Does the Nobel Prize Committee Do a Good Job at Selecting Worthy Recipients?

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Have the Nobel Peace Prizes made other Nobel Prizes less prestigious? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Tirumalai Kamala, Immunologist, Ph.D. Mycobacteriology, on Quora:

Similar to the intangibility of beauty, the prestige of a Nobel Prize lies in the eyes of its beholder. Such a prize was already an anachronism when created. After all, long before this prize even came to be, Newton was already writing to Robert Hooke in a letter dated February 5, 1675 (1),

'if I have seen further, it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants'

That process of cumulative accrual of knowledge and insight had only accelerated by 1901 when the first Nobels were handed out. While one could still tenuously make an argument for the existence of the Independent scientist back then, not so today when science is, if anything, a mammoth enterprise, verily a behemoth, where each practitioner stands upon mountains upon mountains of giants. Even less realistic now to make a case for the narrative of the singular genius, the hero who toils and prevails against all odds, which is the spirit prizes such as the Nobels essentially embody.

Also worthwhile to consider, another regrettable wrinkle about such prizes, that they serve a purpose that's hardly ever explicitly discussed, namely, they service our need for shortcuts when trying to evaluate excellence, similar to the purpose served by Ivy League educational credentials, internship or work experience at blue chips or 'A-list' firms, and so on.

The perceptive would argue that seeking surrogates for quality isn't quite a need, that rather, it's one among several tools to help sort the excellent from the mediocre. However, it's clear that over time, in practice, surrogates for merit tend to supplant the merit they were meant to stand for, their very success as surrogates sowing the future seeds of a mutual debacle, one of several obstacles in creating and maintaining a truly meritocratic culture. After all, since we haven't developed robust mechanisms to reliably discern between 'merit' and 'signaling for merit', and since 'signaling for merit' is easier to accomplish, no surprise the latter would proliferate at the expense of the former.

Let's also keep in mind that a vast chasm in access to opportunity is our constant reality, one which predicates that any genius discovered is perforce happenstance, determined more often than not by birth lottery, that who knows how many geniuses are fated to live and die undiscovered. Stephen Jay Gould made this point poignantly, writing (2),

'I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops'

As for the Nobel Peace Prize, from a young age I found the very notion laughable after learning they never awarded it to Gandhi, irony personified considering children in India grow up learning about Gandhi as the 'Apostle of peace and non-violence'. Having instead bestowed it on the likes of Henry Kissinger (why?*) and Barack Obama (again, why?*) only underlines that criteria for its bestowal are opaque and far from objective, something Geir Lundestad, then secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee alluded to in 2006 by saying (3),

'The greatest omission in our 106 year history is undoubtedly that Mahatma Gandhi never received the Nobel Peace Prize... Gandhi could do without the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether the Nobel committee can do without Gandhi, is the question.'

Doesn't that sound as though the Nobel Peace Prize Committee itself acknowledges its prize may not stand for much?

While Nobels for Economics, Literature, and Peace tend to elicit the most vociferous howls of protest, let's consider the helpful Nobel Prize controversies page on Wikipedia which serves to remind that Nobels of every stripe elicit controversy. Since the other Nobels are for the seemingly more objective Natural science (Hard and soft science), clearly the issue at hand is, across the board lack of robust, reproducible and defensible criteria for defining merit.

Controversy over the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine is a recent illustrative example, one where the case is made by at least one disgruntled insider who suggests science Nobels, too, have difficulty reliably separating 'merit' from 'signaling for merit'. Awarded to Ralph M. Steinman, Bruce Beutler and Jules A. Hoffmann, it elicited questions from the beginning.

  • Steinman had died some days before the award was announced.
  • At least 26 immunologists felt strongly enough that Charles Janeway and his student Ruslan Medzhitov had been overlooked, writing a letter to Nature saying so (4). By the way, one could argue about the US-centrism of those signatories and make a similar case for the inexplicable omission of Shizuo Akira as well.
  • Bruno Lemaitre, Hoffman's student, described how he worked for years on TLRs (Toll-like receptor) without much support or interest from Hoffman, the TLR discovery being a key reason for this award (5, 6, 7, 8, see below from 9).
'Jules never provided any ideas for my project, being very far from the realities of experimental bench work. This is why, for example, I still have all of my laboratory notebooks in my office with me—neither of my lab chiefs ever looked carefully at my data... When "TLR" started to become a very "hot" topic, it became important to associate "heroes" to this complex discovery. Taking account of how this story unfolded, I feel disappointed with how Jules Hoffmann (unintentionally, or consciously) has devoted his communication skills to turning the discovery of "Toll" into a team work. He has never fully acknowledged my individual contributions, portraying the story as a joint effort. … This is a statement that I consider to be entirely wrong.'

Current scientific enterprise is inherently deeply hierarchical, a feature further exacerbated by cultures that are likewise. How then to objectively assess an individual's contribution if a culture predicates that a boss automatically receive credit for an initiative not of their making?

Such issues of initiative and originality have been part of Nobels from day one. Consider the 1902 Nobel in Physiology or Medicine. Giovanni Battista Grassi was long considered equally worthy as a co-discoverer of the malaria parasite lifecycle though it was awarded solely to Ronald Ross, apparently a result of direct behind-the-scenes politicking by Robert Koch (10).

Delve deeply into the particulars of any Nobel Prize and it’s quite likely those steeped in the field in question would have their qualms about the merits of giving to those who did get it as well as a ready supply of names of those they felt better deserved it.

A fact of life is that worldly success requires accruing a certain amount of political capital and even the so-called hard sciences aren't immune (pun intended) from this imperative. A combination of human nature and the immeasurability problem of merit ensure that the heft of political capital may be the one certainty about any Nobel Prize.

* rhetorical


2. New Scientist page 777

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