Pseudoskepticsm Among Previously Greater Scientists

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Konrad Lorenz is usually credited with being the father of ethology (the study of animal behavior). He discovered imprinting and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973. He will always be remembered as one of the early contributors of the field.

However, he was also a staunch Nazi propagandist and believed that his entire body of scientific research was devoted to Nazism. His scientific legacy has largely been overshadowed by the absurdity of his pseudoscientific and pseudoskeptical beliefs regarding human diversity and Nazism as well as the horrible social consequences of these patently false ideologies.

Kary Mullis is an American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 because of his important improvements in a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It is a method that has since become a central part in genome sequencing, diagnosis of hereditary diseases and the functional analysis of genes. It is also used in various area of forensics and paternity testing. Unfortunately, he became an HIV/AIDS denialist, rejected the mainstream science of climate change and promoted astrology.

This article will examine two central questions. The first is: why do some prominent scientists, even having won a Nobel Prize, fall into the swamp of pseudoscience or worse? The second question is: why does such a situation feel so cognitively uncomfortable for a scientific skeptic?

One might suppose, intuitively, that greater scientists should be less likely to fall for pseudoskepticism because of their greater experience with science. Alas, intuition is often a flawed basis for decision-making. Maybe they are less likely as a population, but being a greater scientist does not immunize you against the lure of pseudoscience at the cost of betraying science.

Shermer (2002) suggested that the reason smart people start believing weird things is that because they are so smart, they are talented at rationalizing intellectually poor choices that they have reached for irrational reasons. It may also be because they overestimate their ability by thinking that “surely, such a great scientist as myself could not possibly buy into stuff that is so clearly pseudoscience” or believing that when they see merit in something, they are very unlikely to be wrong. But as James Randi likes to point out, we can all be wrong.

So why does it feel more cognitively uncomfortable when a greater scientist buys into pseudoscience than when a run-of-the-mill crackpot buys into just another flavor of pseudoscience? Perhaps it is due to a type of us-versus-them mentality: who cares when a random quack that is not part of “our” group succumbs to more pseudoscience? But when it is “one of us” it is perceived as something much more serious. I do not condone us-versus-them mentality, but it may be what is actually going on. Another possibility is that great scientist is at one end of a spectrum of credibility and pseudoscientist at the other. When a random pseudoscientist buys into more pseudoscience, the drop is not that big, but when a great scientist does, it is a huge drop in credibility.

A third possibility may be the halo effect. The halo effect occurs when the judgment of the character of a person or, say, the quality of his or her presentation, is influenced by a judgment in an other area, such as outward appearance or level of self-confidence. So because scientists have strong cultural authority, this spills over and influences the perception of the individual’s level of credibility. Because the person is a great scientist, he or she is believed to be critical, skeptical and smart. When the scientist in question falls for pseudoscience, something that is decisively uncritical, this creates a certain level cognitive dissonance, which may contribute to the feeling of cognitive uneasiness.

This is of course mostly idle speculation and I do not have any particular evidence that this must be the case, but I find the notion of greater scientists falling for pseudoscience to be a fascinating area that may shed light on the origins and persistence of belief in pseudoscience, precisely because of the striking feature that even greater scientists are not immune to it.

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References and Further Reading:

Johnson, George. (2007). Bright Scientists, Dim Notions. New York Times. Accessed: 2012-07-13.

Shermer, M. (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (2nd ed.). New York: Owl Books.


Debunker of pseudoscience.

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