Jul 15 2010

Beware the Nobel Laureate Argument from Authority

One of the core components of a skeptical world view is knowledge of logical fallacies – how to recognize and avoid them. And one of the more common fallacies we encounter is the argument from authority – arguing that a particular claim is likely to be correct because it is being made by some authority figure. In practice this is a bit tricky, as defending a claim with a consensus of appropriate scientific authority is perfectly reasonable. But we reject arguments from inappropriate authority (like celebrity endorsements) and recognize the quirkiness of individuals, and so no individual authority is ever very compelling.

There are occasionally extreme examples that demonstrate this latter principle – that no individual, not matter what their scientific history, should be relied upon as a sole authority of scientific truth. In science the Nobel Prize is often looked upon as the ultimate achievement, and Nobel Laureates carry what is probably an unhealthy amount of individual celebrity and authority. Don’t get me wrong – winning a Nobel Prize in science is a tremendous achievement, and only comes to those who have made significant scientific contributions. This is deserving of honor and respect.

But I would add a few caveats. First, there are many scientists who have made very significant scientific contributions who were never honored with a Nobel Prize. Second, winning a Nobel Prize involves a bit of luck. Hardly any scientist can set out to win a Nobel Prize – it is not just a matter of smarts and hard work. You also have to be in the right place at the right time – to make a discovery that turns out to have a huge impact. Impact is hard to predict, and is not always proportional to the difficulty and sophistication of the scientific research itself.

It further needs to be recognized that there are many aspects of scientific work. There is a technical side – knowing how to design and run complex experiments and how to use complex equipment. There is also fund of knowledge – keeping on the cutting edge of information in your field. There is also scientific vision – creatively thinking of new ways to potentially explain phenomena, and how to test them. And finally there is critical thinking – the ability to question even your own findings and the ability to weigh various kinds of evidence and avoid the many pitfalls that plague human thinking.

A great scientist will have some of all of these virtues, but not every scientist will have all of them in equal measure. Specifically, it is possible for a scientist to be excellent at the technical aspects of  scientific research, and also be creative in their thinking, but lack critical thinking. Scientists may also achieve mastery within their own narrow field, but fail to recognize that different cognitive skills are required to be successful in other fields of science. A physicist, for example, may fall prey to the false assumption that all science should operate like physics.

I frequently see scientists who are not physicians or any kind of clinicians make this latter type of error – failing to recognize that there is a certain logic to clinical science that they may not be prepared to deal with as bench researchers.

Linus Pauling

There are historical and recent examples to illustrate these principles. Most famous, perhaps, is Linus Pauling who won two Nobel Prizes: the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1954, and then the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963 for his activism against nuclear weapons. Pauling was a brilliant researcher, of that there is no doubt. But later in life he descended into quackery, advocating for megadoses of Vitamin C to fight off infections, including the common cold. This was part of his broader support for “orthomolecular medicine” – a term he coined. According to Pauling substances which occur naturally in the body can be used in high doses to prevent disease and promote health.

To me this is the perfect example of a brilliant scientist stepping outside his area of expertise and trying to apply the wrong principles to another discipline. The concept of orthomolecular medicine may make sense to a chemist, who is focused on the chemical activity of biological substances. But medical researchers are likely to find such ideas hopelessly naive (even accounting for the time period). Pauling failed to support his ideas with clinical research, and therefore failed to recognize the need to translate a basic science understanding of things like biochemistry to actual clinical applications. Despite our advancing understanding, the body is ridiculously complex and so net clinical effects need to be measured. We cannot simply extrapolate from our basic science knowledge to clinical claims, and Pauling did.

But further, the notion that if a little is good then more is better runs contrary to basic medical knowledge. For most biological functions that we care to measure there appears to be an optimal range of values, and having either too much or too little becomes progressively unhealthy. Also, evolutionary forces have conspired to put into place feedback mechanisms that keep a long list of biological parameters within an optimal range. We mess with this delicate balance at our own peril.

So while Pauling was a brilliant chemist, he was not aware of the risk vs benefit approach central to medical decision making, displayed a lack of humility in extrapolating basic science knowledge to clinical claims, and went against certain hard-won bits of biological wisdom. The result was pure crankery, but backed by the authority of a Nobel Laureate.

Eli Mechnikov

Perhaps a less well-known example is that of Eli Mechnikov – the originator of the concept of probiotics. He won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1908 for his work on phagocytosis – that certain cells in the immune system will essentially eat invading or dying cells. He did excellent basic science work on the functioning of the immune system.

