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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