Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Off the deep end: Great scientists with not-so-great ideas

Scientists have an esteemed place in our society. I say this with an obvious degree of bias. Scientists are also human, and as such they aren't infallable. They can have biases and prejudices and crazy ideas like anybody else. They can make mistakes. Galileo didn't believe that the moon was responsible for the tides and concocted his own (incorrect) theory. Thomas Edison, in his later years, subscribed to a fad diet - consuming a pint of milk every 3 hours as his only liquid intake - to improve his health. Mendeleev believed in an aether, consisting of 2 lighter-than-hydrogen elements, permeating all matter.

Some beliefs are merely a product of the times, or big ideas that didn't pan out, others are not, but the bottom line is that scientists are not all-knowing. Expertise in one area doesn't mean expertise in all others. Here are some other examples of scientists gone astray (and all but one of them has won the Nobel prize) - and why we shouldn't take every word as truth without some critical thinking.

James Watson - The inspiration for this post requires little description, as his recent comments about African intelligence have been discussed both on this blog and throughout the blogosphere. This isn't the first time Watson has stirred controversy with his remarks. He has come under fire for comments about homosexuality, women in science, eugenics and previous racially charged remarks.

William Shockley - Another Nobel prize winner, this time for physics (1956). Shockley was concerned about a 'dysgenic' effect in the population and, like Watson, made several comments about the intelligence of people of other races. His thoughts about eugenics - he once proposed that people with below average intelligence should be paid to undergo voluntary sterilizaion - and his racist views left him ostracized by his friends and family, and his scientific accomplishments tarnished.

Sir Isaac Newton - Inventor of calculus. Father of classical mechanics. Alchemist? In between his theory of gravity and the publication of Principia Mathematica, Newton sought the fabled Philosopher's Stone despite the heavy penalties for practicing alchemy at the time. His quest to turn lead into gold was never published, but was rediscovered when John Maynard Keyes bought many of Newton's unpublished works at auction and, after learning their contents, proclaimed that "Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians." Newton's study of alchemy might be explained as an offshoot of his scientific study at a time when science and alchemy were intertwined, but his odd pursuits also extended to bibilical prophecy - including predictions about the end of the world.

Kary Mullis - The acid-dropping, surfing, Nobel prize winner, unsurprisingly, has his own share of controversial ideas. The inventor of PCR has been associated with Peter Duesberg in the past and has been highly skeptical of the HIV-AIDS link - making him a poster child for the HIV denialist movement. Mullis is also skeptical of man-made global warming and disagrees with the idea that CFCs cause ozone depletion. All of these views go against mainstream scientific consensus. On top of that, he's a firm believer in astrology and even devotes a chunk of his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, to its validity. Oh, and he's had a possible alien encounter with a speaking, glowing, raccoon-like creature.

Linus Pauling - Pauling has the distinction of being the only person to win 2 unshared Nobel Prizes as a brilliant scientist (Chemistry, 1954) and an anti-war advocate (Peace, 1962). Pauling is also responsible, in part, for the widespread belief that megadoses of vitamin C is an effective cold remedy - a claim that hasn't stood up to scientific scrutiny (doses up to 250mg may reduce symptom severity, but beyond that no benefits were observed). Pauling's views on 'orthomolecular medicine', as he dubbed it, is reminiscent of the quackery we discuss on the Bayblab from time to time: any noticeable changes were attributed to Vitamin C, while ineffectiveness was chalked up to 'too low a dose'. And the illness cured by his high vitamin doses also expanded - from curing the common cold, then curing cancer and finally to "improve your general health . . . to increase your enjoyment of life and can help in controlling heart disease, cancer, and other diseases and in slowing down the process of aging."

The point here isn't to downplay the accomplishments of otherwise brilliant men or run some sort of smear campaign. We need to remember that nobody is an expert on everything and anyone can make mistakes - we need to think and evaluate for ourselves. Quackery or racism shouldn't be tolerated from anyone but if Watson wants to chat with me about DNA structure or Mullis about PCR I'm willing to listen.


