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The Nobel Prize Isn’t What It Used to Be

The Nobel Prize Isn’t What It Used to Be

Monday, 12 October, 2020 - 07:45

With most Nobel prizes awarded last week and the economics prize yet to come, allow me to make a heretical observation: A Nobel Prize is worth less each year. What’s more, these awards no longer generate much interest or suspense.

I know the most about economics, so I will start there. The prize was first awarded only in 1969, so by the late 1970s the core of winners included Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, Kenneth Arrow, John Hicks and Friedrich A. Hayek, typically considered the greatest economists of the 20th century, along with John Maynard Keynes, who died in 1946.

The more recent winners have all been excellent and deserving choices. (Disclosure: I know many of them and have worked with some.) But they do not have the historical import of those earlier figures. And as the number of winners grows, the prize feels less special.

I follow three Nobel laureates active on Twitter. Each seems more temperamental than the 20-somethings in my feed. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as perhaps it boosts their impact or their reach. Still, over time it diminishes the luster of having a Nobel, and all the laureates suffer from that effect.

That’s the thing with social media — it confers a lot of attention on negative outliers. My colleague Martin Gurri has explained how social media make politicians look less glamorous, and it does the same for scientists. Michael Levitt of Stanford, for example, who won the prize in chemistry in 2013, has been a frequent tweeter about the pandemic. While he has made valuable contrarian points about fall-offs in the rate of excess deaths and other matters, he can be sloppy with data and has made ill-advised and inaccurate predictions about various national pandemics being “over.”

The internet diminishes the impact of the prize in yet another way. Take Paul Romer, a highly deserving laureate in economics in 2018. To his credit, many of Romer’s ideas, such as charter cities, had been debated actively on the internet, in blogs and on Twitter and Medium, for at least a decade. Just about everyone who follows such things expected that Romer would win a Nobel Prize, and when he did it felt anticlimactic. In similar fashion, the choice of labor economist David Card (possibly with co-authors) also will feel anticlimactic when it comes, as it likely will.

Unfortunately, not all of the prizes are so well thought through. The Nobel Peace Prize this year went to the World Food Program, part of the United Nations. Yet the Center for Global Development, a leading and highly respected think tank, ranked the winner dead last out of 40 groups as measured for effectiveness. Another study, by economists William Easterly and Tobias Pfutze in 2008, was also less than enthusiastic about the World Food Program.

The most striking feature of the award is not that the Nobel committee might have gotten it wrong. Rather, it is that nobody seems to care. The issue has popped up on Twitter, but it is hardly a major controversy.

And how many people care about the literature prize these days? This year’s winner, Louise Glück, is a fine poet, but the news made page A21 of the New York Times. The top-selling book of last year’s winner, Peter Handke, has a rank of somewhere around 100,000 on Amazon as of this writing. The selection of Bob Dylan in 2016 was a short-lived attempt to make that prize feel more relevant, but Dylan didn’t bother to show up for the awards ceremony, perhaps realizing that he is bigger than the prize itself.

Going back even further, Joyce, Proust and Borges were all passed over for the literature prize, because for various reasons they did not fit the persnickety requirements of the committee. More recently, is it so crazy to think that Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo are more deserving than laureates such as the Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek or the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer? Yet now that Glück has won, there is a sense another American may not win again soon, because this prize seems to have such a strong political component.

In 1974, the year he won, Hayek opined that there should not be a Nobel Prize in economics, because no one person should be so elevated in stature and influence. Hayek needn’t have worried. There is still a prize, but it’s not nearly as prestigious as it used to be.


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