Over the years, I’ve noted how eminent scientists, scientists so eminent and respected that they’ve won the Nobel Prize in their field, have later descended into the rabbit hole of pseudoscience. The first such Nobel Laureate who comes to mind is always Linus Pauling, who in his later years endorsed the dubious and unproven idea that vitamin C (ascorbate) could cure the common cold and cancer. Not surprisingly, given that Pauling was a chemist, his clinical trial methodology was atrocious, but unfortunately he spawned a cottage industry of quackery in the form of boosting the standing of “orthomolecular medicine,” which basically preaches that, if some vitamin is good, a whole lot of vitamin is better and has led to truly dangerous nonsense, like claims that high dose vitamin C can be used to successfully treat Ebola and polio. Closely related to orthomolecular medicine is functional medicine, a form of quackery in which massive overtesting is used to measure every biological molecule under the sun, after which the functional medicine doctor will try to correct all abnormalities, basically making it up as he goes along. Although it’s not orthomolecular medicine, functional medicine is based on the same sort of dubious ideas that Pauling promoted. As for cancer, the best that can be said about high dose vitamin C is that it might have some mild anticancer activity, but that the doses required are so high that it’s really a long run for a short slide.
Another example of a Nobel Laureate who went off the rails is Louis Ignarro, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering nitric oxide signaling pathways. I encountered him 11 years ago as a keynote speaker at the Academic Surgical Congress in San Diego, where, after his discussion of discovering nitric oxide signaling pathways concluded, he launched into what could only be described as an infomercial for his book, NO More Heart Disease: How Nitric Oxide Can Prevent–Even Reverse–Heart Disease and Strokes, in which he hawked arginine supplements that supposedly ramp up the nitric oxide signaling system to prevent or reverse atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. I later learned that Dr. Ignarro had gone all in as a paid shill for HerbaLife, hawking his own supplement Niteworks, and that still later he became a member of HerbaLife’s Nutrition Advisory Board. He even published a PNAS article touting arginine supplementation in which he failed to disclose his financial interest with Herbalife. Then there was Nikolaas Tinbergen, whose adoption of the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis as the cause of autism in his Nobel lecture led Prometheus to quip that Tinbergen’s Nobel acceptance speech represented a “nearly unbeatable record for shortest time between receiving the Nobel Prize and saying something really stupid about a field in which the recipient had little experience.”
I even coined a term for Nobel Laureates devolving into nonsense and pseudoscience: The Nobel Disease. (At least, I think I coined it. Someone else might have; I can’t show that I was the first to ever use it, although The Skeptic’s Dictionary does credit me. I’ll take it.) There are quite a few other Nobel Laureates who have gone down the same sort of rabbit hole, such as James Watson, Kary Mullis, William Shockley, and more. However, the biggest baddest case of Nobel Disease of all, to me, has to belong to Nobel Laureate Luc Luc Montagnier, who won his Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of the AIDS virus. He’s not only embraced The One Quackery To Rule Them All (homeopathy), but he’s embraced a wide variety of autism quackery as well, including (of course) the scientifically discredited idea that vaccines cause autism, as well as pseudoscience claiming “DNA teleportation.” He’s even spoken at the autism quackfest known as AutismOne and appeared in Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED.
The problem, of course, with Nobel Laureates who contract the Nobel Disease and start spewing pseudoscience is that they have enormous influence and, because of their previous scientific accomplishments, are justly highly respected in the scientific community. Among non-scientists, they are correctly viewed as authorities in their area of science and, often not-so-correctly, as authorities in science and medicine in general. So when someone like Luc Montagnier lays down a swath of antivaccine pseudoscience, the merry band of antivaccine propagandists at that wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism, rejoice. Unfortunately, they were rejoicing the other day when they noted that Nobel Prize Winner Dr. Luc MontaignerSpeaks About Vaccines and SIDS. Yes, Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier and Henri Joyeux, Laureate of the Antoine Lacassagne Cancer Prize awarded by the Ligue Nationale contre le Cancer. Unfortunately, Joyeux, like Montagnier, later went a bit woo, so to speak, and has even been known to do a dubious study of religious ecstacy and claiming that visions of the Virgin Mary seen at Medjugorje “cannot be explained scientifically.” His website features a section on the “dangers” of vaccines. Yes, Montaigner and Joyeux held a press conference against “la dictature vaccinale” (“vaccine dictatorship”). Yes, that’s how the press conference was described. You can see the interview for yourself here, but it’s in French:
I used to speak pretty good French, but unfortunately decades of disuse have led to the atrophy of my ability to speak the language and understand it when natives are speaking it normally; so I could only understand the gist of much of what they said and clearly missed a lot. Unfortunately, I could not find a complete transcript. Fortunately, for the French-impaired among us, I could find a joint statement released by Montagnier and Joyeux, summarizing seven key points that they wanted to emphasize. There are also news reports in French that Google can translate and whose translation I can use my remaining knowledge of French to clean up and make less awkward, for instance Du mauvais théâtre contre les vaccins (Bad theater against vaccines), Les mauvais arguments d’un Nobel de médecine devenu anti-vaccin (The bad arguments of a Nobel Laureate in Medicine become antivaccine), and Vaccins: décryptage de l’étrange conférence de presse des professeurs Luc Montagnier et Henri Joyeux (Vaccines: Decryption of the strange press conference of professors Luc Montagnier and Henry Joyeux).
