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Osaze Udeagbala

Student , Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art

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Are Nobel Prizes overrated?

Since the issuing of the first award in 1901, the Nobel Prize has become the pinnacle of general recognition. Many would agree that those who have received the Nobel Prize have done great work in their field, but even so there are themes of rejection, redemption, and controversy surrounding the awards. In my Bioelectricity class, for example, we have discussed a number of Nobel Laureates such as Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903, for work that once received less than stellar reviews from his very own professors, and Nernst, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1920 for work based on the work of Arrhenius. We have also seen in history (e.g. Rosalind Franklin) circumstances in which scientists have participated closely with Nobel Prize-winning research, but nonetheless were left unrecognized. Finally, as there are very few categories for this award (physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace), notably left out are awards for engineering, technology and other advancements for humankind. So I ask the TED community: Do you think Nobel Prize are awarded effectively? And with respect to science: Who is better at evaluating the value of a scientist’s research? Peers? Awards committees? Especially given the fact that it often takes many years to see if research can stand the test of time? Are Nobel Prizes overrated?

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    Feb 8 2013: Hey Osaze!

    You presented valid examples of instances where a scientist's Nobel Prize (or, rather, lack thereof) was not necessarily indicative of the value of the research that had been conducted.

    While I definitely agree that in some instances this can be true, I also think that above all else, the Nobel Prize is just an award, and so the subjective nature of awards (in general) must be taken into account. When an actor wins an Academy Award, it is not a definitive statement that they are the best actor of that year, just the best actor out of a group of about five others, as chosen by one particular panel of people; there is human error involved in any award process. I don't think that the worth of research can necessarily be quantified by anyone, even if we were to wait to see how it "stands the test of time." There's no way to exactly know the impact a particular project has had, globally and through the years.

    That being said, I do think that there is societal worth in the celebration that comes along with the Nobel Prize. It is a celebration of human achievement (whether this be in Physics, Peace or Literature), above all else. The more celebrity we can allocate to those people that are trying to make a positive impact on our understanding of this world, the better. The fanfare surrounding the award serves as positive reinforcement in our society for people who have the capability to keep exploring, writing, and researching to continue to do so, and that's definitely not overrated.
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      Feb 8 2013: HIndi,

      I completely agree with all the points you've mentioned. It's quite funny actually, because I wrote this whole response for Osaze's comment, and for whatever reason the post didn't go through and got lost in cyberspace...

      But Osaze, unfortunately, like any other award there is always going to be a human bias involved, and as gloomy as I might sounds- such is life.

      Although you raised valid points and provided examples of certain situations, I don't think you can begin to say that the Nobel Prize is overrated. Until things change, the Nobel Prize is going to be the most prestigious award available in the designated fields. It is no coincidence that when you sit in a science or math lecture, and the professor gives you a brief history lesson about the mathematician who formulated the equation you're going to learn, or the physicist or the chemist, that almost all are recipients of Nobel Prizes for their work. These men and women were pioneers in their fields and were well deserving of prestigious recognition. That being said, some important people in the process are ignored and are not recognized for their contributions. That is definitely sad, but part of the faults of the human bias. But for all those "mistakes" I like to think there are at least 20 other recipients that were fully deserving of their recognitions.
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      Feb 8 2013: Hindi - I completely agree with you that recognizing achievements in science, literature, peace and even economics is an important societal value. I think it demonstrates something highly commendable about our society, that we seek to recognize those that have made important intellectual achievements. I also agree that having such a public and prestigious award in the intellectual realm, can encourage others to enter the realms of science and iother intellectual pursuits. This is an extremely important value in our generation that I believe needs to continue to be fostered.
      Despite the fact that the Nobel Prize, is "just an award" and that there are many other people in the world who are equally eligible for the award as the winners, having this award also demonstrates to both the scientific and the general world at large what are the biggest discoveries of the day. At a time, where it is easy to publish a paper - many people, scientists included, are continuously flooded by the wealth of scientific discoveries being made. Most of them, however, are extremely interesting, but are not necessarily going to change the world. Another one of the benefits of the Nobel Prize is that it helps distinguish the most groundbreaking discoveries of the time. Of course, the Prize doesn't always do so - there are definitely mistakes. But if you look in the history of the award, I think you can say that for many of the winners - their discoveries were definitely not overrated.
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      J D

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      Feb 10 2013: I agree with you Hindi, and I'm reminded of Thomas More's "Utopia":

      "As they fright men from committing crimes by punishments, so they invite them to the love of virtue by public honors: therefore they erect statues to the memories of such worthy men as have deserved well of their country, and set these in their market-places, both to perpetuate the remembrance of their actions, and to be an incitement to their posterity to follow their example."

