"Nobel Prize" by Jonathunder / Public Domain

The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails To Protect Against Irrationality

May 12, 2020

By Candice Basterfield, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shawna M. Bowes, and 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.

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2 comments on “The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails To Protect Against Irrationality

  • They left Sir Macfarlane Burnet off the list.  An Australian virologist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1960.  In later life he had many looney ideas, including  saying that viruses came from outer space, which he thought to be proved by the fact outbreaks occurred simultaneously over widely separated areas.  He never lost the affection of the Australian people, as he was regarded as an engaging “stirrer”.  His advocacy of euthanasia of the terminally ill, abortion or infanticide of severely handicapped infants, tested the boundaries of tolerance back in the day, but at least some of his social ideas would be widely accepted today.  He was generally regarded as a good Aussie bloke.

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  • Some very noteworthy scientists have made seriously embarrassing howlers when speculating about future developments, human reactions, or when they venture outside their specialist subject areas!


    2. Radio has no future. – Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist.

    7. I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone. – Darwin (writing in Origin of Species), 1859

    8. X-rays are a hoax. – Lord Kelvin (again!), ca. 1900


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