Why Nobel Prizes are often not noble, especially in Economics, Literature and Peace

 The Nobels in the physical sciences are fair to a great extent, because that is the very nature of science. But the Economics, Literature and Peace awards lists are rife with mistakes and missteps. It is astonishing that the Nobel Prize still enjoys the reputation it does

The Nobel Prize season is over for this year. Like every year, bookmakers offered odds on possible winners. And like almost every year, all punters lost their money.

For the Literature prize, the British betting firm Ladbrokes had French author Annie Ernoux as the favourite at 8/1, and six others, including Japanese bestseller Haruki Murakami and Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, at 10/1. It was awarded to British-Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was not on any bookie’s list.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) led the field for the Peace prize at 7/4, followed by Reporters Without Borders at 10/1 and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and climate activist Greta Thunberg at 12/1. Again, the winners, journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were totally off-list.

In his 1980 essay “The Spectre of the Nobel Prize”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Nobel for Literature, 1982) wrote: “(The Swedish Academy members’) judging criteria are unpredictable, contradictory, and impervious to all omens… Had they not been so serious, one would have thought that they were animated by the capricious desire to confound all predictions.”

If only that was all there was to it.

The truth about the Nobel Prize is that the recipients are chosen by human beings, who have personal biases, beliefs, prejudices and can be as petty as anyone else. It’s necessary to recognise this, and the Nobel’s history of odd choices and blind spots.

The prizes for the physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Medicine/ Physiology) should, by definition, be immune to biases. Have they really been so? There’s a lot of evidence that says no. Let me speak only of two Indians here.

Jagadish Chandra Bose invented a technology that we take for granted in our lives, from cellphones to wi-fi to microwave ovens — and also the world’s most powerful telescopes that observe the galaxies. But it was Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi, who attended Bose’s demonstrations of his revolutionary radio technology in 1896 in London and then met Bose for guidance, who won the Nobel in 1909 for “development of wireless telegraphy”.

Bose is today officially acknowledged by the apex global body Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) as the father of wireless communications.

In 2013, Peter Higgs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for theorising how matter formed after the Big Bang. The particle he postulated, popularly known as the “God particle”, is the “Higgs boson”.

“Boson” is a name coined by British physicist Paul Dirac (Nobel, 1933) for one of the two classes of elementary particles that lie at the base of all matter — a tribute to Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose.

The other class of particles is called fermion, after Italian scientist Enrico Fermi (Nobel, 1938). One of the foundations of quantum mechanics is Bose-Einstein statistics, and yes, Bose’s name comes before Einstein’s — Einstein acknowledged that Bose’s was the larger contribution.

Neither Bose got a Nobel.

Now to the more obvious Nobel weirdnesses and failures. Economics, Literature and Peace are three areas which are almost entirely subjective. And before someone raises an objection about Economics, let me cite the 1974 Nobel acceptance and banquet speeches of Friedrich von Hayek.

In the acceptance speech, unambiguously titled “The Pretence of Knowledge”, Hayek says that economists have been desperately trying to make their discipline acceptable as a “science” and failing, because they “happily proceed on the fiction that the factors which they can measure are the only ones that are relevant”.

In the banquet speech, he says: “I must confess that if I had been consulted whether to establish a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it.” Because unlike in, say, much of chemistry, no economist can honestly claim that he can deduce the full truth about anything — he is dealing with a system too complex to be grasped with “scientific” certainty.

In fact, Hayek shared the prize with Gunnar Myrdal, whose welfare-state economic theories were the diametrical opposite of Hayek’s free-market ones. By its choices, the awards committee had inadvertently proved Hayek’s point.

Here’s the most infamous example of how the judges of the Nobel Prize in Economics (technically the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) can go awfully wrong.

In 1997, the Nobel went to American economists Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton. Less than a year later, the hedge fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), which traded in bonds and derivatives based on the models that had won them the prize (both Scholes and Merton were on the firm’s board), went spectacularly bust, losing $4.6 billion in a matter of four months.

The Nobel Prize for Literature… Ever heard of Par Fabian Lagerkvist, Ivo Andrik, Odyssus Elytis, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Jose Echeragay, Henrik Sienkiewicz, Rudolph Christoph, Henrik Pontoppidan, Holldor Laxness Euken or Paul von Heyse? All of them won the Nobel.

Heard of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Mark Twain, Rainer Maria Rilke, WH Auden, Robert Frost, Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller or Vladimir Nabokov? None of them won the Nobel. In fact, most of them were nominated at some point (some of them several times), considered and passed over.

It is generally accepted that the great British novelist Graham Greene deserved the Nobel. He did not win it. Artur Lundkuist, a powerful member of the Swedish Academy, campaigned actively against him every time his name came up. Apparently, Lundquist argued that Greene was “too popular” and made enough money on his books, so he did not need the prize money.

There is a persistent theory that Lundquist resented Greene deeply because he had an affair with Swedish actor Anita Bjork, widow of a friend of Lundquist’s. Greene got there first.

Looking back, one can actually argue that the academy’s sins of omission neutralise all that it has done to recognise literary excellence.

It’s also a fact that in its 121 years, only two Chinese and two Indian writers have been awarded the Nobel (and here I am counting VS Naipaul, who has never lived in India, as an Indian). China and India constitute 36 percent of the world’s population. While no one in their right minds would ask for proportional representation in the Nobel, the numbers for the Literature prize do look strange (eight Swedes have won it).

But the biggest embarrassment in Nobel history has been the Peace Prize, decided by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The winners include:

  • Henry Kissinger (1973), who, as US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, aided or abetted the Pakistani genocide in what is now Bangladesh, war crimes in South East Asia and murderous campaigns by dictatorial regimes all across Latin America.
  • The late Yasser Arafat (1994), head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and founder of the militant group Fatah which carried out deadly strikes on civilian targets for years. Israeli leaders Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, hardly apostles of peace, have also won the prize.
  • Barack Obama (2009), then the newly elected President of the US, who himself said he did not know why he was selected. In his eight-year presidency, Obama ordered more than 500 drone strikes around the world, killing thousands of civilians — in 2011, he is reported to have told some aides: “Turns out I’m really good at killing people. Didn’t know that was gonna be a strong suit of mine.”
  • Abyi Ahmed (2019), Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is accused of brutal repression, mass murder and the use of rape and starvation as a war tactic.


It is actually quite astonishing that the Nobel Prize still enjoys the reputation it does. Whereas, it is an award that is decided by humans who may be wilfully unjust or may commit errors of judgement that seem surprising in hindsight. These judges are not so unlike the rest of us.

In fact, some of them could be worse than most of us because they are consciously exercising the incredible power they have to favour a few and deprive others.

The Nobels in the physical sciences are fair to a great extent, because that is the very nature of science — every discovery must bear the burden of proof and will be junked if found untrue in the light of what we may come to know. But the Economics, Literature and Peace awards lists are rife with mistakes and missteps.

We should consider these prizes as news items, not revelations.

The writer is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines. Views expressed are personal.

Source: https://www.firstpost.com/india/why-nobel-prizes-are-often-not-noble-especially-in-economics-literature-and-peace-10046221.html


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