Anonymous said...

You Bayblab boys seem to only be interested in the achievements of great men scientists. When are we going to learn a little bit about women scientists? The same goes for all of those penis posts. I'm sure some female animals have some interesting genitalia too.

Bayman said...

Marie Curie is my hero.

Bayman said...

Linus Pauling said it best - when asked by a high school student,"How can I have great ideas?" Pauling's answer was, "The important thing is to have many ideas."

If good science is about finding new ways to see reality, it should be no surprise that those who do the most original work are unafraid venture into uncertain territory, and can even lose their way at times. Sometimes you have to try on a lot of hats before you find one that fits. To me, these guys are just permanently on brainstorming mode and making no apologies. But as even TV's Dr. House seems to realize, productive brainstorming needs to be a discussion, not a monologue. Taken out of this context, creative thinking can easily make you sound like an idiot.

Then again, science is also about experimental evidence. It also pays to rigorously test your ideas before you blab about them. It's nice to be reasonably confident that you're right before you contaminate other people's minds with your ideas. Scientists, of all people, should know this.

It's a fine line. Maybe the answer is to only brainstorm with people you can trust to call you on bullshit and critically challenge your ideas without blindly accepting everything you say. Maybe a lot of Nobel prize winners suffer in the end from being surrounded by too many yes-people, hangers-on and wide-eyed hero-worshipers.

The Doc said...

Wasn't that post about how many mistakes male scientists have made?

Why would you want a similar analysis on women scientists?

A brief scan of the Nobel winning women in the sciences (Medicine, Chem and Physics) came up short on strange quirks.

kamel said...

Well put, Bayman.

There's certainly a difference between an incorrect theory (eg. Galileo's tide theory) and crackpottery (eg. Mullis' steadfast belief in astrology) - and it certainly pays to have many creative ideas. I think for the most part the examples I mentioned above don't pass the evidence test.

I certainly don't want to encourage anybody to stifle creativity. In that regard your analysis is spot on: brainstorm as much as you can, then discuss and make a case before unleashing at a press conference or in a book.

kamel said...

Anonymous, the post wasn't meant to have gender bias (it wasn't even meant to be restricted to Nobel winners!) - the examples that emerged just happened to be men (as The Doc pointed out, those weird quirks are tough to find in prominent female scientists). Trust me, if Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin worshipped Lord Xenu or believed an all potato diet was a cure for baldness they'd make the list too.

Bayman said...

Jane Goodall lived with chimps. Great scientist, but a tad quirky, no?

Anonymous Coward said...

She also fervently believes in bigfoot!

Anonymous said...

Referencing quackbuster Barrett is a telling mistake. Check out HIS credentials (and the way higher courts view his fantasy). Suggest you do some homework.

Anonymous said...

What about YOUR credentials, before starting some ad-hominem attacks. It's not because the US court system protects crackpottery "aka alternative medecine" that those who seek to fight it are wrong. One day poeple who take advantage of sick patients to sell them snake oil remedies will go to prison where they belong. If you think that is a fantasy I suggest you start thinking about your exit stategy. I've seen enough of you quacks spamming blogs and pretending to be cured of some imaginary disease to push your sugar pills. It's time to call bullshit for what it is.

kamel said...

Sorry you don't like the source. I used Barrett because he had all the information in one place rather than linking to numerous sources that support the same claims. Point me to 'the way higher courts view his fantasy' and I'll check it out. If I were to guess, they probably refer to some of his other 'quackbusting' and not the Pauling case - which is a well documented and ongoing controversy.

What specifically about Barrett's piece on Pauling do you not like? His article has references both from published books by Pauling and from the medical literature. What are the references for any counterclaims you're making?

I have nothing but respect for Pauling's acheivements. Now if vitamin C turns out to be some miracle cure-all in the future he'll be seen as a visionary but he, like many others who I presume you're defending by proxy, was putting the cart before the horse and espousing miracles before the evidence was there.