Crackpot Nobelists

I have mixed feelings about the Nobel Prize. To some degree, I sympathize with Feynman:

I agree with Feynman that the discoveries that people made about the nature of reality are more important than titles and distinctions. The true test of scientific work is what it tells us about reality.  Of course “importance” is subjective, but importance can be defined operationally in terms of how much implication a discovery has for the workings of the universe, as made manifest through the breadth of experimental results that it can help explain. The importance of a discovery can also be defined through the impact a discovery has on technology and society.  The later definition is actually closer to Nobel’s intent, although the former version of “importance” usually implies the later as well. The invention of the transistor, a singular event by a few people, surely passes the test. Scrolling through the Nobel prizes in physics, they all appear to pass these operational tests at the highest level. Still, more generally prizes and awards are often corrupted by human cognitive biases and by the insularity of certain social networks – ie winning the prize becomes more about ‘who you know’ rather than ‘what you discovered’.

No system of awards is perfect, of course. Nobel prizes may go to important discoveries but leave out many people who played essential roles, instead deferring to whoever happened to be in charge of the research group that made the discovery.  As time goes on and science becomes more based on large collaborations, more and more people are being left out each year. This year’s prize, which went to the leaders of two large neutrino experiments, is a good example. In other cases, people miss out on the prize because they pass away before prize is awarded, and it cannot be awarded posthumously.  Despite these serious problems, I think the Nobel prize committee does a fairly good job of awarding important work – they wait to see if discoveries stand the test of time (while also trying to make sure they give the award before the discoverers die), and they do a good job of dividing the prize between theoretical and experimental discoveries, and between discoveries in pure science and discoveries with direct application.

In his carefree disregard for prizes & awards, I think Feynman misses two things. First, most of the general public, having a poor knowledge of science from our dismal education system, are not in a very good position to tell the importance of various discoveries. Prizes and awards help elevate the people who were able to make significant contributions so that wider society can recognize them. Secondly, Feynman doesn’t acknowledge that people are motivated by recognition. The success of Facebook is largely predicated on the fact that people like it when others ‘like’ their posts. Not everyone is motivated purely by a desire to better understand the world as Feynman was. Recognition, especially in the form of highly exclusive prizes, serves as a powerful motivational factor driving people to compete against each other. The financial incentive of the Nobel prize, and the guarantee of a lifetime of easy access to research funds also cannot be discounted.

However, I often wonder if people put too much weight on having a Nobelist in their institution, by luring Nobelists with large financial packages and/or research grants.  Nobel prize winners have become almost like a commodity among academic institutions.

There are several Nobelists who have started to preach pseudoscience. I call members of this elite group “crackpot Nobelists”:

The crackpots of ’73
In 1973, the Nobel prize was awarded to Ivar Giaever, Brian Josephson, and Leo Esaki “for their experimental discoveries regarding tunneling phenomena in semiconductors and superconductors, respectively”. Interestingly, two of these Nobelists became crackpots – that is, people who preach the reality of pseudoscientific phenomena.

Ivar Giaever was a graduate of my alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and was later hired as a faculty. I once attended a talk by Giaever where he told us any of us could win a Nobel prize, just like he did. The main point of his talk, at least as I remember it, was that making a Nobel prize-worthy discovery is largely about happenstance and luck. For most of us, this was a very motivational thing to hear. As Giaever reaccounts in this interview, he had very mediocre grades throughout all of school. In his home country of Norway, 1.0 was the best possible GPA and 6.0 was the worst. When he applied to General Electric, where he would later do his Nobel-prize winning work, the recruiter noted that he had a 4.0 in physics and 4.0 in math on his Norwegian transcript. Giaever didn’t bother to point out that these were actually bad grades. In his talk, Giaever told us that he became a Nobelist essentially ‘by accident’. If he hadn’t gotten that job, there was no way he would have received the prize. This is fine, however, since the Nobel prize is based soley on the importance of a discovery, and not on factors like GPA or even raw intelligence. It is interesting though, how some Nobel prizes are awarded to people who probably no-one would have ever suspected would receive the award at the time that they did the Nobel-prize winning work.

Since receiving the award, Giaver has continued to do science, but has also revealed extreme ignorance of subjects outside his field, in particular climate science. Giaver has given many climate change denial talks, including at the 2008, 2012, and 2015 Lindau Meetings of Nobel Leaurates. Lindau meetings are annual meetings were Nobel prize winners schmooze with select young scientists from around the world, many of whom undoubtedly have aspirations to become Nobelists themselves.

In his 2012 talk, Giaver said the following:

“I am not really terribly interested in global warming.  Like most physicists I don’t think much about it.  But in 2008 I was in a panel here about global warming and I had to learn something about it.  And I spent a day or so – half a day maybe on Google, and I was horrified by what I learned.  And I’m going to try to explain to you why that was the case.”

Here Giaver reveals his own ignorance of the subject – his research before coming to a conclusion on the subject amounted to ‘half a day on Google”. This is hardly a serious study of the subject, especially considering that Google searches are based on popularity, not factuality, and climate change denialist websites are, regrettably, very popular. Unfortunately, in the minds of many the fact that Gaiver is a Nobelist gives his pronouncements enormous legitimacy. In his 2015 speech, Giaver said that “Obama was dead wrong about climate change”. Not surprisingly, this quote was made headlines in many large media organizations around the world. The fact that at the same Lindau 2015 meeting, five influential Nobelists presented a counter declaration supporting the scientific consensus on climate change was not covered at all by the media. I suspect Giaver relished the attention he received. Giaver currently serves as a science adviser to the Heartland Institute, a right-wing thinktank that likely receives significant funds from oil and gas companies.

