The Economics Nobel: Should there be one?

The so-called “Nobel Prize” in economics (note that it is actually *not* a Nobel in the same way as the science, literature, and peace prizes) has awakened more than the usual amount of criticism this year.

EconomicNobelArticleThis Guardian article captures some of the usual complaints, quite well. The writer suggests a broadening out of the prize, to include all of social science, thus getting away from the prize’s tendency to reward technical/mathematical work that sustains the illusions that economics is a science like physics or chemistry. Ample evidence (which might even be called “scientific” evidence) demonstrates that it is not. Economics is a human construction, filled with human assumptions and values that have little relationship to the laws of nature.

But a leading Swedish social science researcher on the topic of corruption, Bo Rothstein, has taken the arguments against the prize one step further. In an article in the major Stockholm daily DN (Swedish only), Rothstein indicates that he planned to use his position in the Royal Academy of Sciences to initiate a formal inquiry as to whether the prize goes against the intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.

Rothstein’s point: research shows that people trained in what we call “economics” today are more likely to be corrupt, and the research has controlled for other factors: meaning it is the training, not other factors in the person’s background, that causes this significant difference in likelihood to become corrupt.

Rothstein’s conclusion is that an economic prize linked to “Nobel” may be promoting the conditions that create corruption in the world — which is quite against Nobel’s clear intentions, since corruption clearly makes the world a worse place and not a better one.

It will be interesting to see where Rothstein’s initiative, which is a serious thing given his prominence, ultimately leads.

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