IgNobel: Has the Nobel prize ever been awarded in error?

April 6, 2007

Dear Cecil:

Last year the Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm once again overlooked you in the categories of medicine, physics, and literature. Clearly their judgment is faulty, and it makes me wonder about other mistakes they may have made. Aside from the subjective peace and literature (and economics?) prizes, has anyone been awarded a Nobel for work that has later turned out to be wrong? What happens to the prize (and the money)?

Eh, I don't let the Nobel thing bother me. Orson Welles never got a best-director Oscar, either.

Several Nobel Prize awards have been controversial, but in the hard sciences none has involved work later shown to be flat-out wrong. There are several reasons for that, the most obvious being that the Nobel folks aren't idiots and their screening process is pretty thorough. Equally important, a long interval typically separates the discovery from the award - more than 20 years in the case of the 2004 physics prize - by which time most nagging doubts have been resolved. Still, looking back on at least a few awards must make the Nobel committee cringe.

Years ago I wrote about prefrontal lobotomy, one of the horror stories of 20th-century medical practice. In 1949 Antonio Egas Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for inventing this ghastly procedure, in which doctors pacified mental patients by drilling a hole in the skull and surgically destroying a portion of the brain. (Medicine, lest you quibble, is by no stretch a hard science, or even an empirical art.) To be fair, Moniz neither invented nor used the infamous "ice-pick lobotomy," which involved pounding a sharp object through the orbit of the eye - that dubious honor belongs to Dr. Walter Freeman. But even "normal" lobotomies came to be seen as unethical, and with the advent of psychoactive drugs the procedure was largely abandoned. Lobotomy victims, relatives, and even some prominent physicians have campaigned to have Moniz stripped of the award, but the Nobel Foundation, whose charter grandly states that its awards may not be appealed, has refused to consider it.

Sometimes a Nobel is given to a guy who's a flake but probably deserves it anyhow. One case in point is Cambridge University professor Brian Josephson, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 1973 for predicting how electrons could tunnel through an insulating barrier. Later in life, Josephson became a believer in the paranormal and a fan of such chimeras as cold fusion and homeopathy; he directed the Mind-Matter Unification Project, which among other things tried to use physics to explain telepathy. Another example is Linus Pauling, recipient of both the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, whose career took a weird turn after he became obsessed with vitamin C, believing it capable of everything from curing the common cold to extending life to treating cancer. Pauling may yet be at least partly vindicated, since recent research shows that in certain cases high doses of vitamin C can help terminal cancer patients and may even alleviate the common cold.

In another category we have the racists and eugenicists, including Philipp von Lenard, whose work on cathode rays won him the 1905 Nobel in physics. Possibly because Albert Einstein beat him to the punch in developing quantum effect theory, Lenard was a harsh critic of Jewish scientists; he joined the Nazi party and eventually became one of Hitler's advisers and a proponent of "Aryan physics." Then there was William Bradford Shockley, who along with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain was awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for developing the transistor. Later he espoused eugenics, suggesting that African-Americans had a genetic basis for lower IQ scores, proposing that people with IQs under 100 be paid to submit to sterilization, and donating his sperm to a bank set up by millionaire Robert Klark Graham to fight the spread of "retrograde humans."

Since no one can appeal an award by the Nobel Foundation, the only way the money can be forfeit is if a recipient refuses the check or doesn't cash it by October of the following calendar year. On the question of mistakes, you were smart to exclude the nonscientific Nobels from consideration - the literature prize has been notoriously hit or miss (Herman Hesse got it, Vladimir Nabokov didn't), and the peace prize has been awarded to both Yasir Arafat and Henry Kissinger. The economics prize, created not by Alfred Nobel's will but by the Swedish central bank in 1968, is even more suspect. Given doubts that economics qualifies as a science or for that matter contributes in any way to the betterment of humanity, to this day you'll find people complaining not merely about this or that recipient but that the prize exists at all.

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