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The Linus Pauling effect

by Donald Prothero, Apr 13 2011

Biologist and paleontologists are all familiar with the name of Lynn Margulis. Now 73, she made her reputation in the 1960s for her “endosymbiosis” hypothesis: the idea that complex eukaryotic cells with all their organelles were assembled from prokaryotes which came to live symbiotically within the walls of other prokaryotic cells. Her hypothesis was first proposed by Merezhovsky in 1905 and Wallin in 1920, but Margulis used the great advances in microscopy and microbiology in the 1960s to show that the idea was highly plausible. At first, her papers were rejected by at least 15 journals before they were finally published. But as time passed, the evidence for much of her “outrageous idea” continued to accumulate. It does indeed appear that the chloroplasts of the eukaryotic cell are derived from symbiotic cyanobacteria (as it is common that many animals, from large benthic foraminifera to hermatypic corals to giant clams, use algae in their own tissues symbiotically), and that mitochondria were once purple non-sulfur bacteria. The best evidence comes from the fact that organelles have their own DNA independent of the cell’s nuclear DNA (we hear about research on mitochondrial DNA all the time); that organelles can divide independently of their host cell and have their own ribosomes; that organelles can be killed by antibiotics, just like their prokaryote ancestors, while the host cell is not killed. In addition, there are now numerous examples of eukaryotes which still use endosymbiotic prokaryotes to perform various functions, and have not completely absorbed and transformed them into organelles of the host cell. Over the years, Margulis has promoted additional ideas about the importance of symbiosis in biology, and has become a major advocate of the “Gaia” hypothesis and how all of life is dependent on the rest of life in an intricate, delicate web.

Margulis’ sheer determination in getting her ideas heard, and finding scientific evidence to support them, was remarkable, especially in a age where the idea was highly unorthodox. But she was never an orthodox scientist to begin with. Admitted to the University of Chicago when she was 14, she married Carl Sagan when she was 19, and her son Dorion Sagan is a frequent coauthor with her on her books. Her other child with the great astronomer, Jeremy Sagan, is a software developer and the founder of Sagan Technology. As the years go by and more and more people recognize her pioneering work, she has received all sorts of honors: membership of the National Academy of Sciences in 1983, the 1999 National Medal of Science, the 2008 Darwin-Wallace Medal, the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, and her papers are archived at the Library of Congress.

Thus, it is with shock and sadness that I read her recent interview in Discover magazine (April 2011, pp. 66-71). It’s one thing to read about her argument for “symbiogenesis” as more important to evolution than natural selection. That’s yet another controversial idea she has long pushed, and it’s plausible that evolution works faster with the insertion of gene sequences, especially from parasites and viruses. Indeed, the discovery of ERVs (endogenous retroviruses, fragments of DNA that once infected the genome and are now passively copied in each generation as a silent selectively-neutral fossils of past events) tends to support this idea a bit. But the the interview gets stranger and stranger, such as when she criticizes all of population genetics as “numerology”, or this weird exchange:

Interviewer: Some of your criticisms of natural selection sound a lot like Michael Behe, one of the most famous proponents of “intelligent design,” and yet you have debated Behe. What is the difference between your views?

Margulis: The critics, including the creationist critics, are right about their criticism. It’s just that they’ve got nothing to offer but intelligent design or “God did it.” They have no alternatives that are scientific.

Thanks, Lynn. You can bet that parts of that quote will show up on the Discovery Institute site, and in a lot of future creationist books and blogs and debates. Our job clarifying the public myths of evolution is hard enough without someone as famous and honored as Margulis spouting misconceptions and outright mistakes that just beg for creationists to quote-mine them.

But the final straw is when she slips outside the realm of science entirely, and becomes a full-fledged AIDS denier. My jaw just dropped when I read the following:

There is a vast body of literature on syphilis spanning from the 1500s until after World War II, when the disease was supposedly cured by penicillin. It’s in our paper “Resurgence of the Great Imitator.” Our claim is that there’s no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all. There’s no scientific paper that proves that the HIV virus causes AIDS. Kary Mullis said in an interview that he went looking for a reference substantiating that HIV causes AIDS and discovered, “There is no such document.”

