Breaking News: White Men Awarded Nobel Prize, Again

<em>The 2017 Medicine and Physiology Nobel Committee.</em>
The 2017 Medicine and Physiology Nobel Committee.

Every morning of the first week of October of every year, at 11:30am Stockholm time (5:30am Eastern Time), someone gets a call to learn that they won the Nobel Prize for medicine, physics, literature, peace, or economics. Odds are that the person picking up that phone is a white man.

The Nobel Prize is a really cool idea. The prize was founded by Alfred Nobel supposedly as repentance for the damage that he saw his contribution to science, dynamite, inflict. In his will, Nobel ordered the creation of the Nobel Foundation, which was endowed with his personal wealth. The foundation gives prizes out on a yearly basis to those making positive contributions to humanity through the fields of medicine and physiology, physics, chemistry, literature, and peace. All prizes but the peace prize are awarded by Swedish institutions, while the peace prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The economics prize wasn't part of the deal. To be awarded the prize, an individual needs to be nominated and go through a selection process by the prize committee. In other words, white affluent Scandinavians give out the world’s perhaps most prestigious award. It's their prize and their right. The problem is that as a society, we made it out to be the ultimate credential that it came to be. We put a process which reaffirms biases, instead of shatters them, on a pedestal.

Let's look at the physics prize for example. At about 5am EST this morning, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 2017 to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne. I don’t know much about physics, but what I do know is that these three new laureates are three American and German white men joining a list of many other mostly white men. In total, only two women have ever been awarded the physics prize. Literally, more men won the prize today than have all women combined in history. The last time the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a woman was to Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). The time before that was to Marie Skłodowska Curie (1903). Once every 60 years. Will the women physicists of the world need to wait until 2023 to have a chance at the prize once more?

The literature prize has a slightly more diverse list of laureates. That fits a white European centric narrative of the world, "hard sciences? Leave it to us white males but don't worry we will celebrate your soft skills occasionally." The prize is still mostly white and European-Western American. The prize committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences seems to lean not too far from the racist idea of Saul Bellow (who was awarded the prize in 1976) that “the Zulus had not as yet produced a Tolstoy.” Of the 113 literature laureates, the prize was awarded to just 6 Africans: only one who is black, Nigerian Wole Soyinka (1986), and one Arab, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz (1988). All the rest were white colonialists. Aside from Mahfouz, there is only one other muslim writer who won the literature prize, Orhan Pamuk (2006). I guess the committee just had to make room for Bob Dylan.

In 1968, economists felt left out. The Swedish central bank founded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which became known as the Nobel Prize in Economics. All 76 laureates have been affiliates of North American or European Universities, the vast majority being American universities. The award was given to only one woman, Elinor Ostrom (2009). The award was given to only one black economist, William Arthur Lewis (1979). The 2017 award winner will be declared on Monday after a committee of six white men will make their decision. If you are hoping for change in the pattern, don’t hold your breath.

When we look at the list of Nobel laureates, it is important to recognize that the racial and gender distribution of the awards given are not a reflection of the racial and gender distribution of talent in the world. There are two levels of biases that are introduced into the process.

The first is that the award is mainly given to those already working in prestigious settings. For example, about 1-in-3 economics Nobel laureates were affiliated with the University of Chicago. Instead of being a prize that opens doors and sheds light on scholarly achievement that goes unrecognized, it reaffirms already existing biases. The second level of bias is introduced by those who are selecting the laureate. When a committee of white Swedish writers comes together, it’s no surprise that they come up again and again with Eurocentric writer laureates.

The devil’s advocate argument is that the gender and racial disparity are not the prize committees’ fault. Due to racial discrimination, less funding in institutions outside of the global West, and bias against women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, the people who are behind Nobel-worthy contributions tend to be white men from large institutions. Even if that is true, we should battle these notions by inspiring and elevating those who excelled in spite of a system rigged against them. But more so, are we really willing to believe that there wasn’t a single woman involved in a major contribution to physics since 1963? That only one woman or black economist was involved in a major contribution to economics since 1968? I just don’t buy it and neither should you.

It’s time for change when it comes to the Nobel Prize. Either the Nobel Foundation reforms the selection process to become a more diverse and inclusive process, or we should stop giving the prize so much attention. At the end of the day, the Nobel Prize is just another award of many awards celebrating the achievements of a very thin slice of humanity.

For more from Abraham follow him on twitter @abgutman.

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