Ad verecundiam

That Swedish group announced today that Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics. Within minutes, my Twitter feed was awash with congratulations as well as links to criticisms Duflo and Banerjee had voiced in the past against the economic policies of the Narendra Modi government. If nothing else, I can think of three motives on the part of those who shared these links: to draw traffic to certain news sites (i.e. the links had been shared by accounts belonging to news publishers), because the posters were deferring to the laureates’ reestablished authority to make a point, or to call attention to the fact that a woman had won a Nobel Prize. The first two are opportunistic and dicey at best. Setting aside for a moment the presumably small (if any) overlap between the group of people who shared the links to articles about Duflo’s and Banerjee’s work and the group of people who think the Nobel Prizes should be “cancelled” (to borrow Ed Yong’s word), using the Nobel Prizes to denote authority is to further cement the prizes’ undeserved place in the public consciousness of scholastic merit. Of course, lots of people are looking for the slightest opportunity to tell the Modi government it got something wrong – and both Banerjee and Duflo have admitted they couldn’t understand demonetisation, for starters – but using the Nobel Prizes to say “I told you so!” is not a free lunch. I don’t know what the alternatives could be; it’s certainly infeasible to think anyone could persuade mainstream Indian newsrooms to stop covering the announcement of the Nobel Prizes if only because it’s an excellent opportunity to talk/write about something in science and have your audience listen/read. We could try harder, but until we don’t, it also makes sense to criticise the Nobel Prizes while popularising them – and this is what’s missing in the social-media conversations shout-outs that seek to challenge one form of authority with another.