Letters – Vol. 44, No. 5

The Nobel Disease

I enjoyed the article “The Nobel Disease” (May/June 2020) so much so that I read it before even getting it into my office or bedroom stack of reading. I also enjoyed and related to the editor’s comments, as I have met quite a number of Nobelists, a few with crank ideas, including Linus Pauling who was featured number one in the article. I had the pleasure of attending chem lectures as an undergraduate at Caltech, sometimes delivered by Pauling. That was a real treat, and he often would digress to other topics. The year was 1962, when he had just won his second Nobel Peace Prize. He didn’t go off the rails too much over vitamin C, although he was already known to hold funny ideas about megavitamin dosages. 

One slightly crazy Nobelist I knew quite well was not mentioned in the article: Hannes Alfven. This was probably because Alfven went off the rails into highly technical planetary science, not something the public noticed. Alfven won his prize for work in magnetohydrodynamics (MHD), including what are known now as Alfven waves. Unfortunately, he came to believe that magnetohydrodynamic forces were as important as gravity, or more so, in most of the processes that led to the formation of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems. For example, he believed that “asteroid families,” generally believed to be the result of collisional breakup of larger original asteroids, were instead the result of “jet streaming” in the early solar nebula. 

I had the distinction, rather like your editor’s experience sitting across from Shockley at NAS, of having Alfven interrupt a lecture I was delivering at a NATO meeting on solar system origin. He ran up to me, grabbed the chalk from my hand, told me I was all wrong, and finished my lecture for me (jet streams, MHD, and so forth). The event even made it into an article in The Observatory, a fun little journal published in England. Alfven, along with his colleague Gustaf Arrhenius (who himself was not a Nobelist though his grandfather Svante was) wrote a big book titled Evolution of the Solar System that contained a lot of the stuff most of us mainstream theorists dealing with solar system dynamics consider wrong. We came to refer to the book and its authors as “All Vain and Erroneous.”

I very much agree with your authors’ and your editor’s view of the “Nobel Disease.” My experience from knowing quite a number of these folks (Feynman, Fowler, and several others who have some resemblance in personality even if not falling off the rails) is that they tend to get the feeling that their special knowledge extends beyond their specialties, and sometimes they can get into difficulty with unorthodox ideas.

Alan Harris
La Canada, California

The article on “The Nobel Disease” fails to mention one important component that prompts Nobel laureates (and other famous people) to espouse irrational views: the feedback these people receive from society. Nobel laureates get celebrated excessively by the media and are pressured to give answers to questions that lie outside their domain of expertise. These answers then get printed and repeated without any critical evaluation. If a Nobel laureate said it, it can’t be wrong!

This is probably a consequence of the erroneous popular belief (noticeably expressed in the article) that Nobel Prize winners possess extraordinary intelligence. I don’t know of any objective investigation that shows that this is so. Of the several Nobelists with whom I had direct personal contact, none of them struck me as more intelligent than, say, the top 25 percent of my professional colleagues in academia. There are hundreds of thousands of very intelligent individuals all over the world, but only a few Nobel Prizes are awarded each year. So, who gets one of those few prizes? Perhaps the lucky ones who were at the right place at the right time or those who had extra skills in self-promotion—but not the most intelligent ones as established in a quantitative scientific evaluation. 

Fame, more than excessive intelligence, seems to be the root cause of “The Disease.”

Carlo H. Sequin
UC Berkeley
Berkeley, California

Perhaps some intellectually adventurous people, whose very boldness of vision makes them such innovative thinkers as long as they’re tethered to scientific discipline, can also slip that tether and be led astray, swayed by wishful thinking or personal prejudice. That is, their very audacity of thought can achieve either remarkable breakthroughs or remarkable fallacies, depending on whether it’s properly moored.