The Press conference was touted on Joyeux’s Facebook page thusly:
Note the line, “Oui au vaccins, non aux 11 vaccinations” (“yes to vaccines, no to the 11 vaccinations”; i.e., the 11 compulsory vaccinations in the sixth week required by the French government). This is obviously intended to make it seem as though Montagnier and Joyeux are not antivaccine, although they can’t help but mention the “toxicity” of adjuvants such as aluminum and notice how Joyeux notes that Montagnier would ” intervene more specifically on the risk of sudden infant death.” Great, I thought. A Nobel Laureate pushing one of the two most vile lies about vaccines of all, that it causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). (The other most vile lie is that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” of vaccine injury.) Not surprisingly, all the news stories I found note that both Montagnier and Joyeux began the press conference in the same way that antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. always begins any interview or talk about vaccines, by strongly proclaiming that they are “not antivaccine.” In this case, point one of their summary reads:
We are not against vaccinations, contrary to what is broadcast by the media and by media communicators, including doctors, under the direct or indirect influence of manufacturing laboratories. Vaccine science is complex, and our environment has changed a lot in the last century, making mass immunizations difficult as before.
How tiresome. Combine the “I’m not ‘antivaccine'” lie with the pharma shill gambit directed against those who point out quite correctly that you’re spreading antivaccine misinformation. Seriously, there’s no better way to show yourselve to be antivaccine than to lead with the pharma shill gambit—or to advertise your press conference with the claim that vaccines are linked to SIDS, for that matter. They are not.
Point two is a parade of antivaccine tropes:
We oppose for 3 essential reasons the vaccination requirement of the 11 vaccines proposed from the 6th week of life of the infant, whose immune defenses are still developing:
– the sum of the proposed vaccines injects the infant with excessive amounts of aluminum, a bio-persistent adjuvant that has demonstrated its harmfulness locally at the injection site and also its penetration in the form of aluminum aggregates to the brain and other areas of the body (bones, kidneys) as has been demonstrated in workers breathing dust during the extraction of bauxite (occupational diseases).
In addition, aluminum found in veterinary vaccines has been shown to be toxic to animals, directly or indirectly responsible for sarcomas (poor-prognosis cancers) in the vaccination area within 3 years post vaccination and in other areas of the country. body 5 years later: osteosarcomas, fibrosarcomas, chondrosarcomas, in the limbs, thorax and abdomen. Would our cats be better cared for than our children, since aluminum was removed from veterinary vaccines by a Sanofi subsidiary?
– the excess of vaccines can be responsible for sudden infant death in the days or months following vaccination: 250 to 300 cases are listed in France, 25% of cases have no specific cause. According to a scientific survey conducted for a trial in the United States, hypervaccination would trigger the sudden formation of cytokines, inflammatory molecules toxic to a fragile organism.
– vaccination against hepatitis B for a 6 weeks old infant has no health interest and may be harmful in the future, especially responsible for allergic phenomena, autoimmune diseases including neuro-degenerative diseases, sclerosis in particular plaques, in children or adolescents.
Let’s deal with the SIDS issue first, because it’s the most despicable, fear mongering statement that the two brought up. I’ve discussed this bogus claim many times before. There is no link between SIDS and vaccination. The reason antivaxers think that there is a correlation is because the incidence of SIDS spikes at around 3 months, which is a time when several vaccines are administered. There have been a number of studies showing that, if anything, vaccines might protect against SIDS, for instance, this case-control study, where the authors concluded:
The age distribution of SIDS cases in Germany shows a peak at the age of 3 months. This is the time when the first immunisations are given. If immunisation increased the risk of SIDS one would expect a higher immunisation rate among the SIDS cases compared to the control infants. In the GeSID the opposite was the case. More controls were immunised and the control infants started their immunisation schedule earlier. Even when the data were restricted to the 14 days prior to death/interview, there was no increase risk for SIDS from immunisation.
