Why Nobel Prizes are often not noble, especially in economics, literature and peace

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The Nobel Prizes in the physical sciences are fair to a large extent, because that is the very nature of science. But the charts of economics, literature and peace are full of mistakes and missteps. It is amazing that the Nobel Prize still has the reputation it has

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

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

The World Health Organization (WHO) led the pack 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 . Once again, the winners, journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were totally off the list.

In his 1980 essay “The Specter of the Nobel Prize”, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1982) wrote: “The criteria for judging (members of the Swedish Academy) are unpredictable, contradictory and impervious to all omens… If they hadn’t been so serious, one would have thought they were driven by a whim of desire to confuse 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 biases, beliefs, personal biases and can be as mean as anyone else. There is a need to recognize this, as well as the story of the Nobel’s odd choices and blind spots.

Prices for the physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Medicine / Physiology) should, by definition, be free of bias. Have they really been? There is a lot of evidence that says no. Let me speak here only of two Indians.

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

Bose is now officially recognized by the World Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) as the father of wireless communications.

In 2013, Peter Higgs received the Nobel Prize in Physics for theorizing the formation of matter after the Big Bang. The particle he postulated, known as the “God particle”, is the “Higgs boson”.

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

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

No Bose has won a Nobel Prize.

Now let’s move on to the more obvious Nobel quirks and failures. Economics, literature and peace are three areas that are almost entirely subjective. And before anyone raises an objection about the economy, let me quote Friedrich von Hayek’s 1974 Nobel Prize acceptance and banquet speeches.

In the acceptance speech, unambiguously titled “The Claim to Know,” Hayek says economists have desperately tried to make their discipline acceptable as “science” and have failed because they “happily proceed on fiction. only relevant ”.

In the banquet speech, he said: “I must admit that if I had been consulted on the advisability of establishing a Nobel Prize in economics, I should have decidedly advised against it. Because unlike, say, much of chemistry, no economist can honestly claim he can deduce the whole truth about anything – he’s dealing with a system too complex to grasp with “scientific certainty.” “.

In fact, Hayek shared the prize with Gunnar Myrdal, whose economic theories of the welfare state were diametrically opposed to those of Hayek’s free market. By their choices, the awards committee inadvertently proved Hayek’s point of view.

Here is the most infamous example of how the judges of the Nobel Prize in Economics (technically the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics in Memory of Alfred Nobel) can go terribly wrong.

In 1997, the Nobel Prize went to American economists Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton. Less than a year later, hedge fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), which traded bonds and derivatives based on the models it won the award (Scholes and Merton were on the board of directors of the company), went bankrupt dramatically, losing $ 4.6 billion in four months.

The Nobel Prize for Literature… Have you ever heard of By 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 Prize.

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 Prize. In fact, most of them have been named at some point (some of them multiple times), reviewed, and ignored.

It is generally believed that the great British novelist Graham Greene won the Nobel Prize. He didn’t win it. Artur Lundkuist, a powerful member of the Swedish Academy, actively campaigned against him whenever his name was mentioned. Apparently, Lundquist argued that Greene was “too popular” and was making enough money on his books, so he didn’t need the prize money.

There is a lingering theory that Lundquist resented Greene deeply because he had an affair with Swedish actor Anita Bjork, widow of a friend of Lundquist. Greene arrived first.

Looking back, it can in fact be argued that the academy’s sins of omission neutralize everything it has done to recognize literary excellence.

It is also a fact that in his 121 years, only two Chinese writers and two Indian writers received the Nobel Prize (and I am counting here VS Naipaul, who never lived in India, as an Indian). China and India make up 36 percent of the world’s population. While no one in their right mind would ask for proportional representation from the Nobel, the literature prize numbers seem odd (eight Swedes won).

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

  • Henry Kissinger (1973), who, as United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, aided or abetted the Pakistani genocide in what is now Bangladesh, the war crimes in South Asia Southeast and the murderous campaigns of dictatorial regimes throughout Latin America.
  • The late Yasser Arafat (1994), head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and founder of the militant group Fatah which has carried out deadly strikes on civilian targets for years. Barely apostles of peace, Israeli leaders Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres also won the award.
  • Barack Obama (2009), then newly elected President of the United States, who himself said he did not know why he was chosen. During his eight years as president, Obama ordered more than 500 drone strikes around the world, killing thousands of civilians. I didn’t know this was going to be one of my strengths.
  • Abyi Ahmed (2019), Prime Minister of Ethiopia, charged with brutal repression, mass killings and using rape and starvation as a tactic of war.

Whoops.

It is actually quite astonishing that the Nobel Prize still enjoys the reputation it has. Whereas it is a reward that is decided by humans who may be deliberately unfair or may make errors in judgment which seem surprising in hindsight. These judges are not that different from the rest of us.

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

The Nobel Prizes in the physical sciences are fair to a large extent, as that is the very nature of science – every discovery must bear the burden of proof and will be rejected if found to be false in light of what we can learn. . But the price lists for economics, literature and peace are riddled with mistakes and missteps.

We must take these prices as news items, not revelations.

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

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