The Nobel Prize Curse

[An AT classic from 2007, very relevant today.]

Al Gore's Nobel may very well turn out to be the beginning of the end for global warming.

How's that, you say? Surely Al and the International Panel on Climate Control, armed as they now are with the great cachet of the Nobel, will sweep away all oil-company-inspired opposition and bring the Green revolution to completion. We'll all be riding unicycles to work and recycling our nail clippings come next Tuesday, and be happy doing it, lest Al, watching from the big house in Nashville, be made unhappy and give orders to have us sent to Prudhoe Bay to feed moss to the caribou.

Isn't that how the Nobel's supposed to work? But in fact does it? A glance at how the causes of some recent prizewinners have fared may prove enlightening.

* In 2005, the prize went to Mohamed elBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for his efforts in discouraging nuclear proliferation. Evidently, the word hasn't reached Iran, North Korea, Syria, or Pakistan yet.

* In 2004, the winner was Wangari Maathai, for her efforts on behalf of "sustainable development, democracy, and peace", which appears to amount to planting trees in Kenya. Last year Prof. Maathai began a campaign against the menace of
plastic bags. Good for her, I say.

* The 2003 winner was Shirin Ebadi, "for her efforts for democracy and human rights". Everywhere but her home country of Iran. She'll get around to it eventually, though.

* For 2002, it was our own Jimmy Carter, for peace, democracy, human rights, and I don't know what all. Two weeks ago, Jimmy was given the
bum's rush by a pack of Sudanese security thugs.  I guess they hadn't heard about his Nobel.

* The 2001 prize went to Kofi Annan. Kofi has more or less dropped out of sight after leaving the UN. I wonder why?

* In 1997, it was Jody Williams of the International Campaign to ban Landmines. Haven't heard of them recently either. Did they dig ‘em all up?

* And in 1988, the nod went to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. You didn't know there was a Nobel for well-run whorehouses, did you?

But enough. It's clear from this list that not a single cause -- from nonproliferation to land mine clearance -- has prospered recently  since the major figure involved won the Nobel Peace Prize. It's true that some of these awards have been transparent efforts at PC ("We need an African woman. Any African woman."), and some have been attempts at interfering with domestic politics that the Norwegians simply don't understand and should keep out of (all four of the most recent awards can be interpreted as attacks on the Bush administration, which is four too many). But other, far more worthwhile efforts including Tibet (the Dalai Lama, 1989), and Burma (Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991) have suffered as well. 

We need to ask whether the prize itself could be a factor. Some of these campaigns, for instance, land mines, were going great guns right up until the prize was awarded. Then began a slow spiral into irrelevance, marked by neglect from the media, governments, and the public at large. Is the Noble committee unwittingly acting as undertakers to some of its favored causes?

Such a thing has long been recognized in light of the literature Nobels. Several years ago, a friend of mine set out to found a literary quarterly. He'd taken particular care with lining up contributors, and was very proud of receiving commitments from several writers who had been short-listed for the Nobel.

What he failed to grasp was the fact that, simply to qualify, a writer had to have been at work for a minimum of three decades, if not longer. By that time, all but the most exceptional writer has finished his major work. The great material -- the stuff that qualified him in the first place -- has long since been written. Now the writer is working on minor variations of a theme, filling in the spaces, so to speak. And so we get the "Nobel effect" - the widely recognized fact that virtually no writer has ever produced great work after receiving the prize. I can't think of an exception - A Moveable Feast was a nasty, vindictive piece of work. Nobody will ever argue that The Paper Men is the equal of Lord of the Flies. Even V.S. Naipaul's post-laureate work has to be graded as dull, hard as that is to believe. Little question exists that the lit Nobel kills careers (not to mention new literary quarterlies). 

The peace prize's woes have slightly different roots. Over the years, the prize has evolved from an award for carrying out good works in the hope of encouraging others to an often barely-veiled effort at manipulating events, as if the committee saw itself as a multi-headed Wizard of Oz pulling international strings to assure the triumph of Good. But the difficulty here is one of lead times. In the millennial world, many problems appear, peak, and break within a matter of months or weeks, if not days. If any effect is to be achieved, it must be attempted within this time frame. The Nobel committee, with a lead time of years, simply lacks this capability.