There are also several other such studies that find no positive relationship between vaccination and SIDS, considered more than sufficient to consider the likelihood of a link between the two to be as close to zero as science can estimate. In fact, if there is any correlation at all, it is a negative correlation, with vaccines being protective against SIDS. Indeed, there are even enough studies looking at the relationship between vaccines and SIDS that a meta-analysis could be done. Not surprisingly, this meta-analysis of published SIDS studies agrees and found the relative risk of SIDS in vaccinated babies to be 0.54. Does that mean that vaccination is protective against SIDS? Not necessarily, but it sure does mean that vaccination doesn’t increase the risk of SIDS. Montagnier is, quite simply, mistaken in the worst possible way. My only surprise is that they didn’t mention the dubious Vaccine Court decision that seemed to conclude erroneously that vaccines do cause SIDS.
As for aluminum adjuvants, their safety has been demonstrated over many years. I’ve discussed this many times as well, particularly how the fear mongering about aluminum adjuvants is just that, fear mongering without a scientific basis. No, really. The arguments and “science” demonizing aluminum adjuvants as a cause of autism are bad. Aluminum adjuvants don’t kill. They don’t cause premature ovarian failure. The science claiming to find harm from aluminum adjuvants is uniformly awful and often results in retraction or relies on cherry picking and bias.
And don’t even get me started on Joyeux and Montangier’s nonsense about the hepatitis B birth dose. There is no good evidence that the hepatitis B vaccine is associated with any of the adverse health outcomes described, and, contrary to their assertion, it does have very definite health benefits.
I suppose I should be less disturbed that this not-so-dynamic duo are OK with diphtheria-tetanus-polio vaccination before 18 months, calling it “reasonable”—as long as the vaccine is manufactured without aluminum adjuvant. Joyeux, I note, promoted a petition to return to the version of this vaccine without aluminum (a petition that has, unfortunately, garnered well over a million signatures), and I can’t help but note that the two claim that the reason the vaccine contains aluminum is because it’s more profitable. So even while seeming to support one vaccine, Joyeux and Montagnier can’t help but invoke antivaccine pseudoscience. Oh, and the petition notes that the Infanrix (hexavalent vaccine DTPolio-Hib-Pertussis-Hepatitis B) also contains formaldehyde. The horror, the horror. (That’s sarcasm. The infant’s body makes more formaldehyde as a result of metabolism than any vaccine provides.)
The rest of the statement veers between the perfectly uncontroversial (breastfeeding is good) to classic Andrew Wakefield pseudoscience claiming that the MMR vaccine is harmful and invoking the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, or, as they characterize it, injecting “attenuated viruses that are not safe in fragile infants.” Wrong. And, of course, there’s the classic dubious appeal to “vaccine freedom.” He also blames vaccines for multiple sclerosis,
Through it all, Joyeux and Montagnier laid down the antivaccine pseudoscience hot and heavy. Some quotes:
We are here to launch an alert, to the whole country, to the world. I would like to warn about sudden infant death. This is a terrible thing, the cause is unknown, but there are scientific facts, showing that many of these deaths occur after vaccination. We cannot demonstrate causality, but there is a temporal relationship.
They are responsible for an immune storm in the infant.
No, as Brigitte Autran of the Pierre and Marie Curie Faculty of Medicine in Paris, a vaccine specialist. puts it:
These famous ‘cytokine storms’ are associated with infections. Not vaccinating the child increases the risk of infection and therefore that of overproduction of cytokines, which could be fatal. If there is indeed a production of protective cytokines after vaccination, it is not a cytokine “storm” and no scientific study shows a link between vaccination and cytokine storm.
What is at stake is mass vaccination, it must disappear.
That sounds pretty antivaccine to me, regardless of what Montagnier claims about not being antivaccine.
Nobel Laureates are basically rock stars in the world of science. Their words carry more weight than the average scientists, and the press and public take what they say seriously, even if they are pontificating on science outside their area of expertise. That’s why the Nobel Disease is so dangerous. When a Nobel Laureate starts promoting antivaccine ideas, people listen, even if that Nobel Laureate, like Luc Montagnier, has no background in pediatrics, vaccine science, epidemiology, or neurodevelopmental disorders.
If you think being a Nobel Laureate immunizes you from the Dunning-Kruger effect and the arrogance of ignorance that goes along with it, think again. I’ve come to wonder if, thanks to all the adulation they receive, Nobel Laureates might actually be more prone to Dunning-Kruger effects than the general population when they wander outside their area of expertise.