Monday, October 12, 2009

Nobel prizes

Well before the controversy over Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize broke out I received an e-mail about that other, not really real Nobel prize - the one for Economics.

The article identifies that it wasn't one of Nobel's prizes, but describes it as an attempt to cloak the dismal science in the kind of respectability achieved by Physics, Chemistry and Medicine. The article pointed out that the work of some famous laureates in economics looks dodgy now - and in general that the prize has represented orthoodoxy.

Economists should not castigate themselves for this. After all Nobel did create the prizes to "recognise contributions that enhanced the quality of human life, through scientific advance, literary creativity or efforts at bringing about peace." However, in part the purpose prize was to salve Nobel's own conscience for having invented dynamite and hence created the most effective weapon terrorists had. And even the Physics prize has transgressed the goal - many of the earliest recipients for quantum theory went on to give the world nuclear weapons – hardly adding to Nobel’s great aim.

Similarly physics can be accused of its own current crisis of ever more esoteric models with no real world application – though at least string theory benefits from having no testable predicted observations whereas much economics has testable predicted observations but simply assumes away all failures as being due to a usually unnamed external factor. Admittedly Physics last award in particle physics was for the last theories to build the Standard theory of particle physics.

The Obama prize is also nothing extraordinary. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to former guerrilla fighters (Jose Ramos Horta in 1996) active terrorists (Yasser Araft 1994) repressive rulers who were overthrown for running feudal socities (the 14th Dalai Lama in 1989) a woman whose objective in India and Bengal was to campaign against woman controlling their own bodies (Mother Teresa in 1979) another former terrorist (Menachem Begin in 1978), a man whose crusade for “national self-determination has created more fanciful grounds for war than any other (Woodrow Wilson 1919).

So why not reward a guy for getting elected and not ending any wars and not winding back the largest armaments budget of any country. You almost feel he got the award for not being George W. Bush. And they didn't have to award it - the Nobel Peace Prize has frequently been not awarded.

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