Walter E. Williams

Despite his genius in science, Pauling peddled fringe ideas. In the 1970 edition of his book "Vitamin C and the Common Cold," he said that taking 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily will reduce the incidence of colds by 45 percent. In the book's 1976 revision, retitled "Vitamin C, the Common Cold and the Flu," he recommended higher vitamin C dosages. In his third revision, "Vitamin C and Cancer" (1979), Pauling claimed that high doses of vitamin C may also be effective against cancer. In another book, "How to Live Longer and Feel Better" (1986), Pauling argued that megadoses of vitamins, such as the 12,000 to 40,000 milligrams he took daily, "can increase your enjoyment of life and can help in controlling heart disease, cancer, and other diseases and in slowing down the process of aging." There's absolutely no research that backs up any of Pauling's vitamin C claims.

The take-home lesson is that experts are notoriously fallible outside of their fields of endeavor -- and especially so when making predictions. There tends to be an inverse relationship between a predictor's level of confidence and the accuracy of his prediction. Irving Fisher, a distinguished Yale University economics professor in 1929, predicted, "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Three days later, the stock market crashed. In 1954, Dr. W.C. Heuper of the National Cancer Institute said, "If excessive smoking actually plays a role in the production of lung cancer, it seems to be a minor one." Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, in 1943 allegedly said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." "(Research on the atomic bomb) is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives." That was Adm. William Leahy's prediction in 1945.

The bottom line is that the fact that a person has academic degrees, honors and status is no reason for us to abandon our tools of critical thinking.


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
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