The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails to Protect against Irrationality

Candice Basterfield, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shawna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello

No scientific award is more coveted than the Nobel Prize. In the eyes of the public, this prize, especially in the three traditional science categories of chemistry, physics, and physiology or medicine, is virtually synonymous with scientific brilliance. At the same time, the stories of the more than 600 Nobelists in the hard sciences pose a question that bears intriguing implications for the field of skepticism: To what extent do remarkable levels of intelligence immunize individuals against equally remarkable lapses in critical thinking? As we will discover, psychological research offers provisional answers to this question and tantalizing clues to its resolution.

Some authors have invoked the term Nobel Disease to describe the tendency of many Nobel winners to embrace scientifically questionable ideas (Gorski 2012). We adopt this term with some trepidation given its fraught implications. Some authors (e.g., Berezow 2016) appear to assume that Nobel winners in the sciences are more prone to critical thinking errors than are other scientists. It is unclear, however, whether this is the case, and rigorous data needed to verify this assertion are probably lacking.

In this article, we explore the more circumscribed question of whether and to what extent the Nobel Prize, conceptualized as a partial but imperfect proxy of scientific brilliance, is incompatible with irrationality. To do so, we draw on case studies of several Nobel-winning scientists who appear to have succumbed to the Nobel Disease. In doing so, we remain cognizant of the inferential limitations of case studies: They are of unknown representativeness, and they can be readily cherry picked to support one’s hypotheses. Still, case studies can often be helpful in generating hypotheses to be investigated in more systematic studies. In addition, they can sometimes afford existence proofs—demonstrations that a given phenomenon can occur. In the case of the Nobel Disease, the capsule case histories we present strongly suggest that intellectual brilliance can coexist with yawning gaps in skeptical thinking.

Specifically, we offer brief descriptions of eight Nobel laureates in the sciences who embraced “weird” ideas. Following Shermer (2003), we define weird ideas as assertions that are (a) highly implausible in light of scientific knowledge; (b) roundly rejected by essentially all scientific experts; and (c) based mostly or exclusively on anecdotal or uncorroborated evidence. Because merely entertaining the possibility of an unsupported claim, such as the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP), does not indicate a critical thinking lapse, we focus on Nobelists who clung to one or more weird idea with considerable conviction.

The Nobel Disease: Eight Thumbnail Sketches

Linus Pauling (1901–1994) received the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research on the chemical bond (he also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962). In 1941, Pauling was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, which causes chronic inflammation of the kidneys. He adopted a low-protein, salt-free diet and ingested vitamin supplements, attributing his improvement to the latter. He later claimed that 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C a day can reduce the incidence of common colds by 45 percent. Pauling reportedly consumed at least 12,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily, far above the recommended daily allowance of sixty milligrams. Studies in the 1970s and 1980s by Pauling and psychiatrist Ewan Cameron seemed to suggest that megadoses of vitamin C were helpful in prolonging terminal cancer patients’ lives (Cameron and Pauling 1979). Nevertheless, the controls were not matched for age, stage of cancer, or quality of everyday functioning, rendering the data virtually uninterpretable. Furthermore, excess vitamin C is excreted through the urine and is of scant therapeutic value. Pauling also pursued the hypothesis that students’ grades improved after drinking orange juice for several months. In an article in Science, as well as in other publications, Pauling (1968) further argued that megadoses of vitamin C are effective for schizophrenia. Controlled studies afford little support for this hypothesis (Hoffer 2008). 

William Shockley (1910–1989), along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor. As a professor at Stanford University, Shockley’s interests drifted into genetics. He argued without qualification that the Black vs. White IQ difference is largely or entirely genetic. He wrote, “My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racial genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in environment” (New Scientist 1973, 432). He even maintained that “Nature has color-coded groups of individuals so that statistically reliable predictions of their adaptability to intellectual rewarding and effective lives can easily be made and profitably used by the pragmatic man-in-the street” (Shockley 1972, 307). Shockley endorsed the idea of “retrogressive evolution,” proposing that Blacks were reproducing more rapidly than Whites, causing a decline in the population’s overall intelligence. He promoted various radical solutions to this perceived problem, including offering financial incentives to genetically disadvantaged groups to undergo sterilization. Shockley donated his sperm to the Repository for Germinal Choice, pejoratively termed the “Nobel Prize sperm bank,” established with the intent of creating a eugenics program (Morrice 2005). Shockley was also a fervent advocate of the polygraph (“lie detector”) test, so much so that he once ordered his employees to take the test and proposed that Nobel laureates be asked the following question while connected to a polygraph machine: When you say there is no racial difference in IQ, do you really believe it? (Shurkin 1997, 241).

