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Thinking Outside the Box Is Not a Disease

Enforced orthodoxy, often described euphemistically as “scientific consensus,” is an impediment to science

There’s a phenomenon in journalism called the “Fox Butterfield Effect.” In 1998, New York Times journalist Fox Butterfield penned a report titled “Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates,” in which Butterfield expressed perplexity about why more jail time for criminals was accompanied by a decrease in crime. Many readers pointed out that the second clause explains the first.

The Skeptical Inquirer has now provided us with a beautiful example of the Fox Butterfield Effect, as applied to science. The authors treat the tendency for Nobel Prize-winning scientists to explore unconventional theories in science as a disease:

Some authors have invoked the term Nobel Disease to describe the tendency of many Nobel winners to embrace scientifically questionable ideas (Gorski 2012). We adopt this term with some trepidation given its fraught implications. Some authors (e.g., Berezow 2016) appear to assume that Nobel winners in the sciences are more prone to critical thinking errors than are other scientists. It is unclear, however, whether this is the case, and rigorous data needed to verify this assertion are probably lacking.

In this article, we explore the more circumscribed question of whether and to what extent the Nobel Prize, conceptualized as a partial but imperfect proxy of scientific brilliance, is incompatible with irrationality. To do so, we draw on case studies of several Nobel-winning scientists who appear to have succumbed to the Nobel Disease.

Candice Basterfield, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shawna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello, “The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails To Protect Against Irrationality” at Skeptical Inquirer

The authors discuss Linus Pauling’s embrace of Vitamin C as a panacea for a variety of maladies, Brian Josephson’s embrace of Transcendental Meditation, Kary Mullis’ skepticism on the causation of AIDS by the HIV virus, and Luc Montagnier’s views on homeopathy, among others. They conclude:

The Nobel Disease… strongly suggest[s] that high levels of general intelligence, traditionally conceptualized as the capacity to analyze and evaluate information, do[es] not preclude high levels of irrational thinking… even highly intelligent people may neglect to exercise their critical thinking capacities when they are insufficiently motivated to do so, especially when they are certain they are right…

Candice Basterfield, Scott O. Lilienfeld, Shawna M. Bowes, Thomas H. Costello, “The Nobel Disease: When Intelligence Fails To Protect Against Irrationality” at Skeptical Inquirer

There is a simpler explanation for what some choose to think of as the “Nobel Disease.” These high-achieving scientists have done excellent work precisely because they are willing to think outside the box. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re always right. It does mean that science benefits enormously from unconventional thinking.

The “Nobel Disease” isn’t a paradox. Scientists who reject consensus, who think for themselves, are often the ones best prepared to make major scientific discoveries. The top rank of scientists is full of mavericks—Galileo, Newton, Semmelweis, Einstein, and Watson and Crick, to name just a few—who made outstanding contributions not despite their unorthodoxy but because of it.

Richard Feynman (1918–88)—another unconventional fellow who did Nobel-Prize winning science—insisted that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” Science, no less than politics and economics, benefits from a free market. Enforced orthodoxy, often described euphemistically as “scientific consensus,” is an impediment to science.

This is not to say that every “out of the box” idea is right—most are wrong—but a scientific culture that welcomes unorthodox ideas and encourages theories that fall outside of the “consensus” is indispensable for genuinely good science and for major scientific advances.
The Nobel Disease, so-called, is not an illness; it is a treatment.

If you enjoy reading about creativity in science, you might also like these informative pieces by Robert J. Marks:

Should AI hold patents? the flash-of-genius answer. Robert J. Marks: To understand why AI cannot independently invent, let’s look at how famous inventors have actually done it. Like Excel, AI assists programmers in their design work. AI can search through trillions of possibilities, using data from a million sources, to find a successful design. But the structure of the search and the source of the data is the choice of the programmer. A look at how famous inventors developed products that changed the world sheds some light on the process.


The creativity needed for successful command is beyond the capability of AI. AI sifts enormous amounts of accumulated data. But successful military strategy often depends on creating a new approach to a problem, one that lies outside the historical data available to the opposing forces. Muhammad Ali and Hannibal were famous for using such strategies.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Thinking Outside the Box Is Not a Disease