Never too smart to be very wrong

A lot of my life choices and habits of thought have been devoted to never letting myself get permanently attached something that’s wrong. That would be my hell, and I think that there’s always a risk of it. Somehow there is no being humble enough. As an exercise for myself, and as an illustration of the risks, I went on a hunt for examples of famous scientists who got stuck and went to their graves as the last major holdout for a dead discredited theory. I figure I might learn some of the signs to watch for in myself.

It has been one of those things where you don’t fully understand what you’re looking for until you find it. The understanding happens in the process of sifting through lots of examples that you thought would fit and finding just one. Slightly different from what I described above –– the existential to my universal –– is the otherwise-incredible scientist who proposes a batshit theory that never catches on. There are lots of those, and they’re listed separately. I value them less because, well, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the subtle differences between superceded theories, pseudoscientific theories, fringe theories, and unscientific theories. [Ed. It took me a day, but I’m interested in the difference between attachment to a superceded theory and to a fringe theory. I’m focusing on the former, and I think its more dramatic.]

I found other side-categories over the course of refining my main list. There are enough Nobel Laureates going off the deep end that they get their own section. There are plenty examples of experts adopting wacky views outside their area of expertise. I also eliminated lots of potentially great examples because the scientist’s wacky commitment was one that was reasonable to believe at the time –– take physicist Einstein’s discomfort with quantum mechanics, anatomist Paul Broca’s affection for phrenology, and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson’s pretty violent and unreasonable dismissal of plate tectonics.

There are also people who flirted with a crazy idea but didn’t let it get the better of them and those who, while they believed crazy stuff, didn’t accomplish enough for me to say “this person is way way smarter than everyone I know.”

I did my best, and I learned a lot, but I couldn’t research all of these totally thoroughly. If I had any doubt about someone’s being in the “way too smart to be a paleo holdout” category then I put them in one of the less impressive lists.

The vast majority of these examples are from other people’s brains. The branches of the taxonomy were also influenced as much by people’s comments as my own here-and-there experiences of dissatisfaction. Biggest thanks to Micah Josephy, Finn Brunton, Michael Bishop, all the people here, and at less wrong.

“I’m smart, but I will never stop believing in this wrong theory”

The most interesting cases are where a contested theory became consensus theory for all but a few otherwise thoughtful holdouts, like:

Honorable mention

These people, despite their notability, didn’t make the list, either because they saw the light, because they weren’t a scientist, or because they are part of an ongoing controversy and might still redeem theirselves. Erdös and Simpson make it because of how badly behaved they were for the short time before they realized they were wrong.

  • Mathematician Erdős and the simple elegant Monty Hall problem. He was adamant about the solution until he was proven wrong. In fact, an embarrassing chunk of the professional mathematics community dismissed the female who posed it until they were all proven wrong. Recounted in The Man who Loved Only Numbers.
  • George Gaylord Simpson’s violent attacks on plate tectonics. Bad form Gaylord. He accepted it when it finally became consensus (p. 339 of this).
  • Florence Nightingale on miasma theory and always keeping the windows open in the hospital. She doesn’t make the list because she’s not really thought of as a scientist.
  • Psychologist Daryl Bem’s recent work on psi phenomena might count towards what I’m after, if the recent failures to reproduce it are definitive and Bem hasn’t recanted.
  • Recently, Luc Montagnier mingling in homeopathy and wacky autism theories (Nobel mention).
  • Maybe this is too political of me, but I’m going to add Noam Chomsky’s rhetorical maneuvers to make his linguistic theories unfalsifiable.
  • René-Prosper Blondlot and N-rays. Thanks to Martin Gardner, he’s usually considered to have taken these to his grave. He was deceiving himself, but I’m guessing he probably recanted after the big embarrassment.

“My pet fringe theory”

There are lots of examples of an otherwise good scientist inventing some crackpot theory are swearing by it forever.

  • Linus Pauling on Vitamin C (that it prevents/cures cancer) (Nobel)
  • Linus Pauling on orthomolecular medicine (Nobel)
  • Similarly, Louis Ignarro on the positive effects of NO on your heart (Nobel)
  • Physicist Gurwitsch on biophotons
  • While working on radios, Marconi was apparently v. predisposed to thinking he was talking to Martians
  • William Crookes on “radiant matter”
  • Ernst Haeckel’s pet continent Lemuria
  • Wilhelm Reich’s pet power Orgone
  • Tesla may have gone over the deep end for wireless energy transfer
  • Physicist Albert Crehore and the Crehore atom, recounted in Martin Gardner’s pretty purple book on fringe science
  • Biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s allout occultism
  • Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson, ESP and homeopathy and PK and cold fusion
  • Carl Reichenbach, chemist, and the Odic Force
  • Physicist Samuel T. Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and of “red mercury” nukes

“Sure I considered and even experimented with this wierd idea but I probably didn’t let it get the better of me”

Another less exciting category for people who redeemed and thus disqualified themselves from consideration above.

  • A lot of early 20th century scientists on established supernatural and extrasensory powers, incl. Albert Einstein, William James, and many more.
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds
  • Maybe Thomas Gold and abiogenic petroleum

“I’m smart and I believed this crazy thing but back then everyone else did too, so no biggie”

These are just people who believed in theories that became superceded, and there are more examples than I could ever enumerate. These are just the ones I sifted through looking for better examples

  • Anatomist Paul Broca and phrenology (covered in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies)
  • Isaac Newton and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and all kinds of other occult topics
  • Johann Joachim Becher and phlogiston
  • Einstein’s and Jaynes’ discomfort with QM
  • Astronomer Simon Newcomb was very skeptical that human flight would be possible, until it became possible. He was probably just being a good skeptic — after all, it is something people wanted to be true.
  • Michelson and aether. He accidentally disproved it and put lots of effort (too much?) into trying to show that his first experiment was wrong. Again, that’s maybe just good science.
  • Mendeleev’s coronium and the abiogenic theory of petroleum

“I’m not qualified to say so, but I’ll insist that this well-established thing in someone else’s field is a crock”

You’ll see that Nobel Prize winners are particularly susceptible

  • Hoyle against the Archaeopteryx
  • Hoyle on microbes from space
  • Lord Kelvin on microbes from space
  • William Shockley and eugenics (Nobel)
  • James Watson and his wackinesses (Nobel)
  • Kary Mullis off the deep end (Nobel)
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen’s controversial approach to autism (Nobel)
  • Arthur Schawlow and autism (Nobel)
  • Physicist Ivar Giaever against climate change (Nobel)

“I’m utterly fringe or worse”

Again, more of these than could ever be listed. These are just the ones I sifted through while hunting for better examples

  • Chandra Wickramasinghe carrying Hoyle’s panspermia flag
  • Andrew Wakefield and vaccines
  • Terence McKenna & timewave zero
  • Cleve Backster & primary perception
  • Franz Mesmer & animal magnetism

Recaps of the Nobel Prize winners

These are the best resources for learnings about Nobel Prize winners going off the deep end

  • intelligent design specifically:
  • and two guys not on either source (thanks), Johannes Stark (the other Lenard), and Arthur Schawlow (autism)

Leads I would go to if I was looking for more examples, and also relevant or cool stuff

I’d love to continue to grow this manifest. Ideas welcome.

  • Many medical professionals and focal infection theory
  • Any big names that got caught up in polywater, cold fusion, and the hafnium bomb. I don’t know any.
  • and Omphalos
  • Chalmers and Searle are dualists
  • The aiua of Leibniz
  • Barbara McClintock’s haters
  • and
  • Kronecker against Cantor’s revolutionary approach to infinity