      It's fun to think about the Nobel Prize as being the opposite of a jail sentence. I guess they're not exactly comparable when the government punishes criminals, but the Nobel Prizes are given out by a private organization. But most people don't think of it as a private organization because it's such a historic prize. It feels like humanity gave them that award. We first heard about Nobel Prizes early in elementary school; I don't remember a time when I didn't think that the Nobel Prize was something given to good people.

      My pessimistic side suspects that leaders sometimes think that people need to be told how to be a good member of society (whatever that means), as if they won't naturally be one. I don't have the energy to bring that point any further. Besides, I like the Nobel Prize.

      Regarding their sometimes "bad" choices: If the motivation is to inspire people, they might sometimes think it's wise to pick someone that the public can relate to. Or someone whose work is relatively accessible to non-experts.

      I do not expect the Norwegian Nobel Committee to add any new fields because they seem dedicated to Alfred Nobel's will, which described very specifically what should be done with his money. Well... they did have a hiccup when they introduced the Economics prize out of nowhere. Maybe there was some mismanagement involved.
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    Feb 7 2013: Osaze,

    I think you bring up a very meaningful thought on how we perceive awards that is definitely worth discussing. From personal observation of a much smaller scale, I find that recognition of ones work is sometimes an significant motivator for further research. I can only imagine what it might be like on a larger scale, i.e. the Nobel Prizes. I do think that seeking acclamation is a questionable motive at best, but at the same time do these motivations really matter if that person is producing valuable analysis that can further enhance our understanding?

    As some people pointed out here, the Nobel prizes for peace and economics sometimes might not be the most deserved, and maybe a better system of commendation should be implemented, though that would be quite difficult as these categories tend to be very subjective. In terms of the more scientific awards, such as physics chemistry and medicine, I think the Nobel prizes have actually been largely successful in recognizing those who deserve acclamation. This might be in part because these are more objective areas and disputing some achievements might not make sense in this case.

    It is interesting that you bring up possibly including other fields in the Nobel awards, such as engineering and technology. I definitely do support this idea though I think we should be wary of adding too many categories.
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi Hadar,

      You bring up some good points! To address your question, I think that many (arguably, the majority) of Nobel Laureates receive this special recognition well after it is a significant motivation factor for their work. To this end, I would say that Nobel Prizes don't do too much in terms of motivating the recipient. This goes for the prizes in Physics/Medicine/Chemistry more than those of Economics/Peace/Literature, where the awards seem to currently trend towards being used as a political motivation factor (e.g. Barack Obama, the European Union).

      However, recognition of that significant work sends an important message to everyone else - not only the scientific/political community, but the global community. Inevitably, those who are honored by such a prestigious award become role models for those who are interested in those given fields. So, even though Nobel Prizes aren't the greatest or best timed motivators for those who were recognized, I think Nobel Prizes have an amazing amount of cultural impact, which is why I find this topic so important. After all, wouldn't you want to merit a Nobel Prize with your future work?
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      Feb 8 2013: Hadar,
      I absolutely agree with what you were saying about recognition being an excellent motivator. I feel our society often idolizes people like actors, singers, and athletes, presenting them with various awards and recognition. It is nice to have a prestigious award in other sometimes less publicized fields such as literature or economics. I personally would love to see a Nobel Prize award for Engineering, but you mentioned that we should be wary of adding too many categories. I wonder what could be the drawbacks of creating an award in more fields? Would it lose some of its charm and take away from the honor?
      Osaze,
      I would disagree with you on one point, I do feel that the Nobel Prize can be a significant motivation factor for the recipient’s work. Science and research is done by people who are curious about the way things work and are looking for answers. Gaining a respectable reputation and being recognized for one’s work is just as satisfying even if it comes years after the work is done. Every scientist hopes to leave behind a legacy, to make some kinds of difference in the world, to be remembered.
      I was very interested in your distinction between prizes in Physics//Medicine/Chemistry and those of Economics/Peace/Literature. Do you think awards in the different fields have different connotations and implications?
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    Feb 7 2013: Yes

    Obama gets one 2 weeks after he is office.

