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Even the 'Real' Nobel Prizes Are Silly

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Another year, another round of Nobel Prizes. Another opportunity for me to write about how silly the Nobel Prizes are. I'm talking about all of the Nobel Prizes -- not just the "fake" Nobel in economics, or the peace prize that went to Yasser Arafat, but even the natural-science prizes.

A few of the prizes' own recipients have criticized the institution in the past. Richard Feynman, one of the nation's greatest scientists, called them "Alfred Nobel's other mistake," lamenting the attention it brought him, and claiming that prizes were pointless "epaulettes" that focused too much on social status. Economist Friedrich Hayek thought that it gave certain researchers too much of an air of authority. These are certainly good points.

But there are other reasons to dislike the Nobels. The big one is that they perpetuate the myth of the lone genius, who brings forth scientific theories in a flash of brilliance. This is the story we like to tell ourselves about how science gets done, and in fact it does occasionally work this way -- think of Isaac Newton retreating from the world to lay down the foundations of classical physics in one masterful volume.

But this is far and away the exception, especially in the modern, interconnected age. Special relativity, which we normally attribute to Albert Einstein, was actually a tag-team effort -- Hendrik Lorentz figured out some of the math, Henri Poincare figured out more, Einstein found some implications, and Hermann Minkowski formalized the whole thing. Possibly because of the obvious group effort, no Nobel was ever awarded for special relativity. That might be a good thing.

Unfortunately, there are instances in which important contributions to a Nobel-winning effort went unrewarded. Murray Gell-Mann deservedly won the 1969 physics Nobel for the theory of quarks, but a similar precursor theory by George Zweig went unrecognized, as did fundamental intermediate contributions by Kazuhiko Nishijima and Yuval Ne'eman. In fact, because each Nobel can only be given to a maximum of three people, these other scientists couldn't all have shared the prize even if the committee had recognized their essential contributions to the final theory.

The problem is even worse when the prize-winning work is experimental, because experiments are even more collaborative than theoretical work. Modern physics experiments often involve huge numbers of scientists, many of whom make fundamental contributions at the highest level. Picking one -- or even three -- out of a team to receive a prize that puts a vast gulf of prestige between them and their collaborators does a disservice to the team effort. It also seems like it would tend to incentivize credit-hogging.

In addition to giving too much credit to too few people, the Nobels have the disadvantage of not being given postmortem. This means that great scientists from ages past, who were probably prevented from receiving the prize only because of sexism or racism, will remain Nobel-less forever. Examples include nuclear physicist Lise Meitner, mathematician Emmy Noether (whose work was hugely important to theoretical physics), and nuclear physicist Chien-Shiung Wu.

Speaking of discrimination, another problem with the Nobels is that they are awarded almost exclusively by Swedish and Norwegian people. Just look at the committee that selects the physics prize. In the era when Europe ruled the world, the neutral countries of Scandinavia might have seemed like the ultimate honest brokers, but in today's globalized world there is no good justification for such provinciality. One would imagine that the result would be at least some slight prejudice for awarding Nobels to scientists from the near vicinity of Sweden and Norway. In fact, there is a famous chart showing that Nobels per capita correlate with chocolate consumption, which is of course most popular in Northern Europe.

So although this week's Nobel winners will undoubtedly be well-deserving of their prizes, and deserve congratulations, it remains true that the Nobel Prize is a bit of a silly institution. It showers vast respect on a select few, without acknowledging the giants on whose shoulders they stood, and can be subject to biases, including sexism and regionalism. Does this mean we should get rid of the Nobels, or stop paying attention to them? No, because they serve an important purpose by bringing attention and fame to scientists, which raises the prestige of science in the eyes of a public that would usually rather idolize sports stars. But nevertheless, among those who know the prizes' limitations, it's best not to take them too seriously.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net