Home > Manifestoes, Sex Discrimination > What’s Wrong With the Nobel?

What’s Wrong With the Nobel?

Shane asked the following:

So Zuska, just to be clear, did your post mean to suggest:

  1. 1. The structure of science is hostile to or biased against women, leading to an under-representation of women at its highest level. Eliminate this bias and more women would be awarded the Nobel Prize *in the future*.

    OR

  2. 2. Women currently at science’s highest level are being discriminated against. Were it not for this bias, more women would have won Nobel Prizes *this year*.

OR other?

Shane, I like the way you phrased 1 and 2, with the exception that in #2, “more” should be “some”.

Why limit ourselves to either/or when we know that bias operates on every level from K-12 to undergraduate to graduate to postdoc to faculty to administration? Should we expect it to suddenly evaporate when it comes to the highly political process that we all pretend is the strictly merit-based awarding of Nobel Prizes? I’m voting for BOTH.

Before you all get your knickers in a knot, let’s please agree that we are starting with the assumptions that (1) whoever** gets a Nobel Prize has done some truly kick-ass work; (2) in any given year there are far more worthies than there are prizes to go around; and (3) many, many great scientists will go to their graves without ever having been awarded a Nobel Prize. This includes MEN as well as WOMEN, whites as well as nonwhites, etc. (I am going out of my way to be extra polite to y’all, here. Enjoy it while it lasts.)

But to pretend that the awarding of Nobels is just this lovely process wherein once a year, great minds get together and think hard about who is the gosh-darndest best scientist around who has heretofore gone prize-less, is, well, extremely stupid and naïve. I can think of no better way to describe the process than to quote N. David Mermin’s delightfully damning essay, “What’s Wrong With These Prizes”, in Boojums All The Way Through, which I highly recommend you read, if only so you can have the pleasure of encountering his description of the gracelessness with which equations are handled in most papers and textbooks, which follows below the fold.

The equations stood out like dog turds upon a well-manicured lawn.

But, as Dr. Mermin would say, I digress.

Mermin tells us just what’s wrong with the Nobel and other prizes:

…the system [of prizes] had become a destructive force…these things are systematically sought after by organized campaigns, routinely consuming oceans of time and effort.

If we don’t put up all of our guys, they’ll win with theirs, seems to be the guiding principle. No point in disinterestedly recommending the most deserving, irrespective of institutional affiliation, for such people are already being backed by their own teams. Conversely, if we don’t push our own, nobody else will. The folklore in my corner of physics is that it’s the industrial laboratories that put up the most massive and systematic campaigns, but in my experience the universities have been quick to acquire the bad habits of all whom they deal with, and I wouldn’t want to say who are the worst offenders.

Once you start down this path the process acquires a crazy momentum. If you have put across a winner you can’t sit back and enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. Can one rest after X gets prize A? Certainly not; 65% of all winners of the A Prize go on to receive the B Medal; half of the B Medalists become fellows of the D E of F, and it would be an irresponsible administrator who didn’t go for the whole pile. Worse, as even the slightest aura of glory becomes attached to routine professional activities – for example, giving a talk at a meeting – the point of selecting people for such jobs flips from finding the best to supporting the team (which in the case of my team [but not yours] amounts to exactly the same thing).

Mermin also describes the pitfalls involved for those who would assay a criticism of the prize-gathering system:

It would be unseemly to criticize a system one has benefited from before others have had their chance to win.

But neither can nonwinners criticize the system. It is not that a public attack on, for example, the absurdity of election to the National Academy of Sciences might jeopardize one’s own chances for immortality, for this would be a noble sacrifice. What freezes dissent for the nonwinner is that it would be perceived as sour grapes – an unbecoming outburst of petty jealousy. The only respectable stance for the nonwinner is warmly to congratulate each new crop of winners, a kind and gentle response to be sure, but one that implicitly endorses the system itself, preposterous as it is.

Ah, N. David Mermin, I think I love you. I could not have said it better myself. I warmly congratulate no one. I explicitly do not endorse the system. Thus Venky takes my withholding of praise for this year’s Laureates as demeaning their accomplishments, rather than as an indictment of the system, for he confuses the system and its output with the accomplishments of the scientists it purports to honor.

