A long, long time ago when I was a young staff member at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., I found myself sitting at a small office table opposite Nobel laureate physicist William Shockley. Normally, this would be an exciting moment—he was coinventor of the transistor. But it was not. It was awkward. Why? Shockley had recently been publically exposed for his racist views. He had been trying to get the Academy to publish his racist theories, and as an Academy member, he had certain rights. He was, as I recall, awaiting some official deliberations about that, and I didn’t know what to say to him. I said nothing.
Shockley is one of the scientists discussed in our cover article, “The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails to Protect against Irrationality.” It focuses specifically on certain august scientists who have won the Nobel Prize but then gone on to embrace highly implausible ideas roundly rejected by most scientists because of poor evidence. Neuropsychologist Candice Basterfield of the University of Melbourne, Emory University psychology professor Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shauna M. Bowes, and Thomas H. Costello (the latter two advanced graduate students in psychology at Emory University) provide thumbnail sketches of eight such Nobel laureates: Linus Pauling, Shockley, James Watson, Brian Josephson, Nikolaas Tinbergen, Kary Mullis, Louise J. Ignarro, and Luc Mantagnier. They mention others as well. And of course, other brilliant scientists in history have fallen to the same disease, among them Alfred Russel Wallace and Percival Lowell.
Our longtime psychologist colleague Ray Hyman and others have long warned that scientific preeminence does not guarantee the scientific validity of opinions in fields outside one’s own area of expertise. When prominent scientists skirt the processes of peer review (as Shockley was attempting) and use their fame to avoid the rigorous criticisms that mere mortal scientists must undergo, they are prone to the same kinds of errors and fallacious thinking as anyone else.
How does it happen? Partly because highly creative scientists tend to be more self-confident than others. That can lead to intellectual overreach and the feeling that they know more than anyone else.
The episodes have profound lessons for us all, including skeptics. The authors point out that “we should not confuse intelligence with rationality, nor confidence with correctness.” And they remind us we should not suspend our scientific skepticism in the face of pronouncements by even the most accomplished scientists. Authority means little in science; evidence is everything.
John Cook, a climate communications researcher and CSI fellow, relates in this issue how he found that humor—cartoons in particular—can be more effective than scientific arguments alone in countering misinformation about climate change. He gives examples of this merging of science, art, and technology. Together they can be far more persuasive in countering misinformation than facts alone.
As I write, the world is battling a global coronavirus pandemic, with everyday life shut down, deaths mounting, economic losses cascading, and the outcome uncertain. Skeptics have been exposing misinformation and scams (p. 5). Our Center for Inquiry/Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has quickly created an online Coronavirus Resource Center compiling scientific refutations of misinformation and providing accurate scientific information. Look for it online at https://centerforinquiry.org/coronavirus/.