Britta Petersen
Nobel Prizes – Useful Lies ?

If the Nobel Prize is a lie, it is a wonderful lie, because it triggers important discussions. We therefore need more prizes like the Nobel. Anybody out there to endow a BRICS Prize?

Every year after the new awardees of the Nobel Prize have been announced, a debate breaks out about the merits of one or the other recipient and subsequently about the legitimacy of the prize on the whole.

This is especially true for the prizes that are not given for science, namely the prizes for literature and peace. The reason is clear: While there are certain standards in international science to test the validity of research, nothing comparable exists for literature or politics. This is but a short description of the difference between science on the one hand, and arts and to some extent, humanities on the other.

The decisions of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (for the Peace Prize) and the Swedish Academy (for the Literature Prize) are each nothing but a subjective consensus reached by a small group of people. Their decisions, political views and tastes are influenced by many factors such as nationality, gender, class, education etc.

It is therefore perfectly legitimate and necessary to discuss the worthiness of the laureates and their work. In fact, the very discussion is an integral part of the whole exercise. These two Nobel Prizes should be seen as a welcome opportunity to discuss both literature and global peace.

Sometimes, the debate brings out unbridgeable differences. For example, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government would endorse the Peace Prize for the Dalai Lama. We all know that he who is considered a hero in one country, can be seen as a villain in a neighbouring one. That is the very nature of conflict.  Those who are engaged in peace are, by definition,  also engaged in a conflict. Consequently, controversies about a peace prize are almost unavoidable.


Literature and arts can also divide people along political lines. The 2006 Literature Prize for Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, for instance,  received a rather cool reception in parts of Turkey, while he enjoys a large following abroad. While some of the Turkish criticism was based on his writings, other seemed to be of political nature. Pamuk himself used the example of his compatriot Nazim Hikmet, one of the greatest Turkish poets of the 20th century, who was stripped of his citizenship on ground of his communist beliefs,  to criticize the Turkish government for traditionally restricting freedom of expression. A few years later, Hikmet’s citizenship was posthumously restored.

This only shows the power a discourse on literature can have. The Nobel for literature, has, therefore,been heavily contested at times.

But even the prizes for sciences can stir controversies.

The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who received the Nobel for physics in 1979, is hardly mentioned in his own country because he belongs to the defamed Ahmadiyya sect, that has been declared as “non-Muslim” by the Pakistani constitution. Interestingly, it was mentioned on Salam’s first gravestone that he was the “first Muslim Nobel laureate” but the word Muslim was later removed.

To judge laureates by their religion is not a western prerogative. But it has been rightly criticised that the Committee highlighted this years’ awardees, Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi as “a Muslim and a Hindu” while their work has nothing to do with religion at all. The Prize and the Committee are still rooted in a western pattern of thought and it is rather unlikely that this will vanish completely one day.

Unfortunately, even Pakistan’s second Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, is far from popular in her own country. Her case is interesting because she is probably the first laureate who has been hit by the full force of public opinion. The shit-storm that came down on Malala and her father in the Pakistani social media even when she was nominated,  went far beyond everything that could be called a fair argument. Social media are clearly a new way of ostracizing a laureate.

Carl von Ossietzky im KZ

Carl von Ossietzky in Nazi custody


Rather old school are the cases when governments strongly oppose the Nobel prize for one of their citizens. Nazi Germany, for example, forbade German citizens from accepting the prize after the nomination of the pacifist journalist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 had created diplomatic trouble for the regime.  Consequently, three German scientists received their prize only after the end of World War II and the collapse of the Hitler regime. In Ossietzky’s case, the Prize Committee, under German pressure, shied away from awarding him in 1935 but gave it to him retrospectively in 1936.

The case of Ossietzky was also an early example of the influence that lobbying can have on the Prize Committee. A large number of important intellectuals advocated for Ossietzky, who was detained in a concentration camp at that time in order to save his life. For him the prize came too late. Although he was admitted to a hospital shortly after receiving the Nobel, he died in 1938 as a result of years of torture.

Nonetheless, the influence of lobbying on the decisions of the Committee has been also criticised. Some people believe that the large number of American laureates is a result of influential networks around the Ivy League Universities. There are also cases of people, who never received the prize although everybody seems to believe that he or she is a natural candidate. Mahatma Gandhi is one.

And there is the sad fact that only a meagre 5 percent of the laureates are women. When Marie Curie, one of only four laureates who received the prize in two disciplines (physics and chemistry), started her career, women were not even allowed to study at universities in her native country that belonged to Russia at that time. In 1908, she became the first female professor at Sorbonne University in Paris. While this explains, to some extent, why women needed decades to catch up in academic education, it is still a scandal that women continue to be grossly underrepresented in the top echelons of science around the world.

So is the Nobel Prize a “lie” as was suggested in an earlier article in Swarajya? It most certainly is.

It is a lie because it could be very well given to a large number of other people every year – who would be equally controversial. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: “He who cannot lie does not know what the truth is.”

Yet it is a wonderful lie, because it triggers important discussions. We therefore need more prices like the Nobel. The Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) is one of those efforts. In order to reflect the changing world order in the 21st century, it would be great to have a few more prizes, for example from the “emerging powers”. The Mahatma Gandhi prize by the Indian government still has scope to become more important worldwide. After all, Alfred Nobel is very much a dead white male, and the Nobel Prize is more than 100 years old.

Anybody out there to endow a BRICS prize?