The scientists who were chosen to receive some money and a medal bearing the image of Alfred Nobel and a topless woman have already been honored by the acclaim of their fellow scientists and by the individuals whose lives and work they have positively influenced. Whether they are deserving of our continued honor depends upon how they comport themselves hereafter. Will they be like Christiane Volhard or Carl Wieman? Or will they behave a little more like Susumu Tonegawa?

Because if it’s the latter, it will take a whole helluva lot more than a Nobel Prize to keep their image from being eternally tarnished.

**Well, except maybe for Egas Moniz and the Nobel for lobotomies as therapy for psychoses in 1949, and that 1927 award to Julius Wagner-Jauregg for injecting malaria parasites to cure syphilis…and a few others here and there. Thanks to BSCI for that link!

  1. October 6, 2006 at 6:53 pm

    Zuska,
    Where is your vote? 🙂

  2. bsci
    October 6, 2006 at 7:04 pm

    Whether they are deserving of our continued honor depends upon how they comport themselves hereafter. Will they be like Christiane Volhard or Carl Wieman? Or will they behave a little more like Susumu Tonegawa?
    In general the Noble does consider personality. There are clearly many more scientists whose research is “Noble worthy.” If they have the choice of awarding it to a nice person or an ass, they tend to choose the nice person. The sciences also try to avoid conflict. There are a whole bunch of physics prices (like the one for masers) where they split it between scientists in the USSR and the US when there were other possible people who could have taken credit for that discovery.
    Another example was the resent Noble MRI. Even if Damadian had some relationship to the discovery he was so polarizing over the years that the committee didn’t want to touch him.
    The discovery of neurotransmitters was revolutionary, but the mentor student conflicts between Sol Snyder and Candace Pertall have probably made it untouchable by the Noble committee. This last was was covered in a very good book “Apprentice to Genius” by Kanigel. It’s partially have how so many noble lauriates train future lauriates and it examples a few very intereting dynasties. The dynasty effect might also explain some of the gender issues.

  3. October 6, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    What I like about the Nobel Prize : once a year, there is a celebration of science that almost impinges upon the public consciousness. Yes, we are probably over-elevating individual scientists, and yes, for some, the prize has become a goal rather than a recognition, and yes, doubtless there are biases in the selection. But, it’s nice to see the world celebrating and being excited about science occasionally.
    What I don’t like about the Nobel Prize : it feeds into our cullture of hero worship, our idea that if you aren’t the winner, then you’re just one of the losers. I think that Smooth & Mather deserved the Physics prize, and I think it’s great that they got it– but the fact is that the COBE work was done by a lot of people, and that all of them made real and true and valuable contributions to cosmology and CMB studies. What’s more, there a whole lot more “rank & file” scientists out there doing great work, furthering the knowledge of humankind. Somehow, though, but elevating the prizewinners so high, it makes everybody else something of an also-ran, or a not-quite. That’s a huge mischaracterization of what’s needed for science to progress.
    -Rob

  4. October 6, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    whoever** gets a Nobel Prize has done some truly kick-ass work
    Maybe** in science. Never forget they gave the Peace prize to Henry Fucking Kissinger.

  5. HI
    October 6, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    bsci,
    I agree that the Nobel committee trys to avoid conflicts, but I doubt they consider the personality of the candidates that much. Take the case of MRI that you mentioned. I think, if anything, that was a case where they delayed awarding the prize because they were afraid of the controversy that Damadian would stir. I don’t pretend to be an expert on MRI, but I read exchanges between pro-Damadian and anti-Damadian camps after the decision was made. The anti-Damadian camp made very convincing case that Damadian didn’t deserve the prize and they had facts to support their arguments, which the pro-Damadian camp didn’t. But it is very well known that Damadian was campaigning very hard.
    Zuska,
    I know that Tonegawa is a jerk, but you have to admit that he is a brilliant scientist who made a great discovery. There were Nobel prizes awarded for lesser achievements. Yes, it would be better if a brilliant scientist is also a nice human being. But I’d rather want them to award the prize to a jerk who made a great discovery than to a nice person who didn’t do much. Oh, Tonegawa is also non-white like myself. Women are not the only ones who have to face prejudice.
    It seems that your position is that the Nobel prize is flawed and needs to be fixed. My position is that the Nobel prize (or any prize) is not perfect and you have to take for what it is. The committee members are humans after all. And the rule that it cannot be shared by more than three people makes things really difficult. (Too bad that Ambros and Ruvkun cannot share the prize with Fire and Mello.)
    My attitude towards the Nobel prize is not so different from that towards MVP in baseball. I am interested in who gets it and guess and argue who should get it. They made many good choices, sometimes interesting ones, and occasionally bad ones. You seem to take it too seriously. (Although I guess if I were Bob Roeder and didn’t get a prize for eukaryotic transcription, I would feel sad.)