How can she call herself a serious biologist and say something like this? Has she never actually LOOKED at the hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers documenting the structure of the HIV virus, and the clear documentation of that virus in patients that suffer and die from AIDS? Or the fact that patients treated with anti-retrovirals manage to suppress their AIDS symptoms? Or the disaster in South Africa, when the government became active AIDS deniers, spread misinformation and myths about AIDS, and the infection rate shot up? Not even the hard-core AIDS deniers like Peter Duesberg deny that the HIV virus exists! And citing notorious “bad boy” Kary Mullis (famous for all sorts of odd ideas–see below) is not the best way to encourage people to accept her hypothesis.

So if syphilis causes AIDS, and not HIV, where is the evidence? As microbiologist and epidemiolist Tara Smith points out in her excellent blog, Margulis offers none. Instead, she says to the credulous and uncritical interviewer:

The idea that penicillin kills the cause of the disease is nuts. If you treat the painless chancre in the first few days of infection, you may stop the bacterium before the symbiosis develops, but if you really get syphilis, all you can do is live with the spirochete. The spirochete lives permanently as a symbiont in the patient. The infection cannot be killed because it becomes part of the patient’s genome and protein synthesis biochemistry. After syphilis establishes this symbiotic relationship with a person, it becomes dependent on human cells and is undetectable by any testing.

Great. Just what we need: an untestable hypothesis promoted by assertion and reputation, not something concrete that scientists could test (although most specialists in microbiology would say the evidence is clear that the HIV retrovirus, and not the spirochaete bacterium Treponema pallidum, is the true cause of AIDS).

The phenomenon is a familiar one: let’s call it “the Linus Pauling effect.” A highly respected and honored senior scientist, largely out of the mainstream and not up to date with the recent developments (and perhaps a bit senile), makes weird pronouncements about their pet ideas–and the press, so used to giving celebrities free air time for any junk they wish to say, prints and publishes it all as if it is the final truth. The great Linus Pauling may have won two Nobel Prizes, but his crazy idea that megadoses of Vitamin C would cure nearly everything seems to have died with him. William Shockley may have won a Nobel for his work on transistors, but his racist ideas about genetics (a field in which he had no expertise) should never been taken seriously. Kary Mullis may have deserved his Nobel Prize for developing the polymerase chain reaction, but that gives him no qualifications to speak with authority on his unscientific ideas about AIDS denial and global warming and astrology (he hits the trifecta for pseudoscientific woo).

And now we have Margulis muddying the waters for all of us, and the press publishes her ideas with no challenges or discussion. Tara Smith says it best:

I get that Margulis feels she got the short end of the stick from the scientific establishment. I get that she sees herself as a maverick, a radical, a perpetual outsider. I also get that she has an ego the size of Texas. The last question she’s asked in the interview is “Do you ever get tired of being called controversial?” Her response: “I don’t consider my ideas controversial. I consider them right.” While confidence is certainly an important trait in a scientist, so is the ability to twist your ideas around, look for the holes, test them, revise them, lather rinse repeat. You can’t let your ego blind you to the fact that, hey, *you might be wrong.* Margulis not only refuses to consider this, she admits that she has “no interest in the diseases” she’s discussing, even while she claims to know more about their causes than the scientists who have spent decades studying them. In a lot of ways, this makes Margulis worse than the creationists she dismisses.

Any other readers out there have another famous example of a respected and lauded senior scientist who makes the news talking about subjects that are entirely outside his or her expertise? Feel free to nominate your candidates for the “Linus Pauling Award.”

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34 Responses to “The Linus Pauling effect”

  1. Dale Sheldon-Hess says:

    Watson (of Watson & Krick of DNA fame) has made some terribly racist comments.

  2. Max says:

    Margulis is on the list of professors who question the 9/11 Commission Report.

    She’s not on the “Dissent from Darwin” list yet, but I was surpised to see Prof. Rosalind Picard on that list.

    You might find more “Linus Pauling Award” candidates on these kinds of lists. The Oregon Petition is another one. Just make sure the scientists weren’t misquoted or suckered into signing the petition.

  3. Somite says:

    Older physicists seem to be the demographic with most nominees for this award. Lots of evolution and climate change deniers.

  4. Jason Loxton says:

    Good, if depressing post, Don!

    I was completely baffled by her remarks. In addition to the work on viral structure you cite, there have been countless experimental validations of the relationship between HIV and AIDS in primate trials (including all of the failed vaccine trials), in addition to the clearly observed relationship between HIV viral load and AIDS symptoms in human patients.


  5. jdcllns says:

    What do you expect form a major advocate of the “Gaia” hypothesis?

  6. Stories like this should be considered cautionary tales for skeptics. The further we get from our own individual areas of domain expertise (whatever those happen to be) the more cautious and more tentative we should be.