Looking at the list of laureates, we see several occasions where the committee was a day late and a kroner short. One that leaps out is the 1985 award to the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a transparent attempt to promote the Nuclear Freeze, a protest movement seeking to freeze numbers of nuclear weapons at the current level prior to universal disarmament. Ignoring the fact that the Freeze was a completely synthetic effort by the KGB (the Soviets had a momentary predominance of weapons in Europe and wanted to keep it that way), the movement's peak had occurred two years earlier, in 1983. Ronald Reagan's
speech of March that year, proposing a missile-defense system that would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete", cut the ground out from under Freeze advocates. Their sole argument was that no alternative existed between their program and universal doom. Reagan offered an alternative, and the entire campaign effectively guttered out by the end of the year.

Far from weighing in on a red-hot topic, the Nobel committee was in the position of trying to revive a corpse that was, well... cold.

Another factor involves the large number of awards handed out to unworthy recipients. The major example here is, of course, Yasir Arafat, but the list also includes Kofi Annan, Rigoberta Menchu, and the UN Peacekeepers. Reputation is a fragile thing, and once thrown away it is seldom recovered. The committee at times appears to be doing its level best to flush away the prize's last shreds of prestige in favor of hustlers, frauds, and worse. ("Peacekeeper" is well on its way to meaning the same thing that "dragoon" did in the 18th century -- a uniformed rapist and looter.)

So that's the prize that Al Gore got. Not something to rally to masses, to say the least. At best, a mere oddity, at worst, a sign that a particular problem or crisis has received all the recognition that it deserves and can with good conscience be put on the shelf next to the land mines and the Kenyan trees.

Al may well have gotten his prize just under the wire. The global warming thesis received several body blows this year not yet adequately aired by the legacy media. The first is the NASA data glitch, a software failure that kicked all temperature records up
several tenths of a degree. The second is the investigation of automated weather stations by meteorologist Anthony Watts, who discovered that a large fraction of the nation's 1,200 stations have been mis-sited

"...on rooftops, at sewage treatment plants, over concrete, next to air conditioners, next to diesel generators, with nearby parking, excessive nighttime humidity, and at non-standard observing heights"
 -- not to mention the one sinking into a swamp. Taken alone, either of these developments is damning. Taken together, they demolish the very basis of the warming argument. Warming was postulated from long-term changes in basic temperature data. What happens when that data has to be thrown out? Quite simply, the entire thesis must be reworked from the ground up. And until it is, all conclusions about warming, climate change, or anything comparable get put on hold.

As for the Peace Prize,  is there any way to salvage it? The possibility exists. The literature prize was for decades handed out to oddities, leftist apparatchiks, and friends of the management until, in the 90s, substantial figures such as Naipaul and Seamus Heaney began to make a reappearance. Missteps still occur (Harold Pinter, e.g.), but the literature prize is not quite the object of ridicule it was twenty years ago. The same could happen with the peace prize.  The committee must first drop its political pretensions. The anti-American campaign of the past four years, which culminated with the Gore award, is simply an embarrassment.

There are ways that the committee can be politically effective.

The 1975 award to Andrei Sakharov, coupled with the 1970 literature award to Solzhenitsyn, was a key element in the dissident campaign against the Soviet monolith. The KGB, which would have been delighted to dump the two of them in the camp farthest north of the Arctic Circle, had to keep their distance. The same is true of Aung San Suu Kyi, who would suffering far worse than a jail cell if it weren't for the attention her award has drawn. Other such cases exist. The committee must learn to pick its battles wisely.

But I have my doubts. Harder than relinquishing power itself -- power of course having its drawbacks -- is relinquishing the illusion of power. Like many figures in entertainment, the media, and the academy, the Nobel committee has for years been able to posture as world-changers without the burden of responsibility. Odds are that the Norwegians will still be selecting hustlers for as long as they can get away with it.

Any bets on Barry Bonds for 2008?

hat tip: PT

J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.