  6. HI
    October 6, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    bsci,
    I agree that the Nobel committee trys to avoid conflicts, but I doubt they consider the personality of the candidates that much. Take the case of MRI that you mentioned. I think, if anything, that was a case where they delayed awarding the prize because they were afraid of the controversy that Damadian would stir. I don’t pretend to be an expert on MRI, but I read exchanges between pro-Damadian and anti-Damadian camps after the decision was made. The anti-Damadian camp made very convincing case that Damadian didn’t deserve the prize and they had facts to support their arguments, which the pro-Damadian camp didn’t. But it is very well known that Damadian was campaigning very hard.
    Zuska,
    I know that Tonegawa is a jerk, but you have to admit that he is a brilliant scientist who made a great discovery. There were Nobel prizes awarded for lesser achievements. Yes, it would be better if a brilliant scientist is also a nice human being. But I’d rather want them to award the prize to a jerk who made a great discovery than to a nice person who didn’t do much. Oh, Tonegawa is also non-white like myself. Women are not the only ones who have to face prejudice.
    It seems that your position is that the Nobel prize is flawed and needs to be fixed. My position is that the Nobel prize (or any prize) is not perfect and you have to take for what it is. The committee members are humans after all. And the rule that it cannot be shared by more than three people makes things really difficult. (Too bad that Ambros and Ruvkun cannot share the prize with Fire and Mello.)
    My attitude towards the Nobel prize is not so different from that towards MVP in baseball. I am interested in who gets it and guess and argue who should get it. They made many good choices, sometimes interesting ones, and occasionally bad ones. You seem to take it too seriously. (Although I guess if I were Bob Roeder and didn’t get a prize for eukaryotic transcription, I would feel sad.)

  7. Greg
    October 7, 2006 at 2:35 am

    It is difficult to imagine #2 existing without the support of and precedence of #1.
    Likewise, it is difficult to imagine #1 existing for very long without #2 arising from it.

