsibility and the Scientist in Modern Western Society,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Spring 1971, Vol. 14, No. 3, p. 368
- Wolfgang Pauli Wikiquote
- See the Wikipedia article on Pauli effect.
- Creativity and intuition : a physicist looks at East and West / by Hideki Yukawa ; translated by John Bester (1973)
- The Dark Side of Linus Pauling's Legacy by Stephen Barrett (revised on September 14, 2014) Quackwatch.
- Bill Shockley bio
- Fury at DNA Pioneer's Theory: Africans are Less Intelligent than Westerners, The Independent
- , where Watson clarifies he speaks as "people who have to deal with black employees".
- 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.
- Cold Fusion—Does It Have a Future? by Julian Schwinger (December 7, 1991) Talk given in Japan.
- Alfred Kastler, Cette étrange matière by J. Rosmorduc (1977) Revue d'histoire des sciences Année. Vol. 30, Num. 1 pp. 84-87.
- Hannes Alfvén, Cosmology—Myth or Science? J. Astrophysics and Astronomy, vol. 5, pp. 79-98, (1984).
- Ivar Giaevar, DeSmog Blog
- Pioneer of the Paranormal
- John Benneth, Brian Josephson and an Absurd Talk at Cambridge by Andy Lewis (October 9, 2010) Quackometer.
- Brian Josephson's home page University of Cambridge
- Outside the Box or Around the Bend? Photon in the Darkness
- Beyond Kary Mullis: The Alien Conspiracy Theory of AIDS, Denying AIDS
- Kary Mullis — Personal Views, Wikipedia
- Walter Gilbert Wikiquote
- 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).
- Creation Scientists in Three-Way Debate with Intelligent Design, Evolution The Christian Post (Dec 22, 2005).
- 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).
- Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier hits a new low: Age of Autism rallies to defend him by Orac (June 27, 2012) ScienceBlogs.
- Dr. Luc Montagnier, HIV and AIDS truth exposed, Un-cuted[ footage from "House of Numbers"] (Oct 15, 2012) YouTube.
- The Nobel disease meets DNA teleportation and homeopathy by Orac (January 14, 2011) ScienceBlogs.
- Nobel-Prize Winning Biologist: We Should Have Never Listened to Epidemiologists by David Matthews (2 Jul 20) Anti-Empire.
- Great Barrington Declaration