Rick Schroeder
West Yarmouth, Massachusetts

I very much enjoyed the fascinating article titled “The Nobel Disease.” I found it curious, however, that Linus Pauling published a paper with psychiatrist Ewan Cameron in 1979 when Dr. Cameron died in 1967. Was Dr. Pauling using old data? Did it take him twelve years to get the article published? Or did the vitamin C resurrect his old friend? My money is on the old data. Dr. Cameron, by the way—at one time president of the American Psychiatric Association, the World Psychiatric Association, and revered by many as a titan in his field—had some very strange and dangerous notions, which he was known to visit upon his trusting and unsuspecting patients.

Joseph Davis
Gibsons, British Columbia

The story about controversial Nobel laureates reminded me of how I saw a black woman sociologist leave William Shockley speechless in a TV debate on IQ forty years ago.

The fact that, on average, whites score higher than blacks on IQ tests, Shockley argued, can’t be accounted for by racism or white privilege because Asians score higher than whites on the same tests.

That Asians score higher than whites proves nothing, the sociologist replied. In the absence of racism and white privilege, she posited, Asians would have scored even higher.

Taras Wolansky
Kerhonkson, New York

Your article reminded me of a statement made by CSI Fellow Robert Park while giving a talk on science, pseudoscience, and public policy many years ago, which I recall as “A PhD is not an inoculation against stupidity.”

Ron Gilman
Piscataway, New Jersey

Regarding “The Nobel Disease,” I recall this quote from James Watson in his 1968 book The Double Helix: “One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and the mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow minded and dull, but also just stupid.” The irony couldn’t be more poignant.

Robert Stern
Ames, Iowa 

Antiscience and Belief’s Power

The article “Using Humor and Games to Counter Science Misinformation” by John Cook (May/June 2020) raises valuable insights into how to combat antiscience. Every technique for so doing is important, especially the use of social media. 

As a result of decades of experience dealing with college students in nonmajors biology and the general public—particularly those in the Midwest and deep South—I learned that one has to really contend with the source(s) of the science denial and misinformation.

One of the reasons it is difficult to vaccinate the population against antiscience is the blocking power of the source. Unlike developing immunity to infectious diseases, which involves inoculating and stimulating the appropriate mechanisms of the systemic immune system, inoculating against antiscience involves immunizing the brain.

Unfortunately, the irrational sources and associated mythology get to the brain far earlier than do knowledge and reason. The major source of antiscience is religion. The word belief, and its cognates, are devastating in protecting antiscience. God and parental authority shape mental attitudes long before formal science education has a chance to develop antiscience immunity.

Social media and general culture are very potent forces in disseminating the antiscience propaganda as well as other antisocial attitudes.

Based on my almost forty years of educational and public experience, I concluded that to counter antiscience one has to break, by whatever means possible, the hold the concept of belief has on the public.

I used to tell my audiences that the United States and the Constitution gives them the right to believe whatever they want, but just because they believe it doesn’t make it true. Yet, I will never forget the spirited ovation a student in the Bio 101 lecture got when he stood up and declared: “That which I believe has more validity than any scientific fact.”

Sheldon F. Gottlieb
Boynton Beach, Florida

SF Films and Science Fact

Regarding David R. Powell’s article “Multiply Connected” (May/June 2020), herewith the opening paragraph of chapter 6 of the book The Director Should’ve Shot You (Centipede Press) that is a history of my half century adapting science-fiction films into novel form while struggling to fix, or at least rationalize, as much of the bad science in such films as possible:  “An understanding of the science in commercial science-fiction films typically fluctuates between the mediocre and the abysmal. The traditional cinematic tropes of guns and chases and explosions are implicit. Science, not so much. This isn’t to say that every SF opus that comes out of the film factories needs Neil deGrasse Tyson as an advisor, or that the next mini-series you’re going to see on HBO or the Syfy channel or Netflix has to be a straightforward, inflexible adaptation of Olaf Stapeldon’s Last and First Men. But a rudimentary knowledge of and respect for the science referenced within the film should be a minimum requirement for development within the genre.”  