  7. Erik Jensen says:

    I nominate Brian Josephson. He won a Nobel Prize in physics and now “researches” parapsychology.

  8. MadScientist says:

    To be fair, Linus Pauling didn’t invent the Megadose Vitamin C stuff when he was senile. I believe he developed the idea in the 1960s when he was working with his high pressure (now known as ‘high performance’) liquid chromatograph and investigating human metabolic processes. Although those years yielded some great (new) results as well as mediocre results and a lot of enlightening negative results, he never did have any evidence for his Megadose C claims.

  9. Robo Sapien says:

    Uh, what? I am skeptical of words that I don’t understand.

    And I thought it was gay sex that caused AIDS? *ducks*

  10. I forgot to mention Louis Leakey, who made a huge professional blunder with the now discredited “Calico Early Man site.” Most anthropologists wrote it off then (and now) as an example of his approaching senility. Some point out that Mary Leakey was the real brains of the partnership, and that Louis got the lion’s share of the press with his charisma, while Mary did all the hard work and thinking…

  11. Glenn Heck says:

    I had the honor of working with Lynn Margolis and her son, Dorian Sagan, (yes, she was Carl Sagan’s first wife) during a workshop at Biosphere II in the ’90s. She had a sharp intellect (and an inexhaustible ego). I am distressed to learn of her descent into irrationality. This should be a cautionary tale for us all. It seems that perhaps her bitterness toward the established biological community ate at her, much like the syphilis she cites in her rant about AIDS. I am disappointed and saddened by this post.

  12. BKsea says:

    Luc Montagnier won the nobel prize for the discovery of the HIV virus. Now he spends his time publishing support for homeopathy in his own pretend journal.

  13. paul barry says:

    I remember a Lynn Margulis book on endosymbiosis and paleontology. Ernst Mayer wrote the introduction and refuted the entire book in a couple of paragraphs.. . in the introduction, mind you. Anyone remember it?

    I threw that book out many years ago, realizing that she was stretching her theory beyond its limits. But there is nothing wrong with geniuses paving the way for new discoveries. See S.J. Goulds essay on Randolph Kirkpatrick.

    • Yes, I know the Gould essay “Crazy Randolph Kirkpatrick” very well–I assign it to my paleo students every year. I just didn’t want to overload the essay with TOO many examples

  14. Mario says:

    We tend to forget that we are all humans, no matter how great one of our achievements can be, that doesn’t rule out the fact that we are not perfect, and ego can be a pretty bad adviser when it comes to talk about things we are not expertise. Even Einstein wasted his last years looking for a theory of everything while at the same time not buying most of the ideas of quantum mechanics. We have to take her great contributions for science and just leave her alone, she did what science needed from her, the rest just probes how crazy we are just by listening and even debating all that trash in popular media.

    She is not better than those crazy people that ask for Obama birth certificate, just to look the other way when it’s showed to them so they can keep their delusion going on….Just another Saruman disease case.

    • paul barry says:

      what’s crazy about asking for Obama birth certificate?

      • Bill Minuke says:

        Assuming you mean What’s wrong with asking for the birth certificate today vs asking for it in 2008, We already have his birth certificate,so when someone asks for it they are demonstrating something about themselves ( intellectually lazy, intellectual dishonesty, weak minded, irrational decision maker, etc.).

      • Bill Minuke says:

        The story makes no sense. Do reporters have any reasoning ability?

        Didn’t the governor know the privacy laws ahead of time? Wouldn’t a reasonable person, especially a governor, ask a lawyer how to approach getting the birth certificate and if it wasn’t possible, not go public, rather than going public and then failing? Was the birth certificate the only document the governor was after, isn’t there anything else that would do this? Also it’s 2011 the purpose for the inquiry at this date would seem to have the opposite effect as that stated by the story of “dispelling conspiracy theorists”. Am I giving this governor too much credit? Maybe the reporter got it all wrong? Then again this wouldn’t be the first time an elected official wasted time on stupid stuff that was ill conceived. ( I wonder if there is a cynics blog somewhere :) ).

      • paul barry says:

        let’s see.

        Intellectually lazy, check. dishonesty. check. weak minded, irrational decision maker. Yeah that’s me Bill.

        Or do “we” have a certificate of the certificate?

