Midweek Cuckoo: Kary Mullis
It’s incorrect to assume that only the uneducated, unwashed masses believe foolish things. According to Michael Shermer, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
In the case of Nobel laureate Dr. Kary Mullis, I tend to agree. He has arrived at a number of beliefs for non-smart reasons, and in his continual support of those beliefs he ignores all training he ever received as a scientist.
Dr. Kary Mullis received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It was a work for which he is justly and widely respected. In my eyes, he has since thrown it all away by continuing to support all manner of flapdoodle, giving the ridiculous a sheen of respectability by virtue of his own good name. It’s sad, because some people think that being an expert in one field means you are automatically an expert in all fields. Kary Mullis certainly seems to believe this of himself.
In his autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Mullis expounds on his belief in astrology in a chapter entitled I am a Capricorn (PDF). Mullis puts great meaning into the fact that a birth chart drawn up for him was wrong on only the few points that were incorrectly derived from the hour of his birth, due to a mistake with daylight savings time. He feels the sensitivity to a difference of a single hour shows how accurate astrology is. I wonder what he would say if he knew that the entire chart was wrong due to the fact that the sun wasn’t even in capricorn at the time of his birth, even though astrologers would have him believe it was? He would certainly know this if he’d bothered to research both sides of the argument.
Perhaps I could forgive him if this were as far as his silliness goes, but it gets worse. On his website, Mullis recommends a book called The Urantia Book, supposedly written by extraterrestrials in 1955. Mullis describes a number of scientific developments that he says were “unexpected in 1955” and yet appeared in the book. I’ll address the first of these to give you an idea of how little research backs up his statements. Mullis points out that the book quotes 4.5 billion years as the age of the earth, and then compares this to a few articles in Science from 2005 where the same age is given. Evidence of extraterrestrial authorship? Hardly. The experiment that determined that figure for the age of the planet from radioactive dating techniques was performed by Clair Cameron Patterson in 1953, two years before the Urantia Book was published. The rest of his points remind me of what it looks like when people try to fit the prophecies of Nostradamus to current events, and claim enormous success regardless of how tenuous their links may be.
Mullis has also ventured into the dodgy world of AIDS denialism, and this is where he really makes a fool of himself. His reason for initially doubting that HIV causes AIDS is that when he was working as a consultant setting up analytic routines for HIV, he became curious as to who had made the original discovery that the virus was the cause of AIDS. He asked around and no one could tell him off the top of their head. This he took as evidence that no one had ever actually made the discovery, that it was all made up, and that people like Peter Duesberg deserved to have their steaming, book-shaped piles of effluent endorsed by a Nobel Laureate. So is it really as difficult as Mullis claims, to find out who made the connection? I found one of the men responsible pretty quickly (the virus was actually discovered and linked to AIDS at the same time by a French team so there’s more than one person in the running for ‘first’ linking HIV to AIDS):
From Wikipedia: “Robert Charles Gallo (born March 23, 1937) is a U.S. biomedical researcher. He is best known for his role in identifying the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as the infectious agent responsible for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS)”
From Avert.org (the history of AIDS on this site is very thorough and is a must-read if you’re interested): “Just one day later, on April 23th, the United States Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute had isolated the virus which caused AIDS”
From the Institute of Human Virology (which Gallo founded): “The Institute of Human Virology (IHV) … is directed by Robert C. Gallo, M.D., the eminent scientist who became world famous two decades ago when he co-discovered that the HIV virus was the cause of AIDS.”
And Mullis calls himself a researcher? Enough said. You can deliver my Nobel Prize whenever it’s convenient.
(Thanks to Brian again for his steady supply of candidates)