Having been involved with most of the projects cited in Powell’s article, I can say that the standard (and this is an exact quote from two major directors) response to bad science in their films is, “But I wanted that shot.” Producers hire “science advisors” for their projects not to correct the science in their films but so that when some ten-year-old points out that, for example, you cannot have people walking around in space without spacesuits, those associated with the film can reply, “But we had a science advisor!”

Alan Dean Foster
Prescott, Arizona

In his article on science fiction, science fact, and science communication, David R. Powell correctly noted that the “spinning ring,” i.e., space station, depicted in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, constructed to create artificial gravity, would not be feasible from both a physical and pragmatic point of view. However, at least this film recognized that humans would experience weightlessness in outer space and centrifugal force was one plausible way to offset this.

In stark contrast, every science fiction film and TV series involving humans in space that I have ever seen, from Flash Gordon to The Forbidden Planet to Star Trek and its spinoffs to the Star Wars sagas and beyond, have just assumed Earth’s gravity extends throughout interstellar space and crews on spaceships can casually walk around as they would back home on the ground. Many science fiction novels also implicitly assume this. I think it is safe to say that this is far and away the most common violation of the laws of nature that fans of science fiction have been exposed to since the beginning of the genre. It is as ubiquitous as the notion that all aliens whom Terran space travelers may encounter will speak English fluently—and with American accents!

Dennis Middlebrooks
Brooklyn, New York

In Powell’s “Multiply Connected …” article on sci-fi and movies the quote: “Earth science students came away from watching the film The Core confidently believing the center of the earth was liquid rather than solid” confused me. I never saw that movie, but I’m a retired geologist and as far as I know, based chiefly on the behavior of P and S seismic waves and the existence of earth’s magnetic field, geoscientists have concluded that earth’s core is mostly liquid with a small solid inner core. So, if the “center” refers to the core as a whole, the students were more nearly right than wrong.

Robert Rettke
Lake Charles, Louisiana

David Powell replies:

I think the source of the confusion is the distinction between the inner and outer cores of the earth. I less than precisely said “center of the earth” in my text, but here is what the cited source says: “The students who watched The Core had a larger tendency to think that the inner core of the earth was a liquid rather than a solid.” So, the cited source makes the distinction that reader Rettke makes, and I was just using “center” imprecisely. 

Aliens There, Not Here

As a longtime SETI enthusiast, I thoroughly enjoyed “Aliens There but Not Here” by Seth Shostak (SI May/June 2020). Regarding the continuing popular belief in alien visitations and UFOs, as I suggested in “Do We Really Want to Believe in UFOs?” (SI, July/August 2015), that can be attributed in part to fears that we live in a godless or purposeless universe, but that existence of superior aliens proves otherwise.

Klaus Brasch
Flagstaff, Arizona

Seth Shostak’s “Aliens There but Not Here” is persuasive and vividly written, but the assertion that “fast-moving objects in the sky were not a thing even as recently as the nineteenth century” seems worth a comment. Perhaps not fast-moving, and not quite in the nineteenth century, but in February to May 1913, British papers reported sightings of mysterious airships. See George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910–1914 (1935; Capricorn edition 1961, 119–23). According to Dangerfield’s brief account, some sightings were alleged to have been flocks of birds, or Venus, or a “fire-balloon, and the dirigible claims faded away. But they were a ‘thing.’”

The airship fuss occurred before there were powerful radio transmissions to attract the notice of faraway aliens, and the presumed intruders were at the time assumed to be of German origin. It seems likely that persons seeing or imagining unidentified presences in the sky—especially during tense times—tend to cast the “whatevers” in familiar technological forms. 

This is not a criticism of Shostak’s scientific/technological analysis, just a reminder that the very different psychological/historical approach is also relevant to UFOlogical studies. It’s good that SI embraces both.

Martin Berger
Youngstown, Ohio

Coronavirus Misinformation

I have two comments on Benjamin Radford’s news and comment article on coronavirus misinformation (May/June 2020).