        I’m no birther, but I think my question to Mario has gone unanswered, and your reply was a demonstration of an ad hominem

      • meconio says:

        One stupid thing after another and this is by far the winner, although my top 5 would also include: the feast-bump salute from Obama, the first lady using sleeve less dresses and suggesting to eat more vegetables than sugar based food (blasphemy!!!) and the over inflated budget of the trip to India.

        By the way his name being Hussein and being welcomed like a rock star in most of the countries, deserve both honorific mentions, since this two earn a check in the to-do list to become a fascists, right?.

  15. I seem to remember that Eric Laithwaite got into a bit of trouble at the end of his career by postulating that gyroscopes could defy gravity? [pauses to google/wikipedia: Ah, it seems that he did think that – but apparently he later acknowledged that Newtonian physics are safe from the ravages of gyroscope exceptionalism. Still, an interesting tale.

  16. Bill Minuke says:

    To #14

    “We have to take her great contributions for science and just leave her alone,”

    We can’t leave her alone, because she’s promoting nonsense in the media. That causes real harm. She’s using the reputation she’s gotten for reputable work and pushing garbage. That’s the difference between her and Einstein, his search may have failed, but he didn’t therefore advocate nonsense.

    • Mario says:

      Yeah you’re totally right my friend, maybe I’m being too soft with her nonsense, and by the way I hope you don’t think I’m putting her next to Einstein I just used his name to remark that even the greatest minds (she is not one of them of course) can make big mistakes.

      • Bill Minuke says:

        There’s nothing wrong with defending her. If we’re all of the same opinion it’s not much of an exchange, and what do we learn? It’s much more enlightening to debate someone with a different view. Although I do think she’s doing harm, I benefited from your comments.

  17. allen says:

    I think the most noticeable other example lately has been Freeman Dyson and his denial of global warming.

  18. Hi Donald,

    It’s my first time reading your stuff and because this is the web and any trumped up little nobody like me can have their say: I will.

    Firstly let me thank you for providing a link to the article in question, I found it very interesting.

    Far more dangerous to humanity than a scientist calling question on the status quo is one that sees what they think is incorrect and does not.

    At the start of your piece you seem to be agreeing with that, lauding her earlier work and the idea she may be right after all the uphill she got. Then you attack her for wanting to advance thinking on evolution in a new direction.

    Then you give her the stupid marketing term “aids-denier” when she questions a current conventional wisdom on that condition despite the fact that the one thing she clearly does not do is deny the existence of AIDS.

    On criticism:

    In the quote you take from Discovery she correctly suggests that everyone is right to criticise but that the intelligent-design theorists offer nothing as an alternative and so are not credible. This is correct. The Discovery Institute and how they may twist her words is a separate issue. Don’t let their rubbish marketing-led thought processes cloud open, honest, critical thinking.

    The “numerology” quote is connected with the conversation she has with Richard Lewontin about (what seems to be) the standard neo-Darwinist evolution model where he states that “we’ve tried to test these ideas in the field and the lab and there really are no measurements that match the quantities I have told you about.” The Wikipedia definition for numerology is: “a mystical or esoteric relationship between numbers and physical objects or living things.” If your numbers don’t match up with the experimental/study results I could go for calling them “mystical” or “esoteric”. She could and should have been more clear but her words weren’t as you portray them.

    On evolution:

    She debunks no tenet of evolution other than the idea that mutation/elimination have to be the primary drivers. She points out the evidentiary gaps and she points to a scientific hypothesis (her own) for filling those gaps. All she says about symbiosis is (to my limited knowledge) proven apart from it being an evolutionary driver. It is up to her to provide enough evidence to take hypothesis to theory and get it accepted.

    On AIDS/medicine:

    Firstly, she points out that she is not interested in the diseases. She mentions that AIDS shows remarkable similarity to the behaviour of syphilis. Calling her an “AIDS-denier” for this is tabloid behaviour of the worst sort. Suggesting there may be additional/alternate causes hardly makes a denier. It is not her fault if a tabloid or random internet blogger tries to twist what she says. I cannot comment on her Syphilis/ spirochete vs Penicillin theory as I don’t have the time to read up on it.

    She was hurting her credibility mentioning Kary Mullis who certainly appears to have lost much of his mental faculty. You can read his views on astrology from his autobiography here [], and he does believe in it. Even more worrying is the ranting and his logical jumps to take him to the point of believing in it show a frayed mind and a lack of understanding of statistics. But at least there is enough scientist left there for him to say he would like to see it investigated more and we should not forget that he was, once, a great scientist. Kudos for saying so. Dismissing everything he says about anything based on that alone is dangerous, though.

