Ethics of Nobel Prize Nominations:

My post on the Nobel Peace/Literature Prize nominations of convicted but supposedly reformed multiple murderer Tookie Williams prompted some discussion: What about finding some professor who could nominate some ordinary Joe as a way to make a statement about how little the nomination means? This would be eminently possible, but would it be ethical?

The argument why it would be unethical: One's power to nominate comes with an obligation to actually vouch for the high qualities of the person being nominated. This is especially so as to academics, who (in my view, though not in everyone's) are supposed to be committed to candor in their scholarly work.

So if some professors want to nominate someone out-of-the-mainstream who they think really merits the prize, they are entirely free to do so, even if they know that most professors would bitterly disagree with the nomination (and even if the purpose is to annoy other professors, or to illustrate how easy it is to nominate someone). But I think that nominating someone when you don't sincerely believe that this someone merits the prize isn't quite right.

The argument why it would be ethical: There a parody exception or system testing exception to this obligation of sincerity, much as there is in some other contexts. For instance, we should generally be honest with our students, but that doesn't forbid us from saying something in class that's literally false but nonetheless clearly a parody or a joke — or for that matter, saying something that may be misleading but is aimed at getting the students to correct you (of course, if you promptly acknowledge this in the event that students fail to correct you).

Likewise, I think the classic Alan Sokal Social Text parody was permissible: Though a professor normally vouches for the accuracy of the material that he submits to a journal, the professor isn't acting unethically if the material is so clearly a hoax that any thoughtful reviewer would recognize it as such (and thus that the publication of the hoax is powerful evidence of how the review system is broken, at least at this particular journal). True, the argument would go, the insincere nomination isn't a real attempt to test the selection process — few people think that the nominee will actually get the prize. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate device for publizing the nature of the nomination process.

What's the right answer here? My temptation is to counsel against any facially dishonest conduct, especially by scholars, in a serious context (light-hearted gags aimed at entertainment, and unlikely to deceive anyone on an important matter, are a different story), at least unless the falsehood is an attempt to demonstrate some real failing in a review process. I don't think the open Nobel Prize nomination system is indeed a failing; the failing comes in some media outlets' misleadingly suggesting that the nominations are meaningfully screened, and I think the dishonesty to the Nobel committee would thus be unjustified. But perhaps I'm mistaken; I just mostly wanted to air what strike me as the strongest arguments on both sides.

Nobody Special:
A district attorney in Los Angeles, is actively campaigning for a nomination, as a parody, on his blog.

Apparently, he's making headway too.
11.28.2005 12:52pm
Alex R:
You come close to contradicting yourself here when you say that the Sokal hoax was permissible, while also counselling "against any facially dishonest conduct, especially by scholars, in a serious context ... at least unless the falsehood is an attempt to demonstrate some real failing in a review process."

You would argue, I suppose, that the Sokal submission was an attempt to demonstrate a failing in the review process for Social Text, as though Sokal felt that he would be shaming the editors of Social Text into more carefully vetting their submissions. But it seems to me -- and this is supported by Sokal's commentaries linked to at the link you posted -- that Sokal was instead trying to parody the entire discipline of... well, postmodern literary critical theory, or whatever you call what Social Text publishes.

Would you allow a parodic Nobel Peace Prize nomination of, say, Saddam Hussein, if the intent was purely to mock the institution of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Personally, I think the difference between the Social Text affair and the Nobel Prize nominations is that prize nominations are supposed to express the nominators sincere opinions about the nominees. For a physicist, however -- which Sokal is -- an article submission is to be judged on whether what is says is true or not; the author's beliefs or opinions should have little or no weight. I still think that Sokal's parody may have crossed the line -- the parody or review testing argument wouldn't fly if he had submitted a physics paper with fabricated data or intentionally misstated results of calculation.
11.28.2005 1:15pm
markm (mail):
"Would you allow a parodic Nobel Peace Prize nomination of, say, Saddam Hussein?" How about Yasser Arafat? But Arafat not only was nominated, he got the prize. IMHO, by the "not a bad as Arafat" standard, Williams is well qualified, as are many others who only murdered a few people and each of the 6 billion or more people who never had anyone murdered. By any reasonable standard, the Peace Prize judges turned their own committee into a joke when they picked that old terrorist.

OTOH, the Literature Prize has nothing to do with the character of the writer, so Williams' children stories might qualify depending on how good they are.
11.28.2005 1:43pm
David Gross (www):
Representative Tom Moore, Jr., of Waco, Texas introduced a resolution into the Texas House of Representatives honoring Albert de Salvo. “Above all,” the resolution read, “this compassionate gentleman's dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout our nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. His sincerity, diligence and coöperation has earned him warm admiration and affection of his fellow practitioners.” After the resolution was approved unanimously by the House, Moore revealed that Albert de Salvo was none other than the Boston Strangler.
11.28.2005 2:11pm
Justin (mail):
It seems to me that the media only refers to someone as nominated for the nobel prize when that nomination refers to some sentiment that a serious portion of the elitist public believe he deserves consideration. That is, if as a parody someone on the right decided to nominate your run of the mill death row inmate, the fact that he is technically a "nobel peace prize nominee" would not be mentioned in the press. So while I think this might pose an interesting question at a vague abstract level, in terms of practical values, I cannot buy that this:

the failing comes in some media outlets' misleadingly suggesting that the nominations are meaningfully screened

failing is practically something that merits any consideration. If the media begins to refer to every miscreant in the book as a nobel peace prize nominee, they themselves will destroy the distinction. Thus, it is in the media's own interest to preserve the statement for those who merit serious consideration. The argument to the contrary (that the media overuses it, and thus it is dangerous because people will think it is more valuable a statement than it is) seems remarkably circular to me, given that the public is dependant on its own perception of scarcity in determining value.
11.28.2005 2:16pm
Xrlq (mail) (www):
I think the Sokal treatment is very much called for here. I don't buy into the good-cop/bad-cop game between the press, which routinely makes news of bogus Nobel prize nominations, and the Nobel Committee, which technically has never actually come out and said it's a great honor to be nominated, but which hasn't exactly gone out of its way to dispel that notion, either. If they won't publicly distance themselves from Tookie's nominations - let alone challenge the sincerity of these nominations under the ethical rules Eugene proposes here - then a few high-profile "ig-Nobel" (I know, that name is taken, but you get the drift) nominations are just what the doctor ordered.
11.28.2005 2:34pm
Henry Kissinger (mail):
Mr. volokh,

I don't see why a parody would be a problem. The Nobel comittee seems to like jokes, they award prizes to the best of them.
11.28.2005 3:06pm
Wintermute (www):
Found this link to the DA's letter to the governor, summarizing the evidence.

I think commutation would be political suicide. What do Californians think?
11.28.2005 3:22pm
David in NYC:
I agree that while a parody nomination would certainly demonstrate the problems with an open nomination format, it's really not justified. Mr. Volokh's point that the real problem seems to be the fact that the reporting media seem to report these nominations as having infinitely more value than they actually do.
I have had similar experiences with the Grammy's, for which I used to vote and make nominations. Basically, anybody with the requisite (very limited, actually) amount of experience in certain facets of the recording industry can nominate an album, song, or artist for a Grammy. Then those nominations are eventually narrowed down, and the winners are ultimately decided by a select committe, just like the Nobels. And there is an equal amount of dopiness in the Grammy selection process. Anybody remember that the very first Grammy for a Heavy Metal album went to Jethro Tull? Not quite in the same league as Jimmy Carter's prize or Harold Pinter's, but the thinking processes behind each are clearly muddled.

Perhaps all reports of nominations should be accompanied with a caveat, but I doubt the people who run the various organizations involved would be too happy about it, as that would seem to dilute the prestige of the awards. Um, not that the Nobel people aren't doing that all by themselves.
11.28.2005 4:39pm
David Pittelli (mail) (www):
"There a parody exception or system testing exception to this obligation of sincerity"

But who can parody a system which has already nominated Hitler, and actually given the prize to Arafat?

I agree that it's really the press use of the term "nobel peace prize nominee" which is absurd and worthy of parody, given how any one professor in one of the correct fields, or any legislator, can nominate anyone. Nominating a non-entity will do no good as a parody, because the masses will not recognise the absurdity of the nomination.

What we need to "parody" the situation is a person who deserves the honor even less than Yasser or Tookie -- pretty hard to find! -- or at least one whom the public will see as so unworthy, but whom the press will not be able to ignore, either because of the biases of the press or the fame or ego and power of the nominee. Someone like Michael Moore, or even Saddam Hussein or Kim il Sung.

On the other hand, it would in theory also be amusing to see how the press would cover a truly "controversial" nominee -- like Dick Cheney, George Bush, or Ariel Sharon -- even if such a person had actually worked to bring peace to somewhere. (I would suspect they have in fact been so nominated.)

Another fact useful for this ethical discussion: According to the Nobel committee, nominations are secret for 50 years, and reports of recent nominations are "rumors" or have been leaked by a nominator. So an eligible nominator could give a press release claiming to have nominated someone inappropriate, without actually doing so. Given that the press is reporting such matters without any official input from the Committee, would that be more or less ethical?
11.28.2005 5:03pm
Why not nominate someone in a way that makes it clear that the reason you're doing so is to show exactly what you think of the system. Prof. Zywicki might get a laugh out of this. The following is an excerpt from a letter that one of my friends who went to Dartmouth as an undergrad sent to one of the people who received nominations for college trustees. (Slight redactions to preserve anonymity and to censor one bit of profanity)

Dear ---,

I write to nominate Senator Paul Tsongas '68 for the Board of Trustees seat to be vacated by Susan Dentzer in June 2003. Senator Tsongas, as you know, is both a distinguished alumnus and respected statesman, having admirably served our country for a decade in the United States Congress. No current trustee is nearly as honorable. Moreover -- and this, I think, is his most important qualification -- he has been dead for the past five years.

The Dartmouth community can have no better guarantee that our next trustee will refrain from launching capricious campus initiatives or otherwise burdening the College with asinine ideas. Indeed, Senator Tsongas will do absolutely nothing at all -- making him immeasurably preferable to the worthless a******* who now call themselves Dartmouth's "trustees."



You can imagine how something similarly worded would go for the Nobel Prize, and I don't think it would shirk your obligation of candor.
11.28.2005 5:08pm
Barry (mail):
What if the system is so broken that a parody is not possible? After all, look at Professor John Yoo. Yale Law School, clerk for a federal appeals court, clerk for a SC justice, visiting prof. at U Chic, etc.
11.28.2005 5:09pm
Howard (www):
You guys seem to think that we guys actually care about the Nobel Peace Prize. We don't and the only eventual result of debasing a single award is that we will all suspect the prizes for other areas: literature (already a propaganda award), poetry ??, mathematics, sciences....all are subject to the tyranny of Political Correctness.
11.28.2005 5:37pm
eddie (mail):
What does it mean to say that the mainstream media reports these nominations as more important that they really are? How does one report that. By using all caps. Isn't the Nobel Prize a big deal in itself? Or are only those prizes blessed by your ideology really "worth anything"?

Is that really what all this fuss is about: Armchair pundits disgruntled that some foreigners have concocted a prize that does not award those individuals deemed worthy of such kudos?

It seemed to me that the original thread of this dialogue was concerned with the possibility that some third party (viz. a judge) might take being nominated for a humanitarian award as grounds for mitigating some deservably harsh punishment (death).

Howard, please define who "you guys" and "we guys" [is that the good guys versus the bad guys; or is it more simply liberal versus conservatives], because from where I am sitting, this whole discussion is pretty petty. And just including some capitalized reference to a conservative paper tiger [oh that dreaded PC] does not bring any seriousness or depth to the discussion, let alone mean anything. It merely emphasizes the vacuity of it all.
11.28.2005 6:35pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Whether it would be ethical or not, a parody nomination would be rather pointless. The nominations are kept secret for 50 years, which is an awfully long time to wait for a punchline. All that would happen in the short term would be that some committee members would be puzzled. Even if any of them took the nomination seriousl we would never know because even after 50 years such details are not released. Unless the parody nominee actually won, we would have no idea how the nomination was received.
11.28.2005 8:05pm
pmorem (mail):
Since the records are supposed to be sealed, we don't actually know that Williams was nominated. All we have is someone's word that he was. For all we know, that person's real nominee (in both categories) was Theodore Kaczinski.
11.28.2005 10:03pm
DWPittelli (mail) (www):
Eddie: "What does it mean to say that the mainstream media reports these nominations as more important that they really are?"

That they prominently mention the nomination, or even mention it at all (particularly in the case of stories on Tookie which otherwise would appear to be evenhanded) is to give the nomination more import than it deserves, given how meaningless it is. ("One peace-studies professor backs Mumia" isn't exactly a man-bites-dog story, but it amounts to the same thing as "Mumia nominated for Peace Prize")

Edward Hoffman: We do in fact hear about nominations in less time than 50 years, as we all know.
11.28.2005 10:57pm
eddie (mail):

Either it's news or it isn't. You answer the question by assuming that "they prominently mention the nomination or mention it at all".

Is the prize trivial (and by association the nomination also), i.e. in general do all of the nominations receive too much ink? Or do only "the wrong people" get too much publicity?

Or is it just the Peace Prize?

Would you have the same indignation over a convicted murderer who also happened to be a brilliant chemist or novelist?

Why are you blaming the messenger?
11.29.2005 10:47am
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
DWPittelli says:

"We do in fact hear about nominations in less time than 50 years, as we all know."

The Nobel organization never discloses the nominees until 50 years have passed. The nominators themselves sometimes do, but that's beside the point. I presume that the idea of a parody nominee was not to let the nominator him/herself announce the nomination but rather to let it be discovered some other way. Unless the nominator wants to "leak" the information in the hope that someone else will publicize it, the only way to be confident the information will be get out is if he/she is the one who announces it.

And if the purpose really is parody, an eligible nominator can simply claim to have made a nomination. Aside from the Nobel committee and its staff, no one will be any the wiser until 50 years later.
11.29.2005 6:08pm
Yi Ling:
The rules suggest that, 100-250 invited nominations are received each year for each prize and for Nobel Prize, say 140 invited nominations for Peace prize. Refer and .

This begs the question whether Tookie Williams’ nomination which was “surprisingly easy” was an invited nomination, meaning whether the nominator was in each case an invited nominator. One wonders whether the Nobel Committee assigns numbers and marks the nomination papers and requests it sends out to these 100-250 intended nominators, for each prize so that, the Nobel Committee can easily manage and monitor the responses from each of the 100-250 intended nominators to whom the Nobel Committee has sent out invitation to nominate.

I had a quick glance at Hitler’s official nomination paper and if memory does not fail me, recall seeing a number on the paper. I have not been able since then to retrace the paper link. If indeed it was a characteristic number for the year and the intended nominators’ use, then, it would support the notion that this simple system of marked and numbered nomination papers would “differentiate” the “invited nomination” from the “unsolicited and uninvited nomination” and enable the Nobel Committee to keep track of their “official nomination” which would be processed and the “uninvited nomination” which may not be processed but targeted for the paper shredder.

Bearing in mind that, even with 100-250 nominations per category, the processing already requires “several thousand people” to determine the originality of the nominee’s contributions.

The issue of the fairness [ and secrecy] of the selection of the identity of the 100-250 intended nominators for each prize or about 6,000 intended nominators for each year is a separate issue.

Further the data base for invited nominations per the Nobel Committee data base, is released 50 years later thus preventing the verification of Tookie Williams’ authorized nomination.

Finally, the nominations are to be kept in secret and this begs the question, whether the intended nominator so appointed or selected to nominate would have breached the secrecy provisions of their entrusted task.

It may have been while the initial process of the [ William’s] nomination was flawed as not in accordance with the rules, the later process might have taken cognizance of the rules with attempts to seek out one or more of the 140 intended nominators each year. Thus the initial process, [ or maybe even the later process] if it was not an invited nomination would not count as a nomination as it would be a bogus or phantom nomination, not recognised by the Nobel Committee or approved by it nor later processed by it.

Arafat’s nomination and award deals with a different issue, where his nomination together with Peres and Rabin’s nomination were through invited nominators and three of them shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year. The middle east conflict is a difficult subject as borne out too by
and two specific papers, one here, the Mitchell Plan commissioned by Clinton after the failure of the Oslo peace accords and finished during Bush’s term of office, and second, across the Atlantic, recommendations by Assembly of Western EU , security and defence .

Whether misdeeds or alleged misdeeds justify revocation of award, is an issue that the Nobel Committee has not addressed, even as Jewish organizations have asked the Nobel Committee for revocation of the award.

Whether there is an international forum that can hear and try the allegations, and whether the international criminal court of justice has jurisdiction, or some other appropriate forum [court] can or will or is able to hear and try the issue is too, another issue.

In addressing the integrity of the invited nomination process and the processing that leads to awards; the field of literature and peace are more complex issues, unlike medicine , chemistry, physics, economics.

Bogus uninvited nominations can create different problems, albeit unintended, while it purports to grant greater egalitarian power to responsible ethical qualified parties to make nominations based on their wide reading or partial reading of the rules, without taking sufficient cognizance of the other rules or practices or norms of the Nobel Committee.

Whether such a trend of bogus uninvited nominations would eventually be a global trend, with each “responsible” nominator in the four corners of the world, [ uninvited by the Nobel Committee] espousing their own causes and motives for making uninvited nominations, is another issue.

From 100-250 nominations for literature and peace prize each year, it could escalate and without getting into a flood-gate band wagon, it does raise concern as to whether the Committee has the resources and logistics to handle the excess nominations and it also could put them in a dilemma as to how to handle the excess uninvited nominations, whether each uninvited nomination has to be accorded the same high degree of processing and verification as all other uninvited nominations and all other invited nominations.

If 6,000 invited nominations require several thousand persons assistance, what number would be required if the nominations world wide escalate on uninvited basis? This is compounded by the short time frame within which the invitations sent out are processed and finalized within a year.

Finite time, finite resources and logistics have given birth to the invited nominations of about 6000 annually for all the prizes, or 100-250 per prize, and whether invited nomination is the best way, is another issue, but it is the current stated way as the approved recognized way. All others would then fall by the way side, as bogus, uninvited, not official, or, not approved nominations and whether the Committee diplomatically deals with it by a reply , a processing, or not is another issue, best known to the Committee and the persons who submitted uninvited nominations.
11.30.2005 7:53pm
Yi Ling:
The 5 links did not appear in above post, even while using the format and this is an improvisation and you would have to use the url without spaces to obtain the url.

1. http://nobelprize. org/peace/nomination/ index. html
2. http://www. nobel/nobelprizes. html .
3,4,5. http://www. avalon/mideast/ mideast. htm and two specific papers, one here, the Mitchell Plan http://www. lawweb/avalon/ mideast/ mitchell_plan. htm …. and second, across the Atlantic, recommendations by Assembly of Western EU , security and defence http://www. documents /sessions_ordinaires/ rpt/2001/1732. html .
11.30.2005 8:04pm
Yi Ling:
Hitler's nomination was made by a Norwegian legislator in the temporary euphoria of the signing of the Munich Agreement, which could have averted WWII if adhered to. When the nominator shortly realised it was not to be, he withdrew Hitler's nomination.

It thus appears Hitler's nomination was by an invited nominator but withdrawn and thus not processed. It would tantamount to a failed or no nomination.

Tookie Williams' nomination, Hitler's nomination and Arafat's nomination and award, have been flouted as the main reasons for making a parody of the Nobel Peace and Literature nomination and awards. The above 3 posts endeavours to address the misconceived parody, IMHO.
11.30.2005 8:20pm
David in NYC:
Eddie says:

"Is the prize trivial (and by association the nomination also), i.e. in general do all of the nominations receive too much ink? Or do only "the wrong people" get too much publicity?"

Me: If the bar is extremely low for nominations, then yes, the nominations receive too much ink. If I can nominate my hamster, and he makes it to the official nominations list, then it's pretty meaningless and does not deserve mentioning in the respectful tone given to the Nobels.

"Or is it just the Peace Prize?"

No, lots of other awards have similar problems, most especially the Grammys.

"Would you have the same indignation over a convicted murderer who also happened to be a brilliant chemist or novelist?"