First, it struck me how confidently he declares “the death rate is 2 percent”—while renowned virologists/epidemiologists such as Christian Drosten, head of the Institute of Virology at the Charité Hospital in Berlin and advisor to the German government (and long-time researcher specialized in coronaviruses), point out that reliable numbers were not yet available, and death rates vary widely depending on regional specifics and outbreak severity (in March, death rate estimates varied between 0.3–0.7 percent in Germany up to 7 percent in northern Italy).

Second, I wonder why Radford, when listing sources for misinformation, explicitly names marginal players Tom Cotton and Sylvia Browne together with commonplaces such as xenophobia and “folk remedies” but avoids the obvious “elephant in the oval office” and similar potentates in Russia, Brazil, or Hungary, for example, whose misinformation I find much more dangerous.

Christoph Bartsch
Kassel, Germany

Benjamin Radford replies:

I appreciate Christoph Bartsch’s comments and refer him to my special report in the July/August 2020 issue (“Coronavirus Crisis: Chaos, Counting, and Confronting Our Biases”), which addresses his queries regarding COVID-19 measurement uncertainties as well as governmental sources of misinformation.

Chase Vault Mystery

I enjoyed Benjamin Radford’s article “Reopening the Chase Vault Mystery” (May/June 2020). It reminded me of several similarities to a frequently told ghost story about the house where I grew up.

I was raised in a large house in rural Upstate New York built in the 1820s as the Bide-A-Wee Inn on the stage route between the two nearest small cities. From my childhood up, I would occasionally hear the story about the beautiful young woman from an impoverished local family who was married off to a brute of a farmer more than twice her age. She loved to dance, but he insisted she stay home and tend to his needs only. The only times she was able to get to a dance (held at the inn where I would live some 130 years later) was when her husband was off getting drunk at an area tavern, and she would sneak to the inn. Her husband eventually grew suspicious, and he was a very, very mean drunk. One night he arrived back home before she did and waited by the door with an axe, which he used to dispatch her into the netherworld. But the legend said that her ghost continued to attend dances at the inn, and my mother said she could sometimes hear her when she continued to visit when my family lived there.

There were gaps in the story, of course. There is a notable lack of any contemporaneous records that local people talked of any ghosts in the decades before the Civil War. There is no recorded murder of a young woman, or even any evidence that dances were ever held at the inn. Plus, even before partitions were added to make the building into a private residence, the so-called “ballroom” was not big enough to hold public dances.

Why, then, did the story persist? The ghost story was known to many residents of my era but was mostly put onto the “back burner” in the context of daily living, so it was never submitted to any closer examination for plausibility. Each retelling of the story reflected the beliefs of the teller and contained the moral that the teller wanted to attach to the story. And all retellings of the story, even this one, are motivated by the desire of the teller to be proud of some noteworthy feature in an otherwise unremarkable, “nowhere” community.

Kevin Gates
Hallstead, Pennsylvania

Benjamin Radford, in “Reopening the Chase Vault Mystery,” has taken a look at certain shifting coffins “legends” of Barbados. Over the years, I have uniquely discovered that most of these are pseudo-legends, fakelore creations, or adaptations by Freemasons. (See my Secrets of the Supernatural, 1988, p. 147.)

Freemasonry teaches its postulated moral truths by embedding them in allegory and symbols. It is all the same to Masons whether the basis is history or pure imagination. One of its essential allegories is that of the secret vault, which involves lost secrets, hidden treasure, and the grave. Examples I have proved include Swift’s lost silver mines, the nationally famous Beale treasure ciphers (complete fiction by a Freemason), and the internationally known Oak Island money pit. (There, we now know, prominent Freemasons—including notables such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and actor John Wayne—took part in what are sometimes whispered as “open-air rituals.”)