    There is no “single document” that I know of proving the biological process where HIV causes AIDS, I would be keen to read one if you have a reference since it is always the supposed “bone of contention” for those who think there are other/additional causes of AIDS. People who can never get funding because they are labelled “AIDS-deniers” and vilified in the press.

    I am pretty sure, though, that there wasn’t yet one in 1998 when Mullis said it because I went looking for one in 2001 with no success- although with me not being a doctor or research scientist I didn’t have the access afforded others so it could have just been me. If there is one, though, I will accept that she is well behind the science on this one.

    The recognised HIV-AIDS connection I accept, though, because that the statistical research does seem to support the connection and that info was around in 1998 according to NAP []. I could also only find references to statistical connections in the NIAID web page entitled “The Evidence that HIV causes AIDS”: [].

    Statistical evidence is not conclusive, though, and correlation is not causation so the idea that people should not look at alternatives/ additional causes or even suggest them in public is insane.

    I am not quite sure where you read that she claims HIV does not exist. Must have missed that. Was it in another article?

    The worst thing she does is say, about her ideas, in her final statement, “I consider them right”. In that, though, she has done far less harm than either you or Tara Smith (who you reference at the end and from whom your piece seems to stem). If all Margulis’ research has pointed her to the theory that her ideas are right, then that is what she should say rather than ending off with a pithy, trite retort.

    This was an appalling editorial. It seemed lazy and badly researched.

    Please read Ben Goldacre’s book “Bad Science”, or even start with his blog or articles in the Guardian. It’s how people should write about medicine.


    Trumped-up Nobody (with too much time on his hands)

    • CJS says:

      These are Margulis’ words : “Our claim is that there’s no evidence that HIV is an infectious virus, or even an entity at all.” Note the words “even an entity at all”; and this is among the things “there’s no evidence [for]”.

      No-one denies the disease of AIDS exists; pseudoscientific claims are usually about denying HIV as the cause. “AIDS-denier” may not be quite entirely precise, but it is a passable formulation and the meaning is clear. It is not “tabloid behavior of the worst sort”.

      It is your indignation which is trumped-up; which also makes it dishonest, though I have no idea what your motivation is.

      Re-read the words quoted on syphilis. They are insane. The discovery of a cure syphilis did not cure syphilis, syphilis is undetectable, it “becomes part of the patient’s genome” (?????).

  19. InvincibleIronyMan says:

    Before proclaiming an opinion on a subject, especially with an assumed air of authority, it seem like a good idea to actually do some reading and find out something about a subject before one opines upon it. Or one might practise a bit of humility and preface one’s opinions with a caveat (“I am not an expert on this subject, but here’s my two cents, to be taken with a pinch of salt…”).

    I am not much of a qualified expert on anything, with the possible exception of a few esoteric areas of computer programming, but I do try to take some rudimentary precautions against sounding like a complete idiot. The first thing to do when dealing with a technical or scientific subject is to find out what the people who specialize in that subject have to say, then to identify possible areas of criticism and controversy and see how the argument has played out up till now. What one should *not* do is pick out somebody on the fringe who disagrees with the general consensus and proudly proclaim them to be the new Galileo, without first finding out something about the background and context to the debate. That’s if a plausible debate can even be said to exist.

    The adage “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” should come with a warning: “but don’t be surprised if people think you’re a bit of a prick if you don’t think your opinions through before you speak them”.

  20. Markx says:

    An important (perhaps) thought on Linus Pauling –

    I don’t in any way consider he lost his marbles –

    I think he simply discovered the power of “Brand Marketing”. His name (and Nobel prizes) gave his words enough weight that he could choose something he considered fairly benign, (Vit C) and vastly increase the demand. Under the guise of “research” he set up an institute with funding pouring in from Roche (and others).

    He created a model which no doubt rewarded him very well, and gave him a far better living than sticking to his original field. He and Roche both well understood they need not come up with any definitive proof, they just had to keep the papers coming, and there would always be enough new consumers trying the product to have a huge impact on sales growth.

    Where he really failed as a human being and scientist was in attempting to suppress research (from his own institute!) which showed some mega doses of vitamins were actually harmful.

    That is where he perhaps succumbed to the malaise which is likely also affecting Lynn Margulis; people in strong positions eventually do start to believe their own hype.

    It also frequently happens to political and military leaders. (A very good reason for term limits).