Mechnikov ventured a bit afield, however, when he started speculating about the role of gut bacteria in health. He hypothesized that the metabolic products of harmful bacteria in the gut were largely responsible for aging. Therefore, by replacing those bacteria with more benign bacteria the aging process itself could be slowed. He extrapolated wildly from flimsy evidence to support this notion. For example, he believed that people living in Bulgaria or the Russian steppes lived long lives because of their diet, which included a large amount of dairy products fermented by lactic-acid bacteria. He never tested this hypothesis, but instead drank sour milk every day for the later part of his life.

His advocacy for the notion of probiotics is partly responsible for their continued popularity a century later. I am not suggesting there is no science behind probiotics. There is (to give a quick summary) some evidence for a mild benefit for specific gastrointestinal indications. As our probiotic knowledge and technology improve we may be able to optimize the use of probiotics for certain indications. Although there is no evidence or theoretical justification for routine use of probiotics, and no reason to suspect they can be used to increase life span.

Luc Montagnier

This all brings me to the contemporary example that triggered this article – the story of Luc Montagnier. He was the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine along with Harald zur Hausen and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi – Hausen for his discover of the human papilloma virus, and the other two jointly for their discovery of HIV. Montagnier’s work on HIV is impressive and he deserved the Nobel Prize for his work. But his later work makes me wonder if he is more of a gifted and lucky technician than a true scientific thinker.

Recently Montagnier has published a paper in which he claims that diluting the DNA of pathogenic (and only pathogenic) bacteria results in the creation of nanostructures in the solvent that retain the radiowave emitted by DNA. These radiowave memories can then result in the reconstitution of the originating bacteria or virus.

Here is the abstract from his paper, Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA sequences:

A novel property of DNA is described: the capacity of some bacterial DNA sequences to induce electromagnetic waves at high aqueous dilutions. It appears to be a resonance phenomenon triggered by the ambient electromagnetic background of very low frequency waves. The genomic DNA of most pathogenic bacteria contains sequences which are able to generate such signals. This opens the way to the development of highly sensitive detection system for chronic bacterial infections in human and animal diseases.

Wow – DNA producing electromagnetic waves, which can be remembered by water interacting with background EM noise. He then adds the rather incredible notion that these signals can result in the formation of the bacteria or virus from which the DNA derives (by interacting with other cells). Montagnier is not making one incredible leap here, he is making several all at once. That is usually a sign that a researcher is getting erroneous results, and rather than consider a flaw in their experiment protocol they start jumping through logical hoops in order to explain their impossible results.

This article sums up the pathological science well:

The reasoning Montagnier used to reach his conclusions seemed identical to that used by those who study homeopathy. Obvious and simple explanations have to be skipped in order to pursue obscure ones, things that haven’t been demonstrated have to be assumed, and findings that have been subjected to repeated testing have to be ignored. It’s hard to describe the work as anything other than crackpot.

That’s right – this is homeopathic nonsense applied to DNA.

Le Canard Noir of Quackometer fame also points out that Montagnier assumes that only pathogenic (to humans) bacteria possess this property. But there is no theoretical reason that only some bacteria would have such a property, and that they would somehow know if they were pathogenic or not to humans. I would add, that this can only make sense if this property is what determined that the bacteria were pathogenic in the first place. But this flies in the face of a great deal of research which tells us why some bacteria are pathogenic and others are not – it has to do with their specific biological properties. I would further add that some bacteria are friendly at some times, but then can turn pathogenic at others.


Scientific achievement, while admirable, is no guarantee that one’s later work will be valid. This phenomenon is not limited to Nobel Prize winners – many scientists, after a mainstream and successful career in science, have turned to crankery in their later years. History has not been kind to such scientists.

The lessons here are many. The first is never to trust the authority of a single individual. A broad consensus of opinion should be compelling, and it is progressively less likely that may scientists (especially if they are coming from different perspectives) would all make the same mistakes. But individuals are quirky.

Past performance is also no guarantee. There has been speculation, in fact, as to why it is observed that older scientists sometimes jump off the deep end. Are they losing some of their faculties? Are they afraid that their legacy is inadequate and they are looking to punctuate their career with a dramatic discovery? Or perhaps they feel they have paid their dues with mainstream science and now wish to pursue their true passion? Then there are those who have been so successful that perhaps they feel they can turn their scientific eye to any question, even one far outside their specialty, and outperform the experts in that field.

From one perspective it is always a bit sad to see a respected scientist squander their legacy by delving into nonsense. In many cases they become more infamous for their crankery than famous for their legitimate contributions. But on the other hand, such episodes are constant reminders of the human condition and the need for a little humility (even among the best of us) in light of the awesome complexity of the universe we hope to understand.

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