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Related to: Beware of high IQ individuals making sense of nonsense

Here is a list of people who hold beliefs that I would dismiss, regardless of the fact that they have thought long and hard about their beliefs, are MUCH smarter than me, and can prove this by extraordinary achievements.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And some claims are of such nature that arguments alone do not suffice. Some claims require hard empirical evidence, or an overwhelming consensus among intelligent experts.

The point of the list is partly to show that it is possible to be very smart, and successful, and yet hold beliefs that are widely regarded as unsupported, absurd, or simply flawed.

You should expect there to be many more such people, since this list is not the result of active research but only contains people that I stumble upon. If you know of other people that fall into this category, please let me know.

Also note that I am not claiming that the beliefs hold by these people are necessarily wrong (although some of them almost certainly are).

Further note that intelligent people tend to be right much more often than less intelligent people. You should listen to what they have to say, and take it seriously.

Note: In cases where it might not be obvious to all readers, the ‘weird’ beliefs are underlined.

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Kary Mullis (Nobel Prize-winning American biochemist) who promotes AIDS denialism, climate change denial and his belief in astrology. Mullis disputes the big bang theory. Mullis also claims to have chatted with a glowing raccoon that he met at midnight while on his way to the loo then losing the ensuing six hours as a result of an alien abduction. The improvements made by Mullis allowed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to become a central technique in biochemistry and molecular biology, described by The New York Times as “highly original and significant, virtually dividing biology into the two epochs of before P.C.R. and after P.C.R.”

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kary_Mullis

Brian David Josephson (Nobel laureate and professor emeritus of physics at the University of Cambridge) argues that parapsychological phenomena (telepathy, psychokinesis and other paranormal themes) may be real. Josephson also supports water memory (homeopathy) and cold fusion.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Josephson

Peter Duesberg (a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley) claimed that AIDS is not caused by HIV, which made him so unpopular that his colleagues and others have — until recently — been ignoring his potentially breakthrough work on the causes of cancer.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Duesberg

Luc Antoine Montagnier (Nobel laureate and virologist) is claiming that DNA can send “electromagnetic imprints” of itself into distant cells and fluids. Montagnier also spoke in 2012 at that cesspit of antivaxxer woo, AutismOne, where he claimed that long-term antibiotic treatment can cure autistic children. He concluded by saying: “I realise how audacious, and even shocking, these successful experiments may appear to unprepared minds.”

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luc_Montagnier

Fred Hoyle (was an English astronomer noted primarily for the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis) claimed that the fossil Archaeopteryx was a man-made fake. He also claimed a correlation of flu epidemics with the sunspot cycle. The idea was that flu contagion was scattered in the interstellar medium and reached Earth only when the solar wind had minimum power. He further rejected Earth-based abiogenesis.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle

Kurt Gödel (logician, mathematician and philosopher) had a tendency toward paranoia. He believed in ghosts; he had a morbid dread of being poisoned by refrigerator gases; he refused to go out when certain distinguished mathematicians were in town, apparently out of concern that they might try to kill him. He also believed that materialism is false and that the world in which we live is not the only one in which we shall live or have lived.

Link: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/02/28/050228crat_atlarge

Donald Knuth (a world-renowned computer scientist) is a Lutheran and the author of 3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Knuth#Religious_beliefs_and_work

Robert Aumann (Nobel laureate and Bayesian rationalist) is a believing Orthodox Jew who has supported Bible Code research.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Aumann

Francisco J. Ayala (has been called the “Renaissance Man of Evolutionary Biology”) identifies as a Christian and has said that “science is compatible with religious faith in a personal, omnipotent and benevolent God.” His discoveries have opened up new approaches to the prevention and treatment of diseases that affect hundreds of millions of individuals worldwide.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_J._Ayala

Francis Collins (geneticist, Human Genome Project) noted for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP) and described by the Endocrine Society as “one of the most accomplished scientists of our time” is a evangelical Christian. He advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science, especially though the advancement of evolutionary creation.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins

Roger Penrose (mathematical physicist, mathematician and philosopher of science) argues that known laws of physics are inadequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Penrose

Saul Aaron Kripke (McCosh Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, at Princeton University and teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center) is an observant Jew. Discussing how his religious views influenced his philosophical views (in an interview with Andreas Saugstad) he stated: “I don’t have the prejudices many have today, I don’t believe in a naturalist world view. I don’t base my thinking on prejudices or a worldview and do not believe in materialism.” Since the 1960s Kripke has been a central figure in a number of fields related to mathematical logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics, epistemology, and set theory.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Kripke

John von Neumann (mathematician, physicist, inventor and polymath) was a strong supporter of preventive war. Von Neumann favored an unprovoked surprise nuclear first-strike on the Soviet Union. Life magazine quoted von Neumann as saying, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?” Nobel Prize-winning physicist Eugene Wigner said of von Neumann that “only he was fully awake.”

Link: ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ by William Poundstone, Page 4

Frank J. Tipler (a mathematical physicist and cosmologist) believes that the universe is evolving towards a maximum level of complexity and consciousness he calls the Omega Point. Tipler identifies the Omega Point with God.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_J._Tipler

Otto Eberhard Rössler (Professor for Theoretical Biochemistry, known for his work on chaos theory) asserts that the LHC experiments have the potential to create low velocity micro black holes that could grow in mass or release dangerous radiation leading to doomsday scenarios, such as the destruction of the Earth. He has attempted to halt the beginning of the experiments through petitions to the US and European Courts.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_R%C3%B6ssler

Elon Musk (CEO and CTO of SpaceX, CEO and chief product architect of Tesla Motors) claims that with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon and compares the potential dangers of artificial intelligence to nuclear weapons. He believes that the risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe. 10 years at most.

Link: http://mashable.com/2014/11/17/elon-musk-singularity/

Ray Kurzweil (inventor and director of engineering at Google) claims that a technological singularity will occur in 2045. Kurzweil was the principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first commercial text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer Kurzweil K250 capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil

Linus Pauling (one of the most influential chemists in history and among the most important scientists of the 20th century) promoted orthomolecular medicine, megavitamin therapy and vitamin C for treating cancer.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linus_Pauling

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (essayist, scholar, statistician, risk analyst and bestselling author) portrays GMOs as a ‘castrophe in waiting’–and has taken to personally lashing out at those who challenge his conclusions. He recently accused Anne Glover, the European Union’s Chief Scientist, and one of the most respected scientists in the world, of being a “dangerous imbecile” for arguing that GM crops and foods are safe and that Europe should apply science based risk analysis to the GMO approval process–views reflected in summary statements by every major independent science organization in the world.

Link: http://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2014/11/03/is-nassim-taleb-a-dangerous-imbecile-or-just-on-the-pay-of-the-anti-gmo-mafia/

Ivar Giaever (Nobel Prize-winning physicist) believes that man-made global warming is a “new religion” and pseudoscience.

Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivar_Giaever

Freeman Dyson (theoretical physicist and mathematician) believes that man-made climate change is, on the whole, Good and that CO2 is so beneficial…it would be crazy to try to reduce it.

Link: Freeman Dyson on the Global Warming Hysteria April, 2015

Max Tegmark (professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) promotes the mathematical universe hypothesis, that “all structures that exist mathematically exist also physically”.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Tegmark

Georges Lemaître proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe. He was a Belgian Roman Catholic priest.

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Lema%C3%AEtre

Further reading

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Related to: Highly intelligent and successful people who hold weird beliefs

The smarter someone is, the easier it is for them to rationalize ideas that do not make sense. Just like a superhuman AI could argue its way out of a box, by convincing its gatekeeper that it is rational to do so, even when it is not.[1]

In essence, this can be highlighted by the relation between adults and children. Adults can confuse themselves of more complex ideas than children. Children however can be infected by the same ideas transferred to them from adults.

Which means that people should be especially careful when dealing with high IQ individuals who seemingly make sense of ideas that trigger the absurdity heuristic.[2][3]

If however an average IQ individual is able to justify a seemingly outlandish idea, then that is reassuring in the sense that you should expect there to be even better arguments in favor of that idea.

This is something that seems to be widely ignored by people associated with LessWrong.[4] It is taken as evidence in favor of an idea if a high IQ individual thought about something for a long time and still accepts the idea.

If you are really smart, you can make up genuine arguments, or cobble together concepts and ideas, to defend your cherished beliefs. The result can be an intricate argumentative framework that shields you from any criticism, yet seems perfectly sane and rational from the inside.[5]

Note though that I do not assume that smart people deliberately try to confuse themselves. What I am saying is that the rationalization of complex ideas is easier for smart people. And this can have the consequence that other people are then convinced by the same arguments with which the author, erroneously, convinced themselves.

It is a caveat that I feel should be taken into account when dealing with complex and seemingly absurd ideas being publicized by smart people. If someone who is smart manages to convince you of something that you initially perceived to be absurd, then you should be wary of the possibility that your newly won acceptance might be due to the person being better than you at looking for justifications and creating seemingly sound arguments, rather than the original idea not being absurd.

As an example, there are a bunch of mathematical puzzles that use a hidden contradiction to prove something absurd.[6] If you are smart, then you can hide such an inconsistency even from yourself and end up believing that 0=1.

As another example, if you are not smart enough to think about something as fancy as the simulation argument, then you are not at a risk of fearing a simulation shutdown.[7][8]

But if a smart person who comes across such an argument becomes obsessed with it, then they have the ability to give it a veneer of respectability. Eventually then the idea can spread among more gullible people and create a whole community of people worrying about a simulation shutdown.

Conclusion

More intelligent people can fail in more complex ways than people of lesser intelligence. The more intelligent someone is, relative to your own intelligence, the harder it is for you to spot how they are mistaken.

Obviously the idea is not to ignore what smarter people say but to notice that as someone of lesser intelligence you can easily fall prey to explanations that give credence to a complicated idea but which suffer from errors that you are unable to spot.

When this happens, when you are at the risk of getting lost, or overwhelmed, by an intricate argumentative framework, created by someone much smarter than you, then you have to fall back on simpler heuristics than direct evaluation. You could, for example, look for a consensus among similarily smart individuals, or ask for an evaluation by a third-party that is widely deemed to be highly intelligent.

Further reading

Notes

[1] The LessWrong community actually tested my hypothesis by what they call the “AI box experiment” (yudkowsky.net/singularity/aibox/), in which Eliezer Yudkowsky and others played an unfriendly AI and managed to convince several people by means of arguments that they should let them out of a confinement.

I think such results should ring a lot of alarm bells. If it is possible to first convince someone that an unfriendly AI is an existential risk and then subsequently convince them to let such an AI out of the box, what does this tell us about the relation between such arguments and what is actually true?

[2] wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Absurdity_heuristic

[3] Absurdity can indicate that your familiarity with a topic is insufficient in order to discern reality from fantasy (e.g. a person’s first encounter with quantum mechanics). As a consequence you are more prone to be convinced by arguments that are wrong, but which give an appearance of an explanation (e.g. popular science accounts of quantum mechanics).

[4] lesswrong.com

[5] http://kruel.co/2014/06/08/new-rationalism-an-introduction/

[6] What’s wrong with the following contradiction?

e^(i*pi) = -1

(e^(i*pi))^2 = (-1)^2 = 1= e^(i*2*pi)

e^(i*2*pi) = e^0

ln(e^(i*2*pi)) = ln(e^0)

i*2*pi = 0

Well, ln(e^0) = ln(1). And ln(1) = i*2*pi*n, where n can be any integer. For n = 0, e^i*2*pi*0 = e^0 = 1. And for n = 1, e^i*2*pi*1 = e^i*2*pi = 1.

[7] simulation-argument.com

[8] See e.g. this link.

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