Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Keep the Eyes on the Prize

By Peter Bowditch

The achievements of a number of Nobel Laureates have been misappropriated by purveyors of pseudoscience.

I’ve had a standing offer since 2000 to provide all the assistance I can to any person claiming to have “the cure for cancer” so that they can receive a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which they would certainly win. I don’t care how they do it. The method is not important, only the results, and effectiveness is quite easy to assess:

  • a life-threatening form of cancer has been diagnosed (by scientific means, not just by looking or asking questions) before treatment started;
  • the patient has not undergone any conventional form of treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, combination); and
  • the patient is alive and free of that cancer 5 years after the treatment has finished.

Nominations for the 2019 Prize closed on 31 January, and yet again nobody asked for my help, despite many claims on web sites that suggest that the conditions could easily be met. You could assume that the quacks know that they can’t cure cancer, but maybe it’s just that they are shy or don’t think that a Nobel Prize is important enough to go for.

This got me thinking about Nobel winners who have been adopted by followers of pseudoscience and “alternative” medicine, suggesting that the prizes are important to some, so I looked at some of the winners who have become heroes in the nonscience community.

The obvious one is Linus Pauling, who won the Chemistry Prize in 1954 “for his research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of the structure of complex substances,” and the Peace Prize in 1962. Pauling did it to himself because in his dotage he declared that vitamin C is a magic cure-all, demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect very well. According to the vitamin pushers, his Nobel Peace Prize lends authority to his views on nutrition.

An interesting case is Otto Warburg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1931 “for his discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme”. Even though his Nobel lecture contained the word “cancer” exactly zero times, he is continually credited with proving that cancer cannot exist in the presence of oxygen. (I have asked how lung cancer can occur in tissue designed to transport oxygen but I never get an answer.) Part of the mythology is that he was “voted” a second Nobel in 1944 but it was awarded to other people. Warburg also had a dotage problem, and in 1966 said something about cancer and oxygen, but his Nobel Prize is the evidence.

Another interesting one is Luc Montagnier, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2008 “for [the] discovery of human immunodeficiency virus”. Apparently Montagnier eventually became a believer in homeopathy. It’s intriguing that many of the people who say that homeopathy must work because a Nobel winner says so are also HIV and AIDS deniers – apparently he was wrong about that.

Another Laureate who is quoted as a supporter of homeopathy is Brian Josephson, who won the Physics Prize in 1973 “for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier”. As he must know something about that word beloved by quacks everywhere, “quantum”, he is an obvious expert.

Sometimes Nobel winners are adopted without their approval. Distributors for the multi-level marketing company Mannatech love to refer to Günter Blobel, who was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for the discovery that proteins have intrinsic signals that govern their transport and localization in the cell”. Mannatech claims that Blobel’s work has something to do with sugars curing diseases. In 2004, Blobel took legal action against Mannatech to stop them referencing him, and was followed by two other Physiology or Medicine laureates, Dr Paul Greengard (2000, for “discoveries concerning signal transduction in the nervous system”) and Sir Paul Nurse (2001, for “discoveries of key regulators of the cell cycle”).

Perhaps the people at Mannatech can’t read. I’ve been approached by their lawyers on two occasions and told to stop saying that their products can treat, ameliorate or cure any disease. My reply has been that I’m not a Mannatech distributor so their rules don’t apply to me, and I would never say such things because they are not true. I also thank them for the official statement that their products don’t do anything at all.

Another multi-level marketing operator, Herbalife, likes to cite Louis J. Ignarro, who was awarded the 1998 Prize for Physiology or Medicine “for [his] discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system”. Again, this has nothing to do with the products being promoted.

I am really amused, however, when someone is cited just for being nominated. (The Nobel people do not release unsuccessful nominations until 50 years after the award is given.) I was among a group of people jokingly nominated for the Peace Prize a few years ago, but I’m not about to put it on my CV.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (