Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Nobel Prize Is Not Enough

. . . to make you a fully rational person and protect you from Bullshit Beliefs.

The following Nobel-Prize-Winning Scientists held bullshit nonsense beliefs in spite of being fairly intelligent people in a specific field:

Pierre & Marie Curie (Physics, 1903), Lord Raleigh (Physics, 1904), Joseph Thomson (Physics, 1905), Charles Richet (Medicine, 1913), Einstein (Physics, 1921), Otto Stern (Physics, 1943), Wolfgang Pauli (Physics, 1945), Alfred Kastler (Physics, 1966), and Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973) all held superstitious beliefs in various forms of paranormal or psychic bullshit.

Alexis Carrel (Medicine, 1912), Philipp Lenard (Physics, 1905), William Shockley (Physics, 1966), James Watson (Medicine, 1962), and Konrad Lorenz (Medicine, 1973) all believed in various crank racial theories e.g. white supremacy and related morally reprehensible (as well as scientifically debunked) pig puke.

Antonio Moniz (Medicine, 1949), Linus Pauling (Chemistry, 1954), Brian Josephson (Physics, 1973), Nikolaas Tinbergen (Medicine, 1973), Louis Ignarro (Medicine, 1998), Luc Montagnier (Medicine, 2008) all believed in various forms of medical quackery, snake oil, crank theories, and general health-related nonsense.

Even having a Nobel Prize is not enough to save you from Bullshit Beliefs. Only a disciplined focus on rationality, evidence and logic can save you.


One notices that Physics seems to be rather well represented in the bullshit belief brigade. The most likely explanation is Expert Syndrome: the belief that "smart in one field = smart in all fields," an attitude which, by the way, is engendered in budding physicists from their first undergrad days and which leads so many of them astray down spooky, dark and stinky paths (stinky from all the bullshit).

Medicine is heavily represented in the medical bullshit category, likely a result of the specialist effect: an individual has to be so focused in one area of medicine to distinguish one's self that some other area of medicine may well escape their complete understanding, or apparently even their passing familiarity.

Objections from the Bleachers:

"But doesn't that simply indicate that they are using their full brain - creative and rational together?"

Absolutely not.  The two "sides" (not literally sides btw) of a brain work together in concert. Being creative is not enhanced by being illogical, gullible or have debilitating cognitive biases. Creativity works best when paired with an analytically disciplined mind in possession of a large number of facts.

"I think it's a laudable quality that even Nobel Prize winners can keep an open mind about their facts possibly being wrong."

Um, no.  That's not what's going on here.  From the cases I've read about in greater detail, it is clear that it is definitely not the situation that they are "hedging their bets" against the possibility that their "prize-winning" knowledge turns out to be incorrect.  Rather, these Bullshit Beliefs are in areas outside the individual's field of expertise.  They are almost always hobbies or outside interests in which their irrational beliefs are free to run wild without the constraint of empirically established facts.

But occasionally smart people have bullshit beliefs within their own field of expertise.  Not a Nobel Prize winner or even remotely a candidate, but I once worked with a Physicist who held bullshit beliefs about Relativity Theory being completely wrong and believing in the existence of a Luminiferous Aether.  And yes, his job was in a technical sub-specialty in the field of General Relativity.  Somehow he had managed to get a PhD in Physics without ever having had a rigorous course in Special Relativity in his life.  Also, I suspect he did not really grasp the real nature of scientific endeavor.

"Well, then they're doing their best to try to understand some other area they are not familiar with, and accepting the challenge of doing so."

Again, no.  That is not what is happening either.  If they applied the same rational approach to, say, paranormal beliefs as they did to their scientific work, they would quickly discover that it is bullshit.

You see, the Defining Feature of the rational process, aka the scientific method, is that it actively seeks out any data, observation or fact that could disprove its hypotheses. 

By contrast, the hallmark of a Bullshit Belief is that its adherents exclusively seek out only confirmation of their bullshit and willfully ignore all dis-confirming evidence. If you want to know whether a belief is bullshit, just observe how they are going about it.

"Wait - you mean to tell me that Science is about working out a new theory and then trying for the rest of your life to disprove it?"

YES - YOU FINALLY UNDERSTAND SCIENCE!!!!  Congratulations!  That is exactly how the scientific method works.

Convincing yourself that something is true is really easy. People do it all the time for all sorts of patent nonsense. Anything whatsoever that the mind is motivated to accept can be "confirmed" by almost anything you experience.  Conspiracy theorists do it all the time - everything they see, hear or read confirms the conspiracy for them.

But only ideas that are so true that they are indistinguishable from the full truth are able to withstand sustained, skillful and determined efforts to disprove them, debunk them, falsify or otherwise discredit them.