The Nobel isn’t all that

Matthew Francis at Forbes says Nobel prizes aren’t so hot.

They’re a huge status symbol, but that doesn’t mean they’re the last word on what’s the best science.

[P]eople listen to Nobel laureates when they speak, even when they are out of their areas of expertise. Sometimes the prize seems to go to the winners’ heads so much that they seem to lose it entirely. William Shockley, a co-discoverer of the transistor, and James Watson, who won the Nobel for discovering the structure of DNA, both used their reputations to promote very racist ideas. Most recently, Tim Hunt said some sexist and insulting things in front of a group of female Korean scientists — who had invited him to speak, no less.

What Hunt said was just another example out of too many to list of the kind of pervasive old-boy sexism in science.

What made him different was that he said it in public in the presence of journalists (who naturally wrote down what he said), and that he is a Nobel laureate. For that reason, he faced broad and deserved criticism, from a variety of groups, including his hosts in Korea, the Korea Federation of Women’s Science and Technology Associations. Hunt apologized for his statements, and resigned from an honorary position at University College London; he also kinda-sorta apologized in a BBC4 interview.

And Hunt has his defenders, ranging from some who merely think the criticism is overblown to outright character assassination of Connie St. Louis, one of the journalists who was at his talk in Korea. Some have even claimed he was fired from his job, but he is still employed in an emeritus position at the Crick Institute. Let’s be very clear: Hunt did not lose his primary paid position over his statements. James Watson has his defenders too, including people who buy into his racist pseudoscience and those who want to ignore the fact that his prizewinning research was largely based on stolen data.

The defense of these men and others seems largely based on the idea that they, as Nobel prizewinners, are somehow doing such good work that they are above reproof.

Indeed. As I pointed out earlier today, Dawkins was shouting at someone on Twitter that Hunt’s work might save her life some day yet here she was saying he’s a shitty person – as if shitty people can’t possibly do research.

Francis points out many flaws in the Nobel; the first one he mentions is one I’ve noticed without properly thinking about it before – it rewards a very few people for work that is collaborative.

  • The prize is given in honor of a specific discovery in scientific research, but it’s given to a small number of researchers. To use the recent example of the Higgs boson, at least six physicists contributed to the theory, and probably even more deserve credit for working out the details. But by the rules, only three physicists received the prize. To be succinct: science is collaborative and cumulative, but the Nobel Prize awards individuals as though they work alone.

That’s not just a flaw, it’s a disaster. It’s like paying one person out of a work force of 500. It’s a stupid star system in a discipline which relies on collaboration as well as competition.

Then there’s the sexism, the racism, the Eurocentrism…

  • And of course there’s the issue that huge fields of science aren’t included in the prize. No Nobel is given for biology (a broad enough field to have several prizes), though the medicine prize sometimes picks up some basic biology research. Even having a prize in a category isn’t a defense against caprice: chemists reasonably grump that the chemistry prize is often handed to a physicist.

So, basically, think of the Nobel prize as like the Oscar but even more so, and worse because not about the entertainment industry.

We need to just stop treating the Nobel Prize and its winners as the Best Thing in Science. Then maybe, just maybe, people like Watson and Hunt will stop getting a license to drag the name of science through the mud of human prejudices.

That’s not mud, it’s…um…it’s witty repartee.


  1. iknklast says

    James Watson has his defenders too, including people who buy into his racist pseudoscience and those who want to ignore the fact that his prizewinning research was largely based on stolen data.

    I remember the first time I found out about Rosalind Franklin. I was taking a course in History of Biology, and we were assigned The Double Helix as one of our reading assignments. When we started discussing that in class, a young man on the opposite side of the classroom insisted on being the first to respond what he thought. His comment – the only thing he took out of the book? “That Rosalind Franklin was really a bitch!”

    My instructor just gaped. He didn’t even know how to begin to respond. After stammering a couple of times, he finally recovered and began to explain a few things to the young man (which almost certainly were unheard, judging from the look on the student’s face). I was currently struggling with some huge sexism issues in my first science job. It was truly a horrifying moment in my life to discover that the attitudes of my family were actually not that unusual. (My mother was horrified that I was going into science; my proper role as a woman was to get married and have lots of babies and bring them up in proper gender roles).

    Every day in my current job I have to deal with teenage men (18 and 19, mostly) who believe that they are uniquely knowledgeable by virtue of their y chromosome, and that my training and experience in science are bogus because, as a woman, I was given a degree without having to work for it because affirmative action.

  2. AMM says

    Somewhere I read a critique of the Nobel Prize where someone was looking back at what stuff got prizes and what didn’t. In many cases, ground-breaking research is ignored while many prizes are earned for work that, years later, turned out to not be all that significant.

    The problem is that the prize winners are selected by the biggest big shots in each field, so they’re going to be biased towards people and results that impress them, which are not necessarily what will impress people a generation or two later.

    It’s worth noting that Einstein never got a prize for his relativity work. He got it for his work on the photoelectric effect.

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