    Paul Krugman got one, he is a propaganda factory.
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    Feb 7 2013: Barack Obama receives a peace prize before becoming president
    and then goes on to sign the NDAA, continue almost every bush-administration policy, vastly increase drone strike use and begin a campaign in Libya without Congressional approval.

    Yasser Arafat wins a peace prize because he temporarily stops killing Jews and the Israeli Foreign Minister and Prime Minister also won despite absolutely no improvement in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

    Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson won Nobel Prizes for accidentally noticing background radiation.

    Henry Kissinger received a peace prize despite being directly responsible for some of the worst and most controversial warcrimes throughout the Cold war and Vietnam, among others.

    Robert Merton won a Nobel Prize in Economics despite creating flawed software that led to the loss of Billions in the stockmarket.

    Al Gore won a Nobel prize despite consistently using more electricity than any of us and owns $250,000 of stock in Occidental Petroleum.

    Antonio Moniz won a Nobel for creating a procedure called the labotomy.

    I think we can disregard Nobel prizes from now on..
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi Xavier,

      I think you bring up some great points about the questionable nature of some of the Nobels in recent history. It seems that the Peace and Economics prizes tend to be very politically driven (e.g. the Peace Prize given to the EU last year). I'm curious about your thoughts on the more scientific awards, such as Physics and Physiology/Medicine.
  • Feb 7 2013: It is an institution that has not kept up with changes in the world. As you indicate, there are many disciplines that are ignored and some that should be ignored.
    The peace prize is a joke, the economics prize should not exist because that is a pseudo-science like alchemy and the fact that only three people can be named on the prize ignores the current way of attacking problems with teams of researchers.
    The physical sciences are generally correct in their deliberations in that worthy people get prizes although not all worthy people are recognized.
    The peace prize has set the bar so low as to make it irrelevant. Anyone who can give Henry Kissinger a peace prize has his head up his ass or watches too much Fox news (which is the same thing actually)
    The economics prize is a bit of self congratulatory fluff by people with no intelligence to people with no intelligence. I pay no attention to that bit of garbage.
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    Feb 11 2013: Osaze!

    You make excellent points regarding the Nobel Prize and its effectiveness and relevance to today's world.

    While I agree that there have been (many) and we will continue to see bias and unfairness in the awarding of the prize, it is important to see that the Nobel Prize is just that, a prize. You get a gold medal (literally) and a big bag full of cash (the 2012 sum was ≈$1.2 mil). This is the way Alfred Nobel set it up when he established the prizes in 1895.

    You are correct that today engineering and technology might be more relevant than economics and peace as of the 21st century, but certainly the Nobel Prize remains the most esteemed prize in those disciplines.

    In response to who should give the prize, Each of the Nobel Prizes are awarded by different committees, the Peace Prize, for example, is not awarded by a Swedish organization but by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

    Whether these organizations are fair/effective should be the worry of Alfred Nobel's family, as it is their name attached to the prizes.

    A common theme in the related TEDtalks (Timothy Prestero, Ben Goldacre) is much like my own philosophy about science, and learning in general; Don't work for the prize/grade, work for the personal gratification and study for knowledge.
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      Feb 12 2013: Hey Avi,

      I tend to agree with what you have said here about Nobel Prizes. Yes they are highly regarded in the sectors of work they are awarded in. However, are they really all that important?

      I see the prizes as being a motivation to excel in ones field and perhaps stumble upon discoveries. Yet, to me that isn't a very strong driving force for the human population to work towards (besides the grossly large sum of cash.)

      I agree that working for personal gratification and knowledge is the most important aspect to ones work. The idea may sound selfish, however I think it is actually a selfless idea. Working for personal gratification and knowledge enables one to naturally stumble upon discoveries to share with the rest of the community.
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    Feb 8 2013: Hey Osaze. Great conversation topic.

    A point you raised that I thought was interesting: "We have also seen in history (e.g. Rosalind Franklin) circumstances in which scientists have participated closely with Nobel Prize-winning research, but nonetheless were left unrecognized."

    A rule I often think about is that a Nobel prize may not be awarded to more than three people. I think this illustratives your point. (Granted, in many cases the prize would probably not have been awarded due to the race or gender of the person. Your example of Rosalind Franklin comes to mind.) Especially in the sciences, so much of today's work is collaborative and is hard to attribute to just a few people. I think the rule is an artifact from when science was done differently. My understanding is that in the early 20th Century, the scientific community was much smaller and tight-knit, and the nature of what was being researched didn't involve the masses of people that today's sciences do. There was actually an article in Scientific American at the end of last year that discussed this and argued that the 3 winners rule should be dropped. I think I agree with the article. (I think it could be interesting though to discuss the value that there may be in limiting the prize. Perhaps we should be forced to pinpoint the 1-3 people who were most crucial to a discovery or theory.)

    I also thought your point about prizes in engineering and the like was interesting, as did many other I see. It does seem a but arbitrary what was decided are the most important fields. This too may be an artifact/result of the when the prize was instituted over 100 years ago.
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    Aja B. 20+

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    Feb 7 2013: Are Nobel Prizes overrated by the scientific communities that produce prizewinners, or by the public, or both? And if it's only overrated by the public, is that really a bad thing?

    From "The Road to Stockholm" by István Hargittai:

    "From early on the Nobel Prize has been the only science prize recognized by the wider public, and today it enjoys an improbably high prestige. It has a certain aura, and in an age when science and scientists are sometimes viewed with distrust, if not disrespect, the fascination with the Nobel Prize has hardly decreased. The Nobel Prize is overrated by the public, but this is not an unwelcome exaggeration. Science needs icons, since it usually suffers from an image of being impersonal."
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      Feb 7 2013: Aja,

      That's a really good point! It's definitely valid to propose that the hype over Nobel Prizes is in large part due to the reaction it garners from public outlets. I think it's difficult, though, to distribute the public appreciation in a way that is both fair and sensible. For the scientific communities, I would agree that the Nobel Prize serves as an affirmation of significant work done - at least, for the most part. Perhaps the issue of recognition distribution is something of concern in this regard also.
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    Feb 7 2013: Can't say whether it's over or under rated as a whole....but definitely can say my personal feeling that it's not unbiased....

    Moreover real winners seldom cares about it......
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi Salim,

      Are you referring to certain Nobel awards or all of them collectively?

      Also, I understand that Nobel Laureates tend to take the award in stride and go back to their work, but I think it's also important to keep in mind that the Nobel Prize title remains attached to them and their work indefinitely. Without a doubt, this distinction has an impact on future generations. Do you think this cultural impact is merited?
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        Feb 8 2013: Hi Osaze
        Well when certain cases become doubtful it impacts collectively the whole even if the rest of the whole was not doubtful... that's the case.

        I don't disagree that Nobel Prize has got a high Brand Value......which makes not only the person but the whole country / nation from to which the winner belongs feel proud of...

        Can you please clarify what you wnated to mean by saying Cultural Impact Being Merited ?
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    Feb 12 2013: I don't know. I kinda like the Nobel prize thing. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, If we are awarded the Nobel Prize, would we accept it? Sometime we should accept notoriety to maintain the spirit of the cause, wither we feel we deserve it or not -keep the ball rolling, as it is.
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    Feb 12 2013: I believe that it is highly unlikely for the Nobel Prize itself to be the main motivation behind the work done by a Prize's receiver. The Nobel Prize is granted on the basis of profound and noble accomplishments that are almost impossible to achieve unless one truly possesses an incredible passion for the field that the work is done in. That is why I believe whoever has received a Noble prize has deserved one, however, not everyone that deserves one has received one.
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    Feb 9 2013: The criteria for determining the value of a scietific research or discovery is not as clear cut because it cannot be quantitavely measured. Your idea made me realize how subjective it is for a select group of people to decide who receives the Nobel prize, and is a scientific research/discovery that has been awarded the Nobel prize more valuable than others? Although I have no idea how they award these prizes, I think it is up to individuals to determine the worth of a scientific work. In this sense, I don't think these prizes tell us anything about the value of a scientific work.
  • Feb 9 2013: The Nobel Prize is rated based on its recipients. Is the Nobel Prize over rated with respect to a Fields Medal? These prizes are on the same level because of those who where awarded the prizes. Distinguished individuals define the prize. The great individuals including Rosalind Franklin define excellence in their field, so the Nobel Prize would have had greater prestige with her name among the recipients. A Fields Medal could have been more distinguished with Perelman and Wiles, who will go down in history as two of the greatest mathematicians of their generation. Wiles was too old to receive the award and Perelman rejected the award. Is the Nobel Prize over rated with respect to the Fundamental Physics Prize? Of course not. None of those recipients have done anything worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as those who received the Nobel Prize. Field by field, the recipients make the prize over rated or under rated.
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      Feb 9 2013: Hi Jamahl,

      The approach you're using to determine the worth of these prizes is very different from the approaches I have seen thus far. I totally agree that in terms of retrospective analysis the awards we're discussing are given their status as a result of the merits associated with the granting of the award. That being said, I think the reputations of these types of awards end up taking on a life of their own, leading to awardee recognition being a result of award association instead of merit (another example would be the Grammy awards). As was mentioned by one of my colleagues earlier, there's only so much you can do about the "correctness" of the award decisions made - after all, these decisions are made by people.

      This wouldn't make a difference if it weren't for the message it sends to the global community and to future generations. I think it's fair to say that many Nobel Laureates get a (often well-deservedly) disproportionate amount of exposure in both public media and in the classroom. Therefore, it's especially important to be careful about the distribution of these awards due to its heavy cultural impact. This leads me to a question for you - do you think the Nobel Prize has too much cultural impact? Or does it perfectly merit its level of prestige in society?
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    Feb 7 2013: I think this depends very much on the discipline. I agree that the choices for the Peace prize are suspect. I think the prizes in other disciplines are likely reasonable.
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    Feb 12 2013: I would suggest "The Nobel Prize is not broken, it's fixed!"
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    Feb 12 2013: my dear friends: Do you realize that we can argue about anything? We can justify anything? It is how one justifies the merit that makes things right (nobel price)..... I noticed that the mention of Barak Obama being awarded the prize turns some people off. I can assure you that pages of pro Obama merits can be written. .... you are not going to please all of the people all of the time..... No populus will ever unanimously elect one person for ANY prize.
    Cheers
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    Feb 10 2013: I agree with Fritzie. The Peace Prize is very suspect. Pats point that "Obama had recieved it 2 weeks after entering office" put a smell to it that rivaled dead fish in the closet. I totally lost interest after that announcement.

    Literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics were probally hot rocks in 1901. It would seem a valid request to update the categories to the need of the 21st century. I would probally drop Literature, Peace, and Economics. I would suggest that instead of a panel of swiss that the "Prizes" be awared based on their peers selection and be presented in the peer circle. One meeting to anounce winners gets media ... but peer recognition is the most important. Have the Medical reciepent recieve it at the center where he works with his peers and family in attendence so they can also be recognized.

    I ask seniors if they could name this years reciepants ... or any one ever recieving the prize ... who was Nobel ...
    The silence was deafening.

    Is it overrated no .. it is, in my opinion, under appreciated and in some respects as stated above .. suspect.

    My major complaint is that it is a media event not a recognition event.

    I wish you well. Bob.
  • Feb 10 2013: The Nobel Prize has no cultural impact, to some extent the individuals who receive the Nobel Prize have some but this might be over rated if you do not consider the dynamics of that impact. The Nobel Peace Prize is given to individuals but behind each of those individuals is a society that should be rewarded for making the cultural and social changes needed for those recipients achievements to exist.

    Families, friends, social, educational and religious institutions that are accessible to the average individual is more worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize than those who actually receive the award. No one is self made.

    You can say the same thing about scientific achievements. It is easy to reward individuals but recognition comes from the community and ethical peers who acknowledge an individuals contributions. Without that, awards have no depth and we being to idolize accomplishments of individuals rather than appreciating services of the community. How many potential Nobel Prize recipients die everyday because they did not have a society to protect them and develop them?
  • Feb 9 2013: I have lost all respect for the prizes when Obama won one for doing nothing
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    Feb 7 2013: . Nobel Prize is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics. Like any award, it is subjective at best especially since they include literature, peace, along with economics.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nobel_Prize

    http://www.nobelprize.org/

    They are what they are
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    Feb 7 2013: I dont believe they are overrated. there are so many excellent individuals in various fields in the world, and prizes and awards can not do justice to all of them. Someone has to win the awards and it doesn't mean those not awarded are of any less significant. But for someone to be awarded, it could be assumed that they've done something that makes them undeniably deserving of it.
  • Feb 7 2013: Do you have a better idea? Remember that the engineer who invented the integrated cirsuit did will a Nobel
    prize. There are other prizes in various fields.
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      Feb 7 2013: Hi George,
      I think one option would be to expand the number of fields for which the Nobel is awarded. After all, it's no longer 1901. Also, I would argue that there are many Nobel Prize-caliber innovations which did not find the same recognition as the integrated circuit because they were less directly linked to the science behind the innovation.