The indignation concerning Tookie is most certainly about a convicted murderer being nominated. His nomination is being held up as an example of his rehabilitation, and thus evidence for clemency. If the value of the honor is being diluted by the Nobel committee's recent choices, then maybe it's not such a good example for him.
However, Tookie's writing may actually be quite good, and he may have made a significant contribution to society with it, along with his anti-gang advocacy. If so, he might be a better choice for a Nobel than Arafat. And he might even deserve clemency. But if I were making that decision, it would be because of his work, not because the Nobel nomination has any meaning.

"Why are you blaming the messenger?"

Because in the case of the MSM, the perceived value of an item is directly proportional to the amount, quality, and tone of the attention given it in the press. In the case of the Grammys, I blame the messenger for making a big deal about something that is almost meaningless. In the case of Tookie's Nobel nomination, unless the messenger also gives examples of the work for which he was nominated and is honest about the nomination process, then I'm pointing that finger.
12.1.2005 5:50pm
Yi Ling:
http://patterico. com/2005/12/02/4020/ more-on-rules-for-nobel-peace-prize-nominations /#comments <<< Clinton Watson Taylor passes along this flyer from Stanford University, with the rules for Nobel Peace Prize nominations. It appears to clarify that nominators need not have a personal invitation from the Committee in order to submit nominations; all that is required is for a nominator to fit within one of the relevant categories.>>>

As links do not seem to work for me, here. I have reproduced.

A simple way to verify and clarify this would be to call or write to the organisers and ask for clarification of this “interesting” flyer, whether it is issued by them and whether or why it clearly contradicts their other clear ruling that requires personal invitation to the “qualified” nominators.

I have taken the effort of posting the issue of personal invitation to nominators and the link for it, for an academic, who seemed to lean towards uninvited nominators, for the reason, that, I think, while the press may have happily reported on the uninvited nomination as “surprisingly easy”, i think a higher burden lays on top echeleon academics and professors of law in particular, to verify the precise rules, than on the press, and for academics of stature and standing, like Eugene Volokh to advise the press accordingly, if he or they do find that indeed the current rules do require invited nominators.

I do not have the stature to advise the incorrect press reporting, as I perceive it [incorrect press reporting]. You, Patrick Frey Patterico and Eugene Volokh have, if you investigate and find that the press has got the wrong end of the stick. I have done my part, and must figure how to get the Cat’s Apron measured and sewn by another, so I will not be plagued with cat’s fur or hair :-)
12.3.2005 1:35am
Yi Ling:
There is also email address at in addition to or as alternative to calling and writing to The Norwegian Nobel Institute, Drammensveien 19, NO-0255 Oslo, Norway
Street address: Drammensveien 19, Oslo
Tel. +47 (0)22 12 93 00
Fax +47 (0)22 12 93 10
Web site: The Norwegian Nobel Institute

http:// eng_com_index. html

Incidentally the website which gave the rule of uninvited nominators, is the main web site for
all nobel prizes http:// index.html not just peace at specifically at http:// nobelprize. org/peace/ nomination/ index.html
while the rule for nomination of peace prize cited from the flyer [ following their website they provided] is the Norwegian Nobel Committee web site http:// www.nobel. no/index. html specifically at http:// eng_com_index. html

You have here a contrast of a rule of invited nominators for all nobel prizes including noble peace prize, at the main web site but the intended or unintended omission of the invited nominator rule on the specific web site for the Norwegian Nobel Committee [ ie the nobel peace prize committee]. The significance of this omission seems to cause confusion and gives varying interpretation, one of which is the disputed 'uninvited nominator' that is now circulating via this 'interesting flyer' as proof of no invitation requirement.

It also opens up question, whether this invitation is addressed personally to XYZ or it is addressed to the university and it is up the university to delegate the task as it deems fit and appropriate.

Aside from that is also how one interprets rules of the overall organising body , the Nobel Foundation, which also details invited nominators, for each nobel prize, peace http:// peace/nomination/ index.html, medicine http:// medicine/nomination/ index.html , physics http:// nobelprize. org/physics/ nomination/index. html , literature http:// literature/nomination/ index.html , etcetra...

A call, letter, email from Patrick Frey and Eugene Volokh might solve for the press, the mystery and issue of interpretation of the rules and application of the rules :-)
12.3.2005 3:53am