James Watson (1928–), like Shockley, has advanced several highly dubious claims about race. Watson, the 1962 Nobel Prize winner for codiscovering the structure of DNA along with Sir Francis Crick, has maintained categorically that Blacks are inherently less intelligent than Whites, a view he reiterated in a 2018 documentary. Watson has also suggested that obese people are less ambitious than other people; that exposure to sunlight in equatorial regions increases sexual urges; and that owing to their higher levels of melanin, dark-skinned people have a stronger sex drive than fair-skinned people (Brown 2001).

Brian Josephson (1940–) won the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier” (Nobel Media AB 2019). In the late 1960s, Josephson became a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of transcendental meditation (TM), and argued that TM “allows traumatic experiences to come back unrepressed to the mind’s eye” (New Scientist 1974, 416). In the early 1970s, Josephson launched the Mind-Matter Unification Project at Cambridge University to explore the relations between quantum mechanics and consciousness. In a booklet to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the Nobel Prize, Josephson noted that he was working hard to keep the United Kingdom at the “forefront of research” on telepathy. In addition, Josephson has been a vocal advocate of “water memory,” the purported mechanism underlying the debunked practice of homeopathy (Ernst 2010), which is premised on the notion that water can somehow “remember” the chemical properties of substances diluted in it. He has also promoted cold fusion, the discredited hypothesis that nuclear reactions can occur at room temperature.

Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907–1988), along with Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz, shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries on the organization and causes of animal behavior (ethology). After receiving this prize, Tinbergen applied his ethological theories to autism spectrum disorder. His environmental hypotheses concerning the etiology of autism were highly speculative and inconsistent with burgeoning evidence at the time that this condition is primarily of genetic and neurological origin (Folstein and Rutter 1977). His work culminated in a book coauthored with his wife (Tinbergen and Tinbergen 1985) recommending “holding therapy” as a treatment for autism. This technique is based on the unsupported position that autism is caused by a defective attachment of child to mother, leading to interpersonal withdrawal and communication problems. According to Tinbergen, to cure autism parents must hold their children for long periods of time while trying to establish eye contact with them, even if they resist it. Subsequent data have indicated that holding therapy is empirically unsupported and can in some cases be physically dangerous (Mercer 2013).

Kary Mullis (1944–2019) shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 with Michael Smith for creating polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which allows a small amount of DNA to be copied rapidly billions of times. Mullis expressed forceful disagreement with the view that AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). He claimed that this retrovirus is barely detectable in people with AIDS, maintaining that this finding raises serious questions concerning its role in the illness: “Years from now, people will find our acceptance of the HIV theory of AIDS as silly as we find those who excommunicated Galileo” (Mullis 1998, 180). Mullis also questioned the evidence for human-made global warming, stating on his website that “we have no good reason to think we understand climate. To make predictions about what follows from here and when, and to audaciously begin the discussion by implicating our humble species in the whole thing is worse than audacious, it’s pathetic.” In his autobiography, he endorsed several other strange ideas, saying that he once encountered a fluorescent raccoon that spoke to him (addressing him as “doctor”) and suggesting that the raccoon might have been an alien. In this book, Mullis also professed belief in astrology, asking rhetorically, “How could an institution of higher learning grant someone a Ph.D. in psychology without requiring at least a few courses in astrology?” (Mullis 1998, 151). 

Louis J. Ignarro (1941–), along with Robert Furchgott and Ferid Murad, received the 1998 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine for his discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signaling molecule in the cardiovascular system. The discovery facilitated the development of new medications to treat cardiovascular disease, as well as of Viagra. A few years after receiving the Prize, Ignarro was hired as a consultant for Herbalife, a company that develops and markets empirically unsupported dietary supplements and vitamins, and became a member of its Scientific Advisory Board. Ignarro worked with Herbalife to promote a dietary supplement, Niteworks, a powdery mix of amino acids and antioxidants that purportedly boosts the body’s nitric oxide production. In 2004, Ignarro and his colleagues published a controlled study in mice touting the benefits of Niteworks’s ingredients (Napoli et al. 2004). Despite the unverified applicability of Niteworks to humans, Ignarro was quoted as saying, “What’s good for mice is good for humans” (Evans 2004). 

Luc Montagnier (1932–) and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of HIV. One year later, Montagnier published two papers in Interdisciplinary Sciences: Computational Life Sciences, a journal he founded and edited. In one of them, he maintained that diluted DNA from pathogenic bacterial and viral species can emit electromagnetic waves. When asked about his views about homeopathy, Montagnier responded: “I can’t say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions are right. … even at [a dilution of] 10−18, you can calculate that there is not a single molecule of DNA left. And yet we detect a signal” (Enserink 2010). Montagnier further claimed that most neurological diseases arise from electromagnetic waves emitted from viral or bacterial DNA in aqueous solutions (Montagnier et al. 2009). He also claims that vaccines cause autism and that autism can be successfully treated using antibiotics.