Giaver’s climate change musings pale in comparison to the scope of psuedoscience endorsed by one of the men he shared the prize with, Brian Josephson. Since receiving his Nobel, Josephson has built a role for himself as a “king of crackpots”, willing to endorse the work of just about anyone making a claim about cold fusion, water memory, ESP, or any other highly dubious phenomena. Not too long ago, I received an email from a crackpot who included many quotes of Josephson praising his work. Although he has been criticized heavily by his peers, Josephson seems to relish the position his Nobel has afforded him, seeing himself as the one figure willing to ‘stand up for the little guys’ who are going against scientific consensus and therefore, against the ‘entrenched establishment’.

The “Nobel Disease”
Science-Based Medicine blogger David Gorski goes so far as to hypothesize the existence of a “Nobel disease“, which is a tendency for Nobelists to loose their footing on reality and dabble in pseudoscience after receiving the prize. Gorsky presents several intriguing examples of this in addition to the two of which I already discussed.  According to Gorski, a famous early victim of this disease is Linus Pauling, who claimed that megadoses of vitamin C could help prevent and cure cancer. In so doing he helped birth the “antioxidant” craze of the present day. Lesser known is that he helped found the field of “orthomolecular medicine“, a form of alternative medicine that advocates megadoses of certain vitamins. None of the major claims of orthomolecular medicine have been substantiated by scientific study and some of its prescriptions have been shown to be harmful.  Gorski also notes two other cases of the Nobel disease – Nikolaas Tinbergen, who shared the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and makes psuedoscientific claims about how to treat autism, and Louis J. Ignarro, who is a paid consultant for Herbalife, and often seems more interested in peddling his book than advancing science.

The worst case of the Nobel Disease, according to Gorski, is Luc Montagnier. Montagnier shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the “discovery of human immunodeficiency virus”. In 2012, Montanier shocked his fellow scientists by appearing to endorse homeopathy. More specifically, Montagnier supported ‘water memory’, the idea that water can form and maintain nanostructures for extended periods of time.  “Water memory” is a form of pathological science and is the chief mechanism cited by homeopaths to explain how homeopathy works. Like homeopathy itself, it is utter rubbish.

As Gorsky writes, Montagnier was just getting started. Shortly thereafter, Montagnier appeared on the HIV/AIDS denialist film House of Numbers stating that HIV can be cleared naturally through nutrition and supplements.

By this point, Montagnier was being worshiped by three large crackpot communities — homeopaths, anti-vaxers, and AIDS deniers, along with alternative medicine practitioners around the world. There were was no going back.  In 2012, Montagnier was the keynote speaker at Autism One, the world’s leading anti-vaxxer “quackfest”, where he spoke alongside scientific fraud Andrew Wakefield. As keynote speaker he took the place of Jenny McCarthy, who had been keynote speaker for the the previous four years (2008-2010 and 2011).  Gorsky notes:

“Through his work in isolating and identifying the human immunodeficiency virus, Luc Montagnier contributed to a major advance in science that ultimately led to effective treatments for AIDS and chronic HIV infection. He deserved his Nobel Prize. That’s why it makes me very sad to see him fall so far so fast. Presenting at Autism One is almost the bottom of the barrel as far as science goes.”

Gorsky summarized his keynote as follows:

“Montagnier is now claiming that there exist in the blood of autistic children DNA sequences that emit radio waves that come from bacteria.. Based on this, he is treating autistic children with long term antibiotics? Really?”

The case of Luc Montagnier is the most striking example of why prizes and awards don’t guarantee against people saying and doing stupid things. As I noted before, the “Nobel disease” afflicts a very small percentage of Nobelists, with most Nobelists continuing to do good scientific work after receiving the prize. I do not know how many scientists succumb to crack-pottery, but I suspect it is equal to or larger than the percentage of Nobelists inflicted with the disease. The problem with the Nobel disease, though, is that the Nobel prize gives the new crackpot an air of respectability and legitimacy. In the case of Luc Montagnier, this has led to harmful consequences to society, as people have been led to use treatments like homeopathy or quack cures for HIV or autism, in lieu of treatments that can actually help. In a key respect, Feynman was absolutely right – the distribution of prizes and awards is not in any way relevant when faced with the task of determining how nature actually works. Pseudoscience is still pseudoscience, regardless of whether there is a Nobelist associated with it or not.

Update: Even more cases of the “Nobel disease”:
Last week’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast included a great rundown of infamous things Nobelists have said, based on a piece from National Geographic. The National Geographic covers a wide range of post-Nobel blunders. Here’s the worst offenders, who show the symptoms of Gorski’s Nobel disease:
Kary Mullis, 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry – In his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, “he extols the virtues of astrology, describes a possible encounter with aliens”.. Like Montagnier, he also embraced AIDS denialism.
William Shockley, 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics – preached the virtues of eugenics, with white supremicist overtones.
James Watson, 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – he’s well known for his sexist, fat-shaming, and racist remarks, but he’s also embraced pseudoscience – he suggested there are biochemical links between sexual libido and skin color,  that African races have lower IQ because of genetic factors.

2 Comments

Filed under Musings, non-technical, pseudoscience

2 Responses to Crackpot Nobelists

  1. Pingback: What’s your evidence threshold? | Daniel C. Elton

  2. James McGinn

    “Since receiving the award, Giaver has continued to do science, but has also revealed extreme ignorance of subjects outside his field, in particular climate science.”

    So, let me get this straight, Giaver has opinions about global warming. He addresses these opinions in a substantive manner in his videos. You ignore his substantive dispute with the alleged science of global warming and instead refer to a few off-hand comments he made about his approach, and you conclude that this is evidence of HIM being a crackpot?

    Do you see how somebody reading this might consider it evidence of crackpottery in a very different way than you intended?

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