Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware pooh-poohed the recent successful missile defense test saying, "50 Nobel laureates and others have said this is not a real-world test." But the Nobel Laureates never said any such thing and, even if they did, their comments shouldn't carry any special weight.
In July 2000, 53 Nobel Prize winners asked President Clinton not to attempt to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system. They wrote that such systems "will inevitably lose in an arms race of improvements to offensive missiles," that North Korea and other dangerous states would never attack the U.S. anyway for fear of retaliation and that Russia and China would respond to such an initiative by restarting an arms race. The Nobel laureates concluded that deployment would be "premature, wasteful and dangerous."
The request of the Nobel laureates had little to do with the feasibility of missile defense, and absolutely nothing to do with last week's missile defense test.
The more important point, though, is that most of the Nobel laureates in question are no more qualified to judge the feasibility of missile defense than I am — despite the claims of Sen. Biden and other missile defense opponents.
Of the 53 Nobel laureates that signed the letter to president Clinton, 14 won their Nobels in the field of medicine, 12 in the field of chemistry and 4 in the field of economics — hardly expertise relevant to missile defense.
Twenty-three of the signatories won their Nobels in theoretical physics, or research involving sub-atomic particles like K-mesons and tau leptons, cosmic microwave radiation, superconductivity, and superfluidity. Worthy scientific pursuits all, but not relevant to the development of missile technology.
One physicist signatory told me: "I am not an expert in these matters. Nonetheless, I [think] that missile defense, as described by this administration, is a bad idea." Another physicist said, "I know nothing about missiles, except Newton's laws."
One physicist signatory did attest to some missile technology experience. Regardless, he said, the only qualifications really needed to opine on missile defense were, "a reasonable level of intelligence, a sense of history and some feeling for the ways countries respond to real and imagined military threats."
These don't sound like qualifications unique to Nobel laureates.
So what's the point of Sen. Biden's touting the Nobel laureates' letter? Little, if any. As one of the physicist signatories told me, "I quite agree with you if you challenge the pretended authority, based on notoriety, in particular, of the Nobel Prize."
The larger point here is that when it comes to public policy, we need to distinguish science from scientists.
Science is the step-by-step process of searching for knowledge about our world's physical processes. Scientists, on the other hand, are merely people who have some expertise in a particular area. They are subject to the same prejudices and faults as the rest of us. So being a scientist — even a Nobel laureate — is not a license to be infallible.
This is an increasingly important distinction as scientists become more and more involved in public policy.
In September 1997, the environmental activist group Union of Concerned Scientists claimed that: "More than 1,500 of the world's most distinguished senior scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in science, have signed a landmark consensus declaration urging leaders worldwide to act immediately to prevent the potentially devastating consequences of human-induced global warming."
But as atmospheric scientist and global-warming expert Dr. S. Fred Singer notes, "Nobel laureates who expound on the threat of global warming typically have no training in the atmospheric sciences."
In February 2001, 80 U.S. Nobel laureates signed a letter to President Bush urging him to not block the flow of federal dollars for stem cell research.
But only 27 of those Nobel laureate signatories won their prizes for work in medicine. Only two won for their work in embryology. The other 53 won for work in chemistry, economics and physics. One economist signatory won for developing a new method to determine the value of certain financial instruments. Who cares what he thinks of stem cell research?
Is it appropriate for scientists to exploit the prestige of their Nobel Prizes when their awards have virtually nothing to do with merits of stem cell research, global warming and missile defense? Aren't they being deceptive?
One of the physicist signatories to the missile defense letter discounted the notion that Nobel Prizes "confer genius" upon the recipients and noted that "most Nobel laureates are no brighter than many other scientists who will never receive Nobel Prizes."
Certainly if Noble Prizes signified genius, the laureates would probably be smart enough to know when they have strayed beyond their narrow fields of expertise by signing letters advocating unrelated public policy.
As the humble Detective "Dirty Harry" Callahan said in the movie, Magnum Force, "A man's got to know his limitations."
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of the upcoming book Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).