Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- October 24, 1994
by James Fallows

Nobel Supply and Demand

In a Nobel-inspired quest for excellence, let's think how the awards themselves might be improved.

There is something very strange about the mix of achievements deemed worthy of a Nobel prize. On one hand we have the real sciences -- physics, chemistry, physiology. Bickering and backstage politics may play a part in these awards, but ultimately some hard, testable, universal discovery is required of those who win.

On the other hand are the soft categories, literature and peace, where every decision is obviously a judgment call. Henry Kissinger is a peace laureate; Jimmy Carter is not. F. Scott Fitzgerald never won the literature prize, but Pearl S. Buck did. In Olympic terms, the science awards are like the high jump or the mile run; the soft awards are like figure skating.

In between, in a Nobel twilight zone, is the prize for economics. This is the newest award, set up 25 years ago with money from a large business donation, and it is the hardest to defend. Unlike all the other prizes it encourages a basic misunderstanding about the field it is meant to recognize.

Economics is at its heart a social rather than a natural science, since its real subject is human behavior. Economists increasingly use the tools of hard science, especially advanced math, to explore this subject, even though the best economists realize that the deepest issues they're considering will never be captured in formulas. Yet when making pronouncements to the general public, on subjects ranging from tax policy to health care, these same economists often find it convenient if they're viewed as hard scientists, like biologists discussing disease. It is this impression, of bogus scientific certainty, that the Nobel prize for economics aggravates.

By the time it announces next year's awards, the Nobel committee should either retire the economics prize or offer a whole series of new prizes for other disciplines that use hard tools to study soft subjects. We could have a Nobel prize for sociology and political science. Or a Nobel prize for architecture, which after all applies advanced engineering techniques to express the human spirit. Or perhaps a Nobel prize for psychiatry, which increasingly involves the interaction between chemicals and personality. Perhaps a prize for linguistics, which has produced abstract, mathematically elegant models for the distinguishing human trait of language.

Like many people, I feel somehow better about humanity when I hear each new list of Nobel achievements. But with one fewer prize each year, or quite a few more, I'd feel better still.

Top Home

Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.