Radford noted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar statements about the Chase vault but didn’t note (what few have known, I think, until I publicized the fact) that Doyle was a Freemason. Indeed, I also discovered that several of the Sherlock Holmes stories are unquestionably constructed around allegorical secret vaults. In two of these, for example, main characters sport, respectively, a Masonic breastpin and a Masonic tie-pin, while in yet another (with a “haunted crypt” and a “leaden coffin standing on end before the entrance to the vault”) Holmes’s client is a “Mr. Mason”!

One other Barbados restless coffins story should be added. It came in 1943, more than a century after the earlier ones, this time specifically involving a party of Freemasons and the vault being that of the founder of Freemasonry in Barbados!

Joe Nickell
Amherst, New York

I just read Benjamin Radford’s interesting account of the Chase vault mystery in the latest Skeptical Inquirer. What struck me was the part about the moving coffins as I recalled reading a mystery novel involving that very thing when I was a youngster. After searching a bit, I discovered that it was The Sleeping Sphinx by John Dickson Carr, the master of the locked room mystery. It’s not one of his better books, but the part about the coffins is clever. His explanation of why the coffins moved is one of the possibilities proposed in Radford’s article, but I won’t spoil it by telling you which one! Carr was quite clever at suggesting that the solution just might be supernatural, then eventually showing that it was all very rational. I enjoy reading Skeptical Inquirer and have my own collection of “debunking” books, a number of which are by SI authors. Keep up the good work.

Dougal MacDonald
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada

Lucky Numbers?

Last year, curiosity led us to start recording the “lucky” numbers in fortune cookies in weekly take-outs from a local Chinese restaurant, and we soon expanded our project by obtaining a large order of cookies directly from the supplier.  

We saw little besides randomness in our plot of frequencies (notably, 7 didn’t stand out, though many Americans consider it lucky) but we knew nothing about Chinese superstitions. Stuart Vyse’s article, “Superstition and Real Estate, Part I: The Chinese Market” (May/June, 2020), prompted us to take a second look at our data to see if numbers ending in 8 (which Vyse reports many Chinese people consider “lucky”) might appear more often than those ending in 4 (deemed “unlucky”). The accompanying plot shows frequencies of our 2,160 “lucky” numbers (mean 38.4, standard deviation 14.4). The highest frequency was indeed a number that ended in 8 (28), standing a bit more than two standard deviations (SD) above the mean. The number 18 was also well above average (by 1.43 SD). However, a stand-alone 8 occurred less frequently than all but one other number. The number 38 had middling frequency, and 48 fell 0.86 SD below the mean.

Of six numbers containing a traditionally “unlucky” 4, all but one (24) did have below-average frequencies (never by more than 0.8 SD), but nowhere near as dramatically as Vyse observed in Chinese advertisements. Though individual numbers gave very mixed results, the average frequency of “lucky” numbers was 42.2 and of “unlucky” numbers 30.3.

So, did superstitions described by Vyse influence frequencies of our fortune-cookie numbers? We’ll let the reader decide!

Bryce Hand and Kenneth B. Raniet
Syracuse, New York

Errors of Evolution

Regarding Harriet Hall’s book review of Human Errors (“Evolution’s Flaws Are in Us,” May/June 2020), I believe it was Woody Allen who said, “God might exist, but if so he’s an underachiever.” I’m also reminded of Robin Williams’s observation: “What kind of an intelligent designer builds a pleasure palace next to a sanitation plant?”

Ernest Field
Cleveland, Ohio

For the Record

In Massimo Polidoro’s column about COVID-19 misinformation in our July/August issue, he mistakenly referred to the virus’s DNA. Several readers have pointed out that the COVID-19 virus is composed of RNA (ribonucleic acid).

The Nobel Disease I enjoyed the article “The Nobel Disease” (May/June 2020) so much so that I read it before even getting it into my office or bedroom stack of reading. I also enjoyed and related to the editor’s comments, as I have met quite a number of Nobelists, a few with crank ideas, including …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.