The Nobel Disease: Other Examples

These eight individuals are merely a subset of Nobel laureates who have held weird ideas. Others include:

  • Phillip Lenard, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1905 for his research on cathode rays, and Alexis Carrel, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1912 for the invention of the perfusion pump; both promoted eugenics and Nazi racial theories (Carrel 1935; Gunderman 2015).
  • Portuguese neurosurgeon Egas Moniz won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for prefrontal lobotomy. At a conference, Moniz learned that severing the connections between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain rendered chimpanzees docile; he then deduced that frontal lobotomy could be used to treat serious mental illness in humans and actively promoted it for this purpose (Tan and Yip 2014).
  • Still, other examples of Nobelists venturing into doubtful scientific territory include Julian Schwinger (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1966 for work on quantum electrodynamics), who authored several theoretical articles on cold fusion; Ivar Giaver (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1973 for work on electron tunneling in superconductors), who has repeatedly professed skepticism concerning global warming; Arthur Schawlow (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1981 for the co-invention of the laser), who was a vocal advocate of the scientifically debunked practice of facilitated communication for autism (he appeared in the 1994 Frontline documentary The Prisoners of Silence); Richard Smalley (Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of a third form of carbon), who has promoted anti-Darwinist ideas (Smalley 2005); and Wolfgang Pauli (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945 for his discovery of the exclusion principle), who along with psychiatrist Carl Jung proposed the idea of synchronicity, a mystical phenomenon whereby events labeled as coincidences supposedly reveal an acausal connection between mental and physical experiences (Donati 2004).

Intelligence and Rationality: Implications for Skepticism

It perhaps goes without saying that Nobel laureates are not the only brilliant scientists to fall prey to questionable ideas. Alfred Russel Wallace, codiscoverer of the theory of natural selection along with Charles Darwin, advocated spiritualism and believed that nonmaterial forces explained the evolution of the human mind (Bensley 2006). Percival Lowell, a pioneer in planetary astronomy whose observations paved the way for the discovery of Pluto (Sharps et al. 2019), was convinced that he had discovered martian canals of intelligent origin. More recently, William Happer, a retired Princeton physicist whose discoveries facilitated higher-quality images of people’s lungs and astronomical objects, has forcefully rejected the scientific consensus on climate change (CO Coalition 2016).

The Nobel Disease, along with the stories of these three scientists, strongly suggest that high levels of general intelligence, traditionally conceptualized as the capacity to analyze and evaluate information, do not preclude high levels of irrational thinking (Shermer 2003; Stanovich 2009; Sternberg 2004). Intelligence tends to be only modestly correlated with immunity to most cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias and neglect of base rates (Stanovich and West 2008), consistent with the observation that even exceedingly smart people can fall prey to thinking errors. Whereas scores on intelligence measures reflect maximal performance (how well people can perform when pushed to the limit), scores on most cognitive bias measures reflect typical performance (how well people generally perform in everyday life) (Cronbach 1960). Therefore, even highly intelligent people may neglect to exercise their critical thinking capacities when they are insufficiently motivated to do so, especially when they are certain they are right. Although highly intelligent individuals may be more capable than other individuals of subjecting ideas to skeptical scrutiny, they may not always feel compelled to do so (Bensley 2006).

Preliminary evidence further suggests that intelligent people may have a somewhat larger bias blind spot than other people, meaning they are less aware of their propensity toward biases (Stanovich et al. 2013). Some authors have further argued that high levels of intelligence may exacerbate the risk of critical thinking failures; for instance, Sternberg (2004) proposed that several cognitive errors prevalent among the highly intelligent can predispose to irrationality; several may account for the weird ideas of some Nobel laureates. Unrealistic optimism occurs when people believe that because they are smart, they need not worry about intellectual errors. The sense of omniscience arises when people believe they are so intelligent that they know virtually everything. The sense of invulnerability emerges when people believe they are so smart that they are essentially immune to mistakes. If Sternberg is correct, by virtue of their high intellect Nobel laureates may be at risk for peculiar ideas, especially if they are not sufficiently intellectually humble.

Because personality data suggest that highly creative scientists tend to be more self-confident than other scientists (Feist 1998), intellectual humility may be more the exception than the rule among Nobel laureates in the sciences. As a consequence, Nobelists may need to be on guard against “intellectual overreach,” the mistake of assuming that because one is an expert in one domain, one is likely to display comparable levels of expertise in other domains (Dubner 2014).

In closing, our admittedly limited sample of Nobel Disease case studies reminds us that we should not confuse intelligence with rationality, nor confidence with correctness. They also remind us that we should be careful not to suspend our scientific skepticism even in the face of pronouncements by the most accomplished of scientists.

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Scott O. Lilienfeld

Scott O. Lilienfeld, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Emory University. He is coeditor of the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, Second Edition (2014) and author of several other books about science and pseudoscience in psychology.