I first read about this disease while reading a Wikipedia article about the Great Barrington Declaration.
The Great Barrington Declaration is a proposal drafted at the American Institute for Economic Research in Great Barrington, Massachusetts and signed there on 4 October 2020. It advocates an alternative, risk-based approach to the COVID-19 pandemic that involves “Focused Protection” of those most at risk and seeks to avoid or minimize the societal harm of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.
The Declaration has been signed by some prominent scientists and researchers from Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard. It has also been criticized by some scientists and researchers. However, debating the pros and cons of the Declaration is not the purpose of this post.
At one point in the Wikipedia article, a critic of the Declaration states that Michael Levitt (one of the signers) has a bad case of “Nobel Prize disease”.
I had never heard of this disease, but it sounded like one I wouldn’t mind having.
Here is a description I found in the book, “Inside the Investor’s Brain: The Power of Mind Over Money“:
Nobel Prize disease is a notable form of intellectual decay among Nobel Prize winners. Economist Paul Samuelson described the symptoms of the “disease” among afflicted Nobel laureates: “After winners receive the award and adulation, they wither away into vainglorious sterility. More than that, they become pontificating windbags, preaching to the world on ethics and futurology, politics, and philosophy. At circular tables, where they sit they believe to be the head of the table.”
People have cited similar diseases affecting other superstars, one of which seems to have data to support it:
- CEOs who win big awards from business magazines, such as “Best Performing CEO” (Forbes) or “Best Manager” (Business Week) watched the stocks of their companies declined an average of 60 percent over the next few years.
- “The Sports Illustrated jinx” refers to the setbacks and worse that inevitably follow being on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
- In documentary films, the winner of the Oscar always seems to spend the next year unemployed.
David Robson, a science writer specializing in neuroscience and psychology, has written a book that takes a closer look at the phenomenon: The Intelligence Trap – Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wise Decisions.
Robson notes that even Nobel prize winners can have wildly irrational opinions; Kary Mullis being a prime example. Mullis shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction – he was one of the founders of the Human Genome Project. Mullis also believes he was abducted by an alien, that we can travel through space on the astral plane, that astrology is bang on the money, and that there’s no relationship between AIDS and HIV.
Perhaps the most famous example of intelligence gone awry is that of Einstein; he absolutely hated the idea of quantum physics, and just would not contemplate that it could be part of his theory.
Thomas Edison is another spectacular example.
He believed that electricity would be best delivered to people’s homes through direct current, Robson says. The alternative method alternating current was vehemently opposed by Edison. Eventually alternating current won out and Edison was left humiliated and much poorer as a result.
But look at the list of the people who are afflicted with this disease:
- Nobel Prize winners
- Superstar CEOs
- Athletes on the cover of Sports Illustrated
- Oscar winners
- Albert Einstein
- Thomas Edison
If my name could one day be part of that list, I think I would also begin pontificating on whatever I felt like, even if someday I embarrassed myself.
I wonder if there is Nobel Prize for Blathering…it’s all about that 15 minutes of fame…
*image from Sweden.se