The Pauling Effect

3 Aug 2023

A friend of mine who is very bright makes his living as a data scientist that specializes in fantasy sports. Recently, he said, “I’m steeped in data and modeling. And I looked at the studies and some of the models on SARS-CoV-2 and hydroxychloroquine [HCQ] and found some of them persuasive,” to the point that he wanted to acquire HCQ and ignore advice to wear a mask.

I was surprised that, lacking any domain expertise,* he was confident in his capabilities. But it reminded me of the puzzle of Socrates’ wisdom—or something I’m calling the “Pauling Effect.”

In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates recounts the story of the Oracle at Delphi saying that none was wiser than him. This pronouncement set Socrates on a collision course with the powerful men of Athens—ultimately leading to his being put to death. Why? Because Socrates set out to interrogate the matter of his supposed wisdom by interrogating men considered wise—politicians, poets, physicians, artisans, etc.—in hopes of proving the Oracle wrong. His discomfiting cross-examinations of prominent Athenians led him to a realization: Socrates was wise only in the sense that he understood he wasn’t wise. Put another way, he understood the limits of his wisdom.

What Socrates discovers is something I’ve named “The Pauling Effect.” Linus Pauling is the only person to receive two individual Nobels—Chemistry, 1954; Peace, 1962. Pauling’s most influential work, however, was his misguided advocacy for Vitamin C and other supplements, claiming that they could treat things ranging from cancer to the common cold to brain damage in children. Although many well designed studies demonstrated that Vitamin C—and most other supplements—provide no health benefit and can be toxic, Pauling championed Vitamin C as a cure-all until his death in 1994.

Pauling’s genius and unparalleled achievements gave him immense credibility, which still to this day influences millions of smart people. But Pauling suffered the same defect as the wise men of Athens: being wise in some areas, he thought he was wise across the board.

Most of us are susceptible to the Pauling Effect, like my friend who has deep domain knowledge in sports and thus feels confident with any domain that uses models and numbers. For sure, he’s in a better position to understand these than some people. But without understanding epidemiology, virology, public health, etc., he’s on a course to make bad decisions about medicine and masks.

And this is the point of this post. This observed problem is not limited to my friend or Linus Pauling. In fact, we can all be wiser than Pauling (and lots of other folks) by knowing and admitting the boundaries of our knowledge and experience.

*Full disclosure: I’m a member of my state’s Coronavirus Task Force.

The Pauling Effect is built on the principles we teach in our live, online Product Science Bootcamp.

Stuck on a business problem? Don’t have time to attend our bootcamp?
Bring it with you to our Unstuck Assist session and Get Unstuck.

Free Consult