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{Colorado Springs Gazette, May 31st 2012}

Why do smart people believe dumb things? Why do bad ideas from Playboy Bunnies breed like rabbits?

Dr Luc Montagnier, the co-discoverer of HIV, won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine. I’d say that means he’s a pretty smart guy. But just last week, he announced that DNA emits electromagnetic waves that come from bacteria. That’s what causes autism. It’s all explained by quantum field theory. In which Montagnier does not have a Nobel Prize.

But don’t take my word for it. You can read all about it in his self-published paper on the web. While you’re at it, ask yourself why a Nobel Laureate needs to self-publish.

Why does any of this matter? Because last week Montagnier announced this goofiness at Jenny McCarthy’s “Autism One” conference. He is giving credibility and encouragement to a movement that is at best tragically misguided, and at worst killing children.

People of my vintage (well, men anyway), will remember Ms. McCarthy as Playboy’s 1993 Playmate of the Year. She blames her son’s autism on childhood vaccination. She is wrong. There is no evidence of any link between vaccines and autism whatsoever. None.

The most prominent advocate for linkage, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, is a fraud and a criminal. He lost his license to practice medicine, and now ekes out a living promoting doom, gloom and quackery to parents of autistic kids.

In fact, Wakefield is a child killer, because he’s influenced thousands of parents to deny vaccines to their kids. Some of whom get sick and die. Andrew Wakefield is one of the worst people on the planet. And yet, he’s got a medical degree from a good school and is a Fellow of Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons. Presumably a non-idiot organization.

Of course, doctors can do all sorts of weird things. So can Nobelists. Luc Montagnier is not the only Laureate to go bonkers. Linus Pauling (who’s got two, which makes him twice as smart), believed that vitamin C could cure colds and cancer. Paul Krugman, Supreme Economist of the New York Times opinion page, wrote just three days after 9-11 how people buying emergency supplies would boost the economy. Doc, please google “broken window fallacy”, or ask any high school econ student about it.

The lesson here is that believing in goofy things isn’t a question of smart versus stupid. Smart people have the same temptations, the same needs, and the same foibles as the rest of us. When they attain national recognition and credibility, questioning them is considered insulting.

But it shouldn’t be. It should never be disrespectful to ask someone what the evidence is for what they think. It doesn’t matter how mainstream, how credible, how kind, how charismatic, how sincere, or how important they are. Because we’re human beings, all those qualities influence how we think. They just don’t help us much in getting at truth.

My heart goes out to parents of autistic children. Autism appears to be a very complex neurological condition we don’t yet completely understand. Were I in their position, I would want to believe I was doing everything I could for my child. It’s hard for me to blame parents who swallow Ms. McCarthy’s bimbo jumbo.

We should instead reserve our anger for people like Montagnier and Wakefield. Smart people who use their credibility and reputation to put their own personal needs ahead of the truth deserve nothing but contempt.

It’s not about smart versus stupid. It’s about wishful thinking versus critical thinking. It’s about beliefs that satisfy versus beliefs that are true. It’s about conspiracy theories versus scientific facts.

Ultimately, though, it’s about children’s lives. The less we think, the more they die.

{Author’s Note: Dr Fagin has a lot of impressive academic titles, none of which he hopes will persuade you that what he says is true. He invites you to investigate the claims of Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaccine nut jobs for yourself. }