Dump the Nobel Prize
Editorial: The Nobel Prize was concocted for a different time. Now it has become an impediment to good science.
[Author: David Coppedge, Editor, Creation-Evolution Headlines]
Alfred Nobel had a noble dream to reward exceptional scientists, but that was in a bygone era when scientists worked as individuals and were fewer in number. The times have changed. It’s time to scrap the Nobel Prize. Here are some reasons:
- Alfred Nobel has been dead for 120 years. Why should a dead man continue to influence modern scientific practice from the grave?
- Do we really want to reward scientists in the name of a man whose invention of dynamite has killed millions of people, just because he had a pile of money when he died?
- Now, the prizes are handed out by an unaccountable group of Swedes whose leftist politics tend to bias their selections. There is no clear ethical continuity from Nobel’s personal wishes and those in charge of his money today.
- Science is currently getting into highly controversial territory, such as the creation of human-animal chimeras, three-parent families and human cloning. Should any of these fields be blessed in the future with a Nobel Prize? What if China uses CRISPR-Cas9 to modify the human germline? What if North Korean or Iranian physicists someday improve the enrichment of uranium for atomic bombs?
- The “Nobel Peace Prize” has often been a joke. The murderous Palestinian terrorist Yasser Arafat got one just because he didn’t blow up Shimon Perez and Yitzak Rabin at the negotiating table. Barack Obama got one before he even took office and accomplished anything, just because of the color of his skin. Desmond Tutu’s worthiness is questionable; see his latest quest on BBC News. You’ll expire holding your breath before Billy Graham, Franklin Graham or other Christian humanitarians of their stature get such honors.
- Nobody gets to find out the Nobel Committee’s reasons for the selections until 50 years after they are awarded. Secrecy is not healthy in science. Transparency is far better.
- The history of the Nobel Prize is tainted with poor selections and slights against worthy contenders (e.g., Rosalind Franklin not included in the Watson-Crick prize for the structure of DNA; Raymond Damadian not included in the prize for MRI: see 12/03/03). Many feel Damadian was slighted because he is a creationist, but the Nobel Committee’s records are sealed for decades.
- Once a winner gets the title of “Nobel laureate,” his or her views tend to be exalted in the culture for that reason, long after the achievements were made. This confers unwarranted credibility on unrelated views the winner holds (e.g., Francis Crick’s weird views on panspermia).
- A scientist can become a “Nobel laureate” for other than his or her greatest work. Einstein got one for his work on the photoelectric effect, not for his theories of relativity.
- The philosophy of science has undergone multiple revolutions in the last 120 years, even affecting the definition of “science.”
- Several new fields of science sprang up after Nobel’s day: quantum physics, molecular genetics, and planetary geoscience among them. They don’t get recognition like medicine or chemistry. And why is there a prize for “Physiology or Medicine,” but not not a “Nobel Prize for Biology” or any of its subfields of botany, zoology, and microbiology? The way the prizes are set up according to Alfred Nobel’s will, many modern branches of science end up getting shoehorned into his few antiquated categories.
- In the 19th century, most scientists worked individually. Now, large collaborative teams often achieve the greatest successes, such as the CERN team and the LIGO team. Why should a few selected individuals out of teams sometimes comprised of hundreds or thousands of researchers get a prize for a group achievement?
- Only three winners are allowed per category, an arbitrary number that eliminates other equally-qualified contenders. It ends up like a lottery for a few who get filthy rich, while the other equally-deserving team members get nothing.
- Sometimes a candidate dies before the award can be offered, even if he or she was nominated multiple times for years.
- Science is not supposed to be a contest for filthy lucre. If a scientist works just to win a money prize, he or she has the wrong motivation. Louis Pasteur gave away his secret of pasteurization, and his vaccines, that could have made him rich. His prize was the satisfaction of serving his fellow man. The lure of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
- Any prize system will produce unfair results depending on the competition for the period of time being considered. Think of the Academy Awards. Some worthy films lose out because of a particular blockbuster in competition that year. Lesser-quality films can get Academy Awards if no better movie for a given category is made. Since “somebody must win,” not all prize winners have equal qualifications. Although Nobels can be awarded years or decades after discoveries are made, some research fields are smaller than others; the same unfairness applies.
We’re not alone in pointing out problems with the Nobel Prize. Nature this week describes “Spats, sniping and science: the rows behind the Nobels.” Writer Heidi Ledford takes her readers inside the sausage factory where prizes are decided. She describes many of the same issues we discuss above. And notice how she recognizes the egregious omission of Damadian for the MRI Nobel. Better late than never.
But perhaps the most visible Nobel omission was in 2003, when the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the development of magnetic resonance imaging. Physician Raymond Damadian — who, Sherkow notes, held a valuable patent on the technique — did not make the cut. He responded by taking out full-page advertisements in newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, proclaiming this slight as “the shameful wrong that must be righted”.
Casadevall has argued that the Nobel Committee could avoid such negativity by awarding fields rather than individuals. The LIGO prediction illustrates his point, he says. “Would it be the people who built the interferometers? Should it be the theoreticians?” he asks. “This is a human accomplishment that involves enormous numbers of people. Picking three at the most is always going to be unfair and unrepresentative.”
For these and other reasons, the Nobel Prize has become a hindrance to good science. It’s time to get rid of it, and take this influential power away from a few unaccountable judges in Sweden. Same goes for other jackpot prizes, like the Kavli Prize. The Ig Nobel Prize, on the other hand, can provide a valuable service. Some so-called scientists deserve to be shamed. We also like the BAH! Festival. Why? Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and many scientists take themselves way too seriously.
Update 10/11/16: Nature highlights a list of worthy scientists who never got a Nobel Prize, including two who got over 100 nominations but still lost.
Here’s another reason to dump the Nobel:
17: The categories do not fit the number of researchers. Often there are more researchers in one of the categories than another. Many thousands of scientists work in “Physiology or Medicine,” but how many economists deserve a million-dollar prize for Economics? Physics and Chemistry often overlap, but there are two separate prizes for those. All the botanists, zoologists and microbiologists lose out.
What do you think? Does the Nobel Prize do enough good to continue it? Or can you add more reasons to dump it?
We’re not advocating the retraction of prior Nobel Prizes. Those who have them can keep them. The Nobel Prize can slip into history as a 20th century curiosity. Programs need an expiration date. They need to be periodically evaluated to see if they are fulfilling their objectives. But like government agencies, some are almost impossible to stop even when they do more harm than good. Take old Alfred’s remaining money and put it to a better use, we say.