The ignoble president and the Nobel Prize

What is the collective noun for a group of Nobel laureates? I’m considering ballast. A ballast of Nobel laureates is appealing because these people, especially if they are all white and male, often tend to take themselves too seriously and are taken so by others as well. I’m not saying they tend to say meaningless things but only that they – and we, speaking generally – overestimate the import of their words, mistaking them for substance when more often than not they are just air (often as a result of being dragged into, or being compelled to comment on, matters in which they may not have been involved if they hadn’t received Nobel Prizes).

On September 7, Physics World reported that 81 Nobel laureates had “voiced their support” for Joe Biden ahead of the impending presidential elections in the US. This move, so to speak, echoed a letter authored by a group of 150 or so well-known Indian scientists ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in India. The Indian group had asked that the people “vote wisely”, principally in order to protect constitutional safeguards and against those who violated or would abrogate them. This was sage advice – even though the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose actions and policies in its first term in power from 2014 to 2019 had dismissed just this wisdom, won a thumping majority – but it was jarring on one count.

The letter’s authors taken together constituted an important subset of the national community of scientists – a community that had stayed largely silent through a spate of horrific incidents of violence, harassment and subversion of institutions and people alike for five years or so. Though it was courageous to have spoken up at a crucial moment (even if the letter didn’t directly name the party or those political candidates whose ideologies were evidently opposed to the ethos the letter’s authors advocated), there was a nagging feeling that perhaps it was too little too late. And in a way, it was.

In addition, the advantages of scientists grouping together as such wasn’t clear – if only to me. Scientists are members of society just as much as most other people are. While it makes sense to come together as scientists, especially as scientists in the same field, to oppose or support an idea that defies or benefits that field, to accumulate as scientists to offer advice on a matter that they haven’t spoken up about before and on which they have as much authority as non-scientists sounds like a plea – apart from broadcasting their support for Biden or saying “vote wisely” or whatever – to defer to their especial authority as scientists, in particular as ‘leading scientists’, as they say, or as Nobel laureates, with emphases on the ‘leading’ and ‘Nobel’.

Otherwise, what does a group of scientists really mean? The Nobel laureates who have spoken up now in favour of Biden offer a similarly confusing proposition. The citizens of a democratic country coming together to vote means they are governing themselves. They are engaging in a specifically defined activity part of a suite of processes the traversal of which gives rise to effective, politically legitimate governments. The employees of a factory coming together to protest their wages (while forsaking them) means they are striving to uphold their rights as labourers. Twenty-two people coming onto a large, grassy field to kick one ball around according to a prefixed and predetermined rule-set means they are playing football. What does a group of Nobel laureates coming together to endorse a presidential candidate mean – other than the moment being crafted to attract the press’s attention?

The fact of their being Nobel laureates does not qualify their endorsement for any different or higher recognition than, say, the endorsement of a businessperson, a badminton champion or a poet, or in fact the many, many scientists who are being good in ways that no award can measure. (Whether the laureates themselves aspire to such relevance is moot.) And this is true from both the electoral and civilian perspectives: neither Trump nor Modi are going to rue the lack of scientists’ support if only because, ironically, the scientists would rather wait to organise among themselves on rare occasions instead of speaking up as often as is necessary or even diffuse into the superseding community of ‘protestors’ to oppose injustice. Just as much as a biologist needs to have studied evolution as well as have successfully demonstrated their proficiency in order to be acknowledged as an expert on evolution – so that they may then dispense thoughts and ideas on the topic that could be taken seriously – good political guidance needs to emerge from a similar enterprise, grounded in knowledge of public affairs and civic engagement.

This also means speaking up once in a while can only influence one’s audience so much. Generic appeals to “vote wisely” are well-taken but, considered in context, their potential to change minds is bound to be awfully finite, or even patronising, depending on the context. For example, Physics World quoted Bill Foster, the Democratic representative from Illinois, reportedly the “only physicist in Congress” and the person who canvassed the laureates, saying:

[Asking the laureates to back Biden] was like pushing at an open door. … there was a lot of enthusiasm because of the difference [the laureates] perceive in the scientific understanding [between Biden and Trump]. … They recognise the harm being done by ignoring science in public policy. And it’s not only science; it’s logic and integrity. The scientific community wants to get to a situation in which they trust people’s word. … The only reason we’re in a position to develop vaccines rapidly is decades of scientific research. This may be an opportunity for the scientific community to remind everyone about long-term investment in science.

Foster’s effort is clearly aimed at hitting the limelight – which it did; getting 81 Nobel laureates is more glamorous than getting 81 well-regarded principal investigators, scientist-communicators, lecturers or postdocs. However, the extent to which such an exercise will be able to sway public opinion is hard to say. I personally can’t imagine, assuming for a moment that we are all Americans as well, that I, my father (a libertarian of sorts), my mother (a devout Hindu), one of her brothers (a staunch BJP supporter) or my father’s brother-in-law (a seemingly committed centrist) would ever think, “Oh, a Nobel laureate has vouched for Biden (or a group of scientists have recommended against Narendra Modi). I should think about whether or not I wish to vote for him (or not for the other).”

And while I don’t presume to know why each of these laureates endorsed Biden’s candidature, their combined support – as compiled on Foster’s initiative – together with Foster’s words indicate that the community of laureates is simply looking out for itself, just as much as every other community is, but in its case wielding the COVID-19 pandemic and its ‘pre-approval’ of anything scientific to press its point that Trump, in its view, is not fit to be president. It is easy to agree that Trump should go but impossible to agree that he must go because science is not in charge! Science is not supposed to be in charge; this – whether the US or India – is a democracy, not a scientocracy, and the government constituted by the performance of democratic rights and responsibilities must not function to the exclusion of disciplines, considerations or even knowledge other than those with a scientific basis. The Physics World article also quotes Carol Greider, a 2009 medicine laureate, thus:

[She] asserted that elected leaders “should be making decisions based on facts and science,” adding that she “strongly endorses” Biden, in particular because of his “commitment to putting public health professionals, not politicians, back in charge”.

This is a dangerously sweeping statement. The pandemic has temporarily legitimised a heightened alertness to the prescriptions of science, at pain of death in many cases, but it can be no excuse – even if pandemics are expected to become more common and/or more dangerous – to substitute broad-based decision-making to that based only on “facts and science”, nor to substitute politicians with public health professionals as the people in charge. In fact, and ultimately, if the laureates’ endorsement this year parallels Greider’s thoughts, it would seem there is an opinion among some of these scientists that “facts and science” ought to constitute the foundations of all political decision-making. Many Indian scientists are already of this view.

The social scientist Prakash Kashwan discussed a similar issue in the context of climate geoengineering in The Wire in December 2018; his conclusions, outlined in the short excerpt below, apply just as well to the pandemic:

Decisions about which unresolved questions of geoengineering deserve public investment can’t be left only to the scientists and policymakers. The community of climate engineering scientists tends to frame geoengineering in certain ways over other equally valid alternatives. This includes considering the global average surface temperature as the central climate impact indicator and ignoring vested interests linked to capital-intensive geoengineering infrastructure. This could bias future R&D trajectories in this area. And these priorities, together with the assessments produced by eminent scientific bodies, have contributed to the rise of a de facto form of governance. In other words, some ‘high-level’ scientific pronouncements have assumed stewardship of climate geoengineering in the absence of other agents. Such technocratic modes of governance don’t enjoy broad-based social or political legitimacy.

Yes, pseudoscience during the pandemic is bad; denying the reality of climate change is bad. But speaking out solely against these ills – in much the same way the ‘Marches for Science’ in India have seemed to do, by drawing scientists out onto streets to (rightfully) demand better pay for scientists and more respect for scientific prescriptions even as the community of scientists has not featured prominently in protests against other excesses by the Government of India, especially the persecution of Muslims and Dalits – suggests a refusal to see oneself as citizen first, as being committed to the accomplishment of one’s goals as a scientist ahead of being concerned with direr issues that predominantly affect the minority or, more worryingly, to see in science alone the solutions to all of our social ills. (Young scientists have been the exception by far.)

Disabusing those who cling to this view and persuading them of the reality that their authority is a dream-state maintained by science’s privileged relationship with the modern state and capitalism’s exploitative relationship with the scientific enterprise is a monumental task, requiring decades of sustained interrogation, dialogue and reflection. Thankfully, we have a cheap and very-short-term substitute in our midst for now: on September 9, news reports emerged that a Norwegian politician named Christian Tybring-Gjedde had nominated Trump for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, allegedly for brokering the peace agreement between Israel and the UAE. I really hope the prize-awarding committee takes the nomination seriously and that Trump receives the prize. Irrespective of what consequences such an event will have on American politics, it will be a golden opportunity for the world – and especially India – to see that the Nobel Prizes are a deeply human and therefore uniquely flawed enterprise, as much as any other award or recognition, that they are capable of being wrong or even just plain stupid.

The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam did the Nobel Prizes a big favour when he received the physics prize in 1979. But by and large, motivated by Henry Kissinger winning the peace prize six years earlier and Barack Obama doing so in 2009, the popular perception of these prizes has only become increasingly irredeemable since. I have full confidence in His Laureateship Donald J. Trump being able to tear down this false edifice – by winning it, and then endorsing himself.