Why Nobel Prize winners can go rogue and why I could be a quackpot.

Following various tweets and links over the weekend took me through several interesting articles on Nobel Prize winners who go over the deep end. In particular, I’d like to talk about this one:

Luc Montagnier: The Nobel disease strikes again – a post on the Respectful Insolence blog.

I thought the article was well written and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing some quackery reduced to it’s baseline incoherent principles. It’s a great combination of fantastic writing and excellent discussion of both science and ethics of Dr. Montagnier’s quackpottery.

However, I would like to expand on the author’s final conclusion:

I’ve wondered how some Nobel Laureates, after having achieved so much at science, proving themselves at the highest levels by making fundamental contributions to our understanding of science that rate the highest honors, somehow end up embracing dubious science (Ignarro) or even outright pseudoscience (Pauling or Montagnier). Does the fame go to their head? Do they come to think themselves so much more creative than other scientists that their fantastical ideas become plausible to them? Does winning the Nobel Prize lead some scientists to think that the genius they showed in their own area of expertise that allowed them to win such an exalted prize also applies to other areas of science outside their area of expertise? Who knows?

Frankly, I think the author has hit upon the answer in his last point. Science is not a field that necessarily encourages creativity and outside of the box thinking. Many scientists are good at seeing what the data presents to them and not a lot more. The Nobel Prize stands out as a way to recognise unusual insight, fantastic creativity and attention to the unexpected – it is the scientific way to encourage those thinkers who can take on established science thought patterns and challenge our expectations of what is going on.

No surprise, then, that many of the people who are willing to think outside of the box and ignore scientific conventions find themselves willing to do it again. As the author of the blog post points out, they were rewarded for it once, so why not do it again?

That is to say, the very same characteristics that made them Nobel Prize candidates are the ones that make them potential quackpots!

Thus, the bigger question for me is why more of them don’t go over the deep end – and I think that’s the more enlightening answer. Normally, we hammer into scientists the need for critical thinking in evaluating the papers, abstracts and communications that make up the body of scientific literature – however, I suspect that many of the scientists I’ve known have failed to utilise the same skills on their own thought processes.

That is to say, one shouldn’t form an opinion without some form of evidence to back up their claims – or more concisely put, one should not only be a sceptic when hearing claims, but also when forming them too!

And that, I think is the grand test for future quackpottery. If you’re willing to form opinions and state them before the evidence is in, you’re either a Nobel Prize candidate or a future quackpot – or both! (Please note the clarification that most if not all Nobel Prize winners DO confirm their findings before publishing, and I am not slighting their work in the least!)

Of course, if you’re reading this, you’ll probably recognise the ultimate irony of it – I’m not a psychologist, a Nobel Prize winner, or a doctor of any type, yet I’m weighing in on the subject without access to any Nobel Prize winners to test out my theories. Indeed, that means I’ve failed my own test for quackpottery.

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