  8. Mouth of the Yellow River
    October 7, 2006 at 6:02 pm

    Ni Hao! Kannichi Wa!It’s time to end this individual cult worship called The Nobel Prize, a farce, ultimate in hypocrisy, rigged politically behind closed doors, and antiquated like the so-called general censorhip system system called “peer review” for choosing who gets supported and listened to.Great Buddha! There are thousands of discoveries that deserve the Nobel Prize. Any one individual nowadays got there on the backs of others.On this basis alone, there will be hope when awardees have the courage shown by mathematician Gregory Perlmann (Poincare Conjecture guy) to spurn such awards in polite protest of their trivial nature.This year’s prize in medicine award was a prime example of the culture going ga-ga over the latest technical fad before fundamental insight into a new biological principle and its mechanism is documented much less its practical application to human diseases.This year’s theme may be no more than an empirical cell culture (Petri dish) tool. Such is par for the political “technocracy” now called “science” that once was a concept- and wisdom-based discipline.With a great majority of practitioners from beginning students to the Nobel Prize Committee spending a majority of their efforts and intellect on political strategy for publication, funding, maintenance of position, public attention, and generally what is politically-correct to stay funded, promoted and get prizes, it is not surprisingly that most of what is called top science today will be a lucky, empirical and potentially isolated finding like dropping double-stranded RNA into a Petri dish done in between the frantic focus on jockeying for position.This culture is no more than the primitive hunter male instinct in researchers on how to get their batting averages up (pubs, citations, media attention, etc.), how to fool the peer review system with grantsmanship rather than substance, and generally other diversionary approaches away from spending time on basic hypothesis testing, reflection and patient mentoring of those who are learning how to practice the art.This culture is not far from caveman days when the drive for the rush generated by the cheers and grunts of the hungry peers, particularly the females, as the kill was laid at the cave door was dominant.On average as in politics and those achieving celebrity status in media and sports, power corrupts and this includes the Nobel Prize. In only rare cases do Nobel Prize winners use their celebrity status for the greater good and reward of those who got them there, or those that will come later. Who will be the first to accept, donate the prize to women’s and minority programs, or better mentorship in general, and denounce the caveman culture on which the prize is based.How ingrained this mentality is was illustrated in a quote by one of the recent winners stating that “maybe his staff will listen to him more closely now.” What kind of staff or students does he have, those that need Nobel Prize title and dictatorial edicts from the boss to do an experiment? Most title winners use it to further promote their narrowly focused scientific or political agenda more times than not. Or simply fade into oblivion without using the accolade for good like developing young people or reforming the system that gave them the accolade.The ultimate was in a recent patent dispute case when a nomination for a Nobel Prize (which is supposed to be secret for 50 years) was used in defense of justification of excluding colleagues from a patent 20 years earlier. There is hope—although one can fool the scientific culture’s so-called peer review system, one cannot fool the courts (good summary here).Little surprise that such a corrupt caveman hunter prize-oriented industry is dominated by hunter males who peer review each others kills with little regard for those who are in it for the pure thrill and beauty of the hunt and the excitement of the child (apprentices and students).MOTYR

  9. October 7, 2006 at 10:19 pm

    I like bsci’s comment above about the Nobel committee purportedly taking into account personality in the awarding of prizes. I was fortunate enough to attend the 100th anniversary gathering of the American Physical Society in Atlanta Georgia in 1999 I believe it was. Pretty much every living recipient of the Nobel prize in physics was there. It was purported to be the largest gathering of Nobel laureates anywhere outside of Sweden.
    Anyway, mostof the laureates gave public lectures during the event. It was fascinating to go the different lectures and hear them all speak. Trust me, just because someone has won the Nobel prize does not mean they can give a good public lecture. But with respect to personality I can say this; Steven Weinberg is the smarmiest most arrogant human being I’ve ever come across. He oozed such smugness that one kind of felt like smacking him. Leon Lederberg however, gave the best talk of all, understandable by any layperson, and he seemed utterly approachable and human. In fact, in later years when I was at Fermilab, I used to walk my dog on site, and Lederman, who lives on site, used to walk his dog at the same time. He would always say hello to me, and at other times when I would come across him on site (sans dogs) he would recognize me and pause to say Hi. 99.99% of physicists on site at Fermilab wouldn’t remember someone they saw walking their dog and bother to say Hi to them if they saw them again. Lederman is one gracious, gentlemanly, and cool dude.
    But if personality is really a factor in who gets the Nobel, it makes me wonder how Steven Weinberg got it.

  10. bsci
    October 8, 2006 at 2:11 am

    I’ve never met Steven Weinberg, but it seems like he does some public interest and other educational work too. Steven Weinberg
    http://www.amphilsoc.org/prizes/franklinscience.htm (2004 prize)
    Especially with joint prizes, personality isn’t everything, but, of the Lauriates I’ve met, they do seem to have a much higher proportion of good, engaging, and kind people than the total population of top scientists.
    I do like Rob’s comment of looking at them as a celebration of science, but the challenge of presenting scientists as solo researchers is problematic. I doubt it would be easy to increase the awardees for each prize, but perhaps the Nobel publicity system could find ways to integrate the research teams. For example, add a full list of collaborators for the Nobel winning research for each winner’s bio. For press releases, include sentences talking about the numbers of people who participated in the research.
    As far as researchers actively seeking the prizes, I’m curious how often this is a researcher’s focus. While I obviously wouldn’t reject the Nobel if it was awarded to me, this is in no way my goal of scientific research. For example, “How to win Nobel Prize: an unexpected life in science” by Michael Bishop
    http://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Nobel-Prize-Jerusalem-Harvard/dp/0674016254/sr=8-2/qid=1160287465/ref=sr_1_2/104-7656093-5559142?ie=UTF8&s=books
    makes clear that even for this prize winner, the award wasn’t the goal of his research even if it did greatly affect his life afterwards.
    Anyway, is there any real evidence that a signifcant number of scientists are actually doing their research for the sake of winning awards? That said, winning awards does come with more recognition and money, but how much is an affect of the award and how much is just that the person is a good scientist? There’s definitely some of both. A Nobel gives people a pulpit that few others have.

