Nobel Prizes Are Obsolete at Best
Problems with their political nature and attribution of credit, and some proposed improvements.
I was completely astounded when I first heard that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize within a year of his inauguration in 2009 for accomplishing absolutely nothing, while Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful violent force ever assembled in human history. If President Obama’s actions or lack of actions met the standard for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, then why hasn’t President Donald Trump received one yet, or even five, for far surpassing that standard in drawing down American military forces from Syria and Afghanistan, for working to de-escalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula, or for simply not starting a hot war with Iran, Russia, or China yet? Is it because President Trump’s actions do not matter, and instead his personality, demeanor, and politics matter more?
I do not say this from a partisan perspective since I did not vote for either Obama nor Trump, and am not particularly triggered by either of them as an unaffiliated Independent not registered with any Party, whether Democratic, Republican, or other. I could contextualize the Commander-in-Chief in terms of American military force, and how that force has bombed, invaded, and occupied sovereign countries, and caused internal displacement, destroyed entire societies, and caused collateral suffering and death, but that would be unfair to the American military, since the fine men and women ultimately serve and follow orders from the elected civilian leadership, most notably the Commander-in-Chief, and express the will of the American people with the best of intentions.
I mention the Nobel Peace Prize in particular to consider the other Nobel Prizes in general. What do they actually mean? Are they even relevant anymore? I believe they are obsolete at best, and are at core instruments of political influence. I will consider the political nature of the Nobel Prizes, as well as their irrelevance or even negative effects on scientific research.
Distinct Types of Nobel Prizes
First, let’s consider the types of Nobel Prizes so we can contextualize their political nature, and attempt the flawed or impossible act of attribution of credit.
It may be useful to group the Peace, Literature, and Economics together as the Political Prizes, and Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics as the Science Prizes.
Peace, Literature, and Economics
Among the Political Prizes, the Nobel Peace Prize may be viewed as the most and completely political in nature, as subject to the whims and ideological perspectives of the Nobel Committee. These views may be completely limited and ludicrous, as in the introductory case comparing President Obama and President Trump.
The Literature Prize can also be political, even though literature as a broader endeavor is not or cannot.
The Economics Prize can be considered political because economics can be regarded as a social science with questionable rigor relative to the biological or physical sciences, and may be driven by and have implications for ideological and political positions.
Attribution of credit in the Political Prizes tend to be more reflective of self-marketing and networking with the influential, as well as how well the recipients conform to the thinking and serve the political aims of the Nobel Committee.
Medicine, Chemistry, and Physics
The Science Nobel Prizes are less political at a civilizational or nation-state scale, but can still be fairly political on an individual or non-state institutional scale.
The Medicine Prize could be viewed as less fundamental, less mathematically rigorous, and less “hard” of a science compared to Chemistry Prize and Physics Prizes, but the discoveries or advancements for which they’re awarded may be equally based on empirical evidence and could easily exceed the practical consequences for awardees of the Chemistry Nobel or Physics Nobel discoveries, due to their wide applicability and immediate impact on human health.
The problem with the Science Nobels are less about politics, whether on the individual scale or the larger scale, and more about attribution of credit and the incentives it creates.
Political Nobel Prizes
Western View of the World
In my view, the core problem with the political prizes is that they attempt to set the standards on what constitutes an ideal to aspire to, according to Western and Christian values. As a non-religious citizen in a Western country here in America, I personally have no problem with and believe that Western and Christian outlooks that govern laws, culture, and general view of the world are pretty decent. However, I believe they capture only a limited universe of the perspectives and standards of what constitutes “better”, or a judgement of what is right and wrong, or better or worse, assuming that’s even possible at all.
A brief example concerns the Western view of Human Rights. But what really are Human Rights? Do they center more on political rights such as Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, or the power of the vote? If so, perhaps these political rights are irrelevant if more capital, malfeasance, or corruption is brought to bear to amplify money-weighted influences to make these freedoms and votes irrelevant?
Or do Human Rights center on economic rights first, such as rights to food, shelter, education, healthcare, security, and to be paid commensurately for one’s labor?
From a more practical perspective, how many of those key decision-makers are even capable of understanding another completely different culture such as in China? China may prioritize economic rights first, before political rights due to its calamitous recent modern history after the establishment of the People’s Republic under Mao, whose failed policies resulted in tens of millions of deaths from famine. Meanwhile, prosperous first world countries like in Western Europe or America that had time to achieve prosperity may prioritize political rights because they have reached conditions where economic rights may not even be noticeable due to the wealth of those countries.
Another example is Aung San Suu Kyi, whose rise was accompanied by the Nobel Peace Prize and fall in stature in light of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Perhaps the Rohingya crisis was racism and genocide. Or perhaps it’s the inability of the governing state, which does not possess advanced or precise military weaponry and capabilities, to effectively deal with a smaller fundamentalist Muslim insurgent force among the greater Rohingya population? I make no judgements here. However, the standards by which she is judged, positive as evidenced by the Nobel Peace Prize and negative as evidenced by her diminished status, are subject to the whims of those who live halfway around the world who may not understand the reality on the ground.
