Arguments from authority

In humans, the traits of high intelligence and good judgment are unlinked. There are many such examples; viz:

• Kary Mullis, who won for co-inventing the technique behind PCR testing, went on to deny that HIV causes AIDS, helping to sway South African president Thabo Mbeki into rejecting antiretroviral therapy, costing hundreds of thousands of lives;

• Linus Pauling went from two-time Nobelist to full-time quack, a brilliant peace activist and investigator of chemical bonds who became convinced that everything from colds to cancers should be fought with vitamin C;

• James Watson co-discovered DNA’s double-helix and turned out to be irreparably racist;

• William Shockley co-invented the transistor and became an ardent eugenicist.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, another smart but deeply foolish voice was heard. Michael Levitt, a Nobel Laureate and self-styled viral epidemiologist predicted:

• there would be no more than 10 COVID deaths in Israel (he was wrong by over two and a half logs);

• the coronavirus would not will stick around for months or years and cause millions of deaths.

Oops. Not just wrong, but wildly (and dangerously) wrong.

And this is something I stress over and over: the difference between arguments from evidence and arguments from authority. Science deals with arguments from evidence. Where Levitt went wrong was when he abandoned that strategy and used his status to advance an argument from authority.

Let’s leave the arguments from authority to religion, m’kay. Levitt was playing the role of Old Testament prophet, and he went off the rails, just like all the fools who believe in creationism or Noah’s flood or the “predictions” of the Book of Revelation.
Stanford professor and a Nobel laureate. Critics say he was dangerously misleading on Covid, Eric Boodman