  11. Greg
    October 8, 2006 at 9:25 am

    I am pleased to see Rob Knop return. It shows courage, considering the unwelcome with which we ungreeted some of the opinions he asserted here before. I am pleased too because, here and elsewhere, he draws our attention interesting perspectives.
    He shows one above. First, I wish to adjust it slightly.
    “a culture of hero-worship” is what we see in the Iliad. A tribe might extol the virtues of one particular hero above others and conscript him (sometimes her) for the tribal ancestor. However, the tribe would also worship an extended panheron, shared more or less completely with neighbouring tribes, and also including notable heroes of distant and enemy tribes.
    Our culture, on the other hand, allows some distant authority to magnify one hero over his peers. We foolishly not only accept such imposition, but also, without requiring them to remind us… and all the while chattering amongst ourselves about the impurity of their selection process… we devalue our own preferred heroes.
    Our culture is a culture of elitism. “if you aren’t the winner, then you’re just one of the losers.”
    It is beyond the unfortunate facts that few recent science laureates have been greeted with universal acclaim, and that the losers have been just losers. Even many of those who name and extol the deserving peers and who decry elitism and grumble about injustice, allow “second-rate” to whisper in the echoes of their voices. Indeed, some have gone so far as to be offended that Grigory Perelman was allowed to refuse the Fields and the Clay.
    This is serious dick-sizing. Is it any wonder that women are excluded?

  12. October 8, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    More on Leon Lederman (even though it isn’t necessarily totally germaine to this thread); Lederman used his clout as a former director of Fermilab to establish the first ever on-site daycare facility at a national laboratory. He had to do some creative wrangling too…the Department of Energy didn’t want the daycare facility on site because the DoE would have to build a tornado shelter for it, and the daycare was supposed to be independent of any DoE and lab funding. However, there is a Fermilab rule that tornado shelters had to be installed right beside any building on site where a disabled person worked. So Lederman relocated one of the disabled techs on site to a building right beside the day care site, and the day care was subsequently built and has been hugely successful ever since…that wonderful daycare is one of the only good things about Fermilab, in my eyes. Lederman should have won a Nobel Prize for gender and family friendly policies in physics right there and then…forget his contributions to the rest of physics.
    It is sad to say that there are still a number of national labs without daycare facilities. I used to serve on the User’s executive committee at Fermilab, and was contacted by other equivalent committee members at other labs asking how Fermilab got its on-site day care, and how they could set up the same kind of thing at their lab. The answer: get a lab director on your side who wholeheartedly gives a damn. Otherwise, the DoE will essentially build a huge enough wall of red tape to make it impossible. The Department of Energy cannot be described as champion fighters for gender and family friendly policies in the projects they fund.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents worth on why I love Leon Lederman and why he deserves so much more than the measly Nobel prize. He made significant changes at the lab that in part have made it easier for some female scientists to even hope to get far enough along in their career to make significant contributions that might lead to a Nobel Prize for them.

  13. David Godfrey
    October 10, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Part of the problem is that only 3 people can get a Nobel in any one subject each year. Needless to say this rule would have denied Rosalind Franklin a Nobel even if she’d lived.
    At the time that the Nobel was set up this probably seemed quite sensible- science was a relatively solitary pursuit. Papers with tens of authors weren’t routine. It allowed for the recognition of independant researchers coming up with the same idea. In modern science it just doesn’t seem logical these days. Whole teams of researchers dupliate each other’s findings, and when given a Nobel it goes to the most important people in the project. Beacause of the current system these team leaders are usually men.
    Perhaps if this rule were amended more women would get a share in the Nobels. That will encourage young women to go into science, and more women in science will change things for the better.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: