Do Nobel prizes distort public understanding of scientific knowledge?

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“Absurd.” “Archaic.” These are surely not descriptions most of us would apply to the world’s most celebrated prize in science. The Nobel Prize, conferring millions of Swedish krone (more than a million American dollars) and everlasting fame upon its recipients, honours the year’s highest achievements in knowledge. Yet even as it grips our imaginations, could this illustrious award simultaneously distort our understanding of how that knowledge works?

The rules of the award, after all, reflect the personal understanding and intentions of its founder Alfred Nobel more than a century ago. He made a fortune as an inventor, with his most famous invention being gunpowder. On his death, he left his money to fund a series of prizes for contributions to knowledge that conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The categories and rules were broadly established in his will on his death in 1896, and launched prizes that now have a venerable history.

Critics of the Nobel Prize insist that it is time to recognize the problems built right into the historical terms of award and, if possible, “modernize” it.   Different commentators seem to focus on two main impacts that the prize has on our understanding, in ways directly relevant to IB Theory of Knowledge.

1. Categorization of knowledge: The prize is awarded according to categories of knowledge that have gone out of date.

Alfred Nobel specified prizes in three scientific categories (physics, chemistry, and physiology & medicine) and two other prizes (literature and peace). In 1986 the Swedish National Bank established a further prize in economics as a Nobel memorial.

Nobel himself chose the original five categories, not aiming to cover all of human knowledge but judging these disciplines to be the ones through which the greatest benefit to humanity would come. Critics of the Nobel Prize categories don’t dispute the importance of recognizing merit in general or the worthiness of the specific past recipients, but do point out that the emphasis on inventions and discoveries of three particular disciplines within the sciences does make it challenging to integrate new scientific fields and specializations that have developed since 1896.

“If you were inventing a science prize now with different categories,” comments Steven Novella, “I don’t think it would be divided up this way.”

How, indeed, would you and your TOK class divide up knowledge if you wanted to establish category prizes for knowledge that gave the greatest benefit to humanity?

2.Methodology: The Nobel Prize conveys the archaic notion that scientific discovery is achieved by individuals rather than by teams.

The rules for the Nobel Prize require that it go to individuals – although that rule has been stretched to recognize up to a maximum of three individuals for one prize. This is the sharpest criticism advanced of the Nobel award in science – that it does not fit the way that science actually works, and distorts public perception of science.

As the editors of Scientific American wrote in 2012, “The Nobel committees force a category error: they insist on awarding the prize to a few individuals, while in reality, the nature of the scientific enterprise has changed. Teams now perform the bulk of the highest-impact work.”

Kip S Thorne, one of the 2017 recipients of the Nobel Prize for Physics, reflects on this very problem:

“I was hoping that the prize would go to the LIGO-Virgo collaboration, which made the discovery, or to the LIGO laboratory, the scientists of the LIGO laboratory, who designed and built and perfected the gravitational wave detectors and not to Barish, Weiss and me. We live in an era where some huge discoveries are really the result of giant collaborations, with major contributions coming from very large numbers of people. I hope that in the future the Nobel Prize committee finds a way to award the prize to the large collaborations that make this and not just to the people who may have been seminal to the beginning of the project, as we were.”

Steven Novella concurs. “The Nobel prize needs a modernization,” he says, “to better communicate how science actually works, to better recognize a broader scope of fields and the collective nature of modern science — whereas it is frozen in time, this hundred year old award… Because of the archaic rules it just doesn’t reflect modern science optimally…” (minute 20:30)

“Instead of honoring science,” writes Ed Yong of the awards in “The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science”, “they distort its nature, rewrite its history, and overlook many of its important contributors.” (I recommend reading every bit of this article!)


“Perhaps none of this would matter if the Nobels weren’t such a massive deal,” Yong further points out.  And, in the end, it seems to me that this is the biggest problem of the Nobel Prize – public perception that it’s a “massive deal”.

The Nobel Prize is the one prize that everyone’s heard of, so its impact on public understanding of knowledge is huge. In a social context where celebrities and success are celebrated, and in a psychological context where people grasp individual stories better than general overviews, the awarding of prizes to particular people individually, and in disciplines with familiar names, fits with a whole range of our background biases to entrench an inaccurate view of knowledge.

But surely this isn’t a terrible problem — at least, not for us.

In Theory of Knowledge, we are forever dealing with biases in our understanding of knowledge. The Nobel Prize, in fact, hands us a particularly attractive case study to take to class.  It even has some historical examples of flagrant unfairness in the awards – and possibly systemic gender bias – to catch student interest. We can’t correct the award’s criteria, but in a TOK class we can alert our students to its subjective humanity, its historical legacy, and both its allure and its failings. And it’s not every day that we get to think about awarding a gold medal – and awarding it for achievements in knowledge.

A PS on laureates and diversity

PS November 20. After making the post above, I listened to a podcast that gave a couple of interesting angles, so I wanted to pass on the resource to you. In The Guardian Science Weekly podcast for October 25, Nicola Davis interviews science podcasters and authors Brian Cox and Robin Ince.The relevant bit is from minutes 24 to 29 when they touch the issue of who is selected for the Nobel Prizes. Cox gives these views:

  • In the case of the physics prize, the particular three individuals singled out this year truly deserved their recognition since they pioneered research into gravitational waves in the face of criticism at the time. He feels that, in this case, the award of the prize is “entirely right”.
  • About the issue of diversity, he acknowledges that the winners are generally white males of a certain age.  However, he gives a historical perspective, pointing out that there is a “time lag” in awards as they are usually given later in a scientist’s career, so that the current profile of winners is a “snapshot of science” as it was in, say, the 1970s, “when the talent pool was not accessed”. He predicts that we’ll see increasing diversity in the winners as we move further into this century, with a greater diversity of people at present entering the field.

Worth a listen!


“Expand the Nobel Prize to Award Teams, Not Just Individuals”, editors, Scientific American. October 1, 2012.

“Science Weekly”, The Guardian, October 25, 2017. Nicola Davis, Brian Cox, and Robin Ince. minute 24 to 29, on Nobel Prizes.

“Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe” podcast #639, host Steven Novella. Oct 7, 2017. minute 13:30 to 20:30, general discussion of Nobel Prizes in science, then moves to comments on this year’s prizes.

Kip S. Thorne, Interview. October 2017. Nobel Prize website.

Ed Yong, “The Absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in Science”, The Atlantic. October 3. 2017.

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