Concentration and Amplification of Power of an Institution
Via the imprimatur of a platform connoting moral authority, the awarding of a Political Nobel Prize concentrates too much influence into an arbitrary institution, an institution that consists of members who have their own agendas, misunderstandings, and political aims.
Why should purity or sanctity be attributed to the Nobel Foundation? It could be construed that the greater nation-state it exists within, Sweden, was able to prosper tainted by historical association with the spoils of a colonialist and slave system that took advantage of less developed regions and peoples of the world. With the advantages of those historical actions, the Foundation somehow believes it has the moral authority to speak about what is more moral and what humanity should aspire to.
In contrast, how many overseas colonies did the Indians or Chinese create? How many slaves did the Indians or Chinese take? Why is Swedish morality greater? What is its license to judge?
Jean-Paul Sartre famously refused the Nobel Prize in Literature since he didn’t want to be “institutionalized” and become limited, perhaps because he realized his writing, his thinking, and his work, would be the tool by which the Nobel Foundation extends its influence. The price you pay for elevation in status is confinement to a golden prison while acting as agent to the wardens of that prison.
Science Nobel Prizes
In contrast to the political problems of the Political Nobel Prizes, the fundamental problem with the Science Nobel Prizes concern attribution.
For example, how is it even conceivable to attribute a Physics Nobel Prize to any one, two, or three individuals for the work at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider? It’s comical and ludicrous to somehow attribute credit when there’s an international consortium of tens of thousands of contributors, providing such deep talent, unique expertise, and specialized labor in many fields in support of breakthrough discoveries or achievements.
How far could theorists go without the experimental data to inductively confirm or refute their theories? How would experimental data even be “collected” without those mechanical and electrical engineers who build the calorimeters, drift chambers, and magnetic coils? And how would that data be stored and processed by software and hardware engineers who built the information technology to store, process, and retrieve the petabytes to exabytes of data?
In fact, how would even these supporting software engineers be able to accomplish anything without the worldwide army of code contributors to such open source projects in tech, such as C/C++ code repositories or Linux-based operating systems?
Large-scale science like that at the Large Hadron Collider or the Human Genome Project, would be impossible without contribution of thousands of personnel, so attribution to a small subset of only one to three is impossible.
Perhaps just as important as the impossible task of credit attribution are the flawed incentives that it introduces to gain personal status and ignore the contributions of others. What is an artificial and arbitrary prize compared to a truly important scientific discovery, that stands alone pushing human knowledge forward and benefits society at large?
Science is, and should be, a collaborative enterprise. The more fundamental and bigger the science, the more collaborative it should be. No one can make much progress without the contributions of those currently alive, as well as those in the past that advanced scientific knowledge forward slowly and painfully, and sometimes even by luck.
This issue of incentives is even more dramatically relevant in the age of instant communication across the world and the ability to share the results of scientific work that removes much of the frictions of collaboration through technology.
Despite the above about collaborative large science, there is still much science that can be done, or even must be done, at the individual contributor scientist level. Indeed often much depends on individual contributions, since an independent mind must be free from the pressures of the collective in order to think creatively to build a model of the world that is not amenable to more raw big data science.
But even here, a sole genius does not work in a vacuum. They have utilized the results of the entire enterprise of science by utilizing the work of those others before them to get to a baseline level. Furthermore, they may be improving or extending on “current” work by others that’s immediately accessible through preprint servers such as the arXiv at Cornell University.
Finally, many individual discoveries in science may be due to sheer luck, which is possible in both theoretical and experimental endeavors. If not luck in solving a particular problem, then it may be luck at the level of an academic career. How much credit should be attributed to a scientific discovery that was obtained by luck?
Resolution to Nobel Prices
Ignore Political Prizes
The cleanest solution is simply to ignore the Political Nobel Prizes:
- Nobel Peace Prize
- Nobel Literature Prize
- Nobel Economics Prize
There’s obviously much historical inertia behind these, but if the consensus is that they’re simply arbitrary and political in nature, then their influence will diminish in time.
Science Nobel Prizes: US National Academies
How should we consider the Science Nobel Prizes?
Because Science is more objective and less subject to the arbitrary whims of humans with political aims, it requires more respect and consideration. I’d say that a good model exists in the form of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to replace the prestige of the Science Nobel Prizes. They have these desirable features:
- Election is not limited to just three members per year
Attribution of credit does not need to be limited to an arbitrarily small number.
- Fields are not as narrow as the Science Nobel Prizes
More applied fields like Engineering and Applied Mathematics are considered, as well as other sciences beyond medical sciences, chemistry, and physics.
- Election is based on a lifetime or work
Honors a lifetime of original and creative work, does not rely on one-off luck, and does not artificially limit scarce honors.
- Election is determined via existing members
Not via selection by an arbitrarily panel.