- Laura Plitt
- BBC News World
They call it the Nobel disease, the Nobel effect, the Nobel syndrome and even nobelitis.
And although there are those who say that winning this prestigious award is not a condition sine qua non to suffer this “disorder”, the extensive list of laureates from the Swedish Academy who have succumbed to this evil is, however, striking.
From Pierre Curie (Physics, 1903) to Santiago Ramón y Cajal (Medicine, 1906), including Richard Smalley (Chemistry, 1996) and Luc Montagnier (Medicine, 2008), to name just a few.
But what exactly is this “disease” that can affect people of remarkable intelligence?
Far from being an official diagnosis, it is a somewhat ironic term that is often used to refer to the fact that be very smart and able in an area of knowledge does not necessarily mean that we are in another.
“You wouldn’t expect really smart people to do stupid things. But the fact that there are scientists with a Nobel prize who are also known to support strange ideas and hold wrong beliefs, makes it clear that there is a disconnection between intelligence or scientific success and rationality,” explains Sebastian Dieguez, a neuroscience researcher at the Laboratory of Cognitive and Neurological Sciences at the University of Friborg, Switzerland, to BBC Mundo.
The astonishing number of Nobel laureates who embrace theories bordering on the absurd, adds Shauna Bowes, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Emory University, basically shows that “the critical thinking is linked to a specific area of knowledge and not to knowledge in general”.
That is, one (not necessarily a Nobel) can have a great knowledge of biology, history, psychology or whatever, but this does not mean that we will apply powerful critical thinking when it comes to astrophysics or other topics beyond our reach. .
This is because when it comes to issues outside our domain we usually resort to prejudices or mental shortcuts to make decisions or make sense of the world, and we do not submit these concepts to a strict evaluation (as we would do with topics that are related to us).
“In fact, applying the critical thinking mechanism takes a lot more effort and awareness than we’re probably comfortable admitting,” says Bowes.
In short: intelligence does not immunize us against crazy ideas.
Furthermore, Bowes adds, “a lot of research shows that critical thinking is quite separate from intelligence.”
“While intelligence is a skill that helps us solve problems and acquire information, critical thinking has to do with what do we do with that information and what sense do we give it”.
“Intelligence makes it more likely that we can think critically, but it certainly doesn’t ensure that we’re going to be good critical thinkers, especially when emotions and intuition come into the picture.”
The prize that makes you “immortal”
While we can all fall into the trap of aplombly discussing topics that are beyond our comprehension, Eleftherios Diamandis, Professor and Head of Clinical Biochemistry at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology at the University of Toronto, Canada, believes that the case for Nobel is special and circumscribes the nobelitis exclusively for this award.
“The Nobel is very different from any other prize that a scientist can win. While any other award is of course welcome, the Nobel is a unique distinction what makes you ‘immortal’. Nobody will remember you if you won a great prize elsewhere, but the whole world will remember you if you are a Nobel Prize winner,” he told BBC Mundo.
“This recognition means that the winners are treated differently, as if they were a celebrity, and the danger is that some, not all, believe that the medal gives them the opportunity to face projects and activities with which they are not familiar”, he continues.
“A classic example is from Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin in the early 1900s. As soon as he cured some patients with diabetes, he thought he could cure cancer later.”
“He tried, but because he knew so little about the subject, of course he didn’t succeed,” he says.
For Diamandis, the nobelitis is basically a narcissistic behavior (similar to syndrome hubris or hubris, a concept that describes the extreme pride, arrogance and overconfidence associated with power), taken on by some of the awardees, who believe they have superhuman powers and can solve any problem that comes their way.
Examples of Nobel laureates with absurd ideas
Linus Pauling (1901-1994)
American scientist and winner of two Nobel Prizes (Chemistry in 1954, Paz in 1962), he was a pioneer of modern chemistry for his discoveries in the nature of chemical bonds and the molecular structure of matter, applying quantum mechanics. Pauling did not hesitate to assert that high doses of vitamin C could be effective in curing diseases such as cancer and the common flu. His studies contained multiple errors, and such effectiveness was never proven.
James Watson (1928-present)
An American scientist, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962 (which he shared with Maurice Wilkins and Francis Crick) for his discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, a finding considered one of the turning points in modern science. The controversial biologist argues that black people are less intelligent than whites, and that differences in IQ are due to genetic factors. He also pointed out that exposure to sunlight in regions near the equator increases sexual drive and that fat people are less ambitious.
Luc Montagnier (1932-2022)
French virologist Luc Montagnier was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2008 for having succeeded in isolating the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for the first time. A year after being honored with this award, he maintained without any proof that water can remember electromagnetic waves supposedly emitted by the DNA of viruses and bacteria. He also recommended fermented papaya against Parkinson’s disease and criticized the vaccines against covid-19, which he unfoundedly accused of being the cause of the emergence of new variants of the virus.
Ivar Giaever (1929-present)
American physicist of Norwegian origin, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Leo Esaki and Brian Josephson in 1973, for “their discoveries about tunneling phenomena in solids.” On several occasions, the researcher expressed his skepticism regarding global warming, which he said did not represent a problem and which he described as a “new religion.”
On the other hand, Diamandis points out that this award is usually given several decades later that the researcher made his discovery, which is not exactly when his cognitive abilities are at their best, an observation Dieguez agrees with.
“The average age of the Nobel Prize is around 70 years. The most brilliant years of these people have already passed,” says the neuroscientist, who also questions the Nobel Prizes as a sign of intelligence or genius.
“You can discover something because you just got lucky, because you were the right person in the right place.”
“There has also been a growing number of criticisms of the Nobel, at least within the scientific sphere, because it rewards the individual, and we know that science is generally a social process,” says Dieguez.
The biggest problem, he argues, is that some of these people with deep knowledge in a very small area that most of us don’t understand have become a trusted and important voice in public debate.
“But the fact that you have made an important discovery in a very specific topic does not give you the right to think that you have better ideas than others in other areas,” concludes Dieguez.
Humility, so far, remains one of the best antidotes.
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What is the “Nobel prize disease” that can affect the brightest minds – BBC News World