If one attends a function in which a Nobel laureate is in the same room, that’s worth tweeting about. Which is another way of saying that winners of Nobels are noteworthy because they are rare.

Every year two or three people (out of our collective billions) typically share each of the physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics Nobels. The Nobel for literature is usually claimed by a single writer.

And then there is the Peace Prize. It isn’t unusual for that particular honour to be awarded to organizations:

Indeed, between 1950 and 2005, United Nations organizations alone won the Peace Prize five times. In 2007, UN Peace Prize number six was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (Click over to the IPCC’s website, peer at the top-right corner of your screen, and you’ll see the logos of the two UN bodies responsible for the IPCC. Click once more and you’ll land on a page containing a photo of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) building in Geneva – with a caption underneath explaining that the IPCC’s main offices are located there.)

The awarding of the Peace Prize has always been a political statement. It is not a validation of anyone’s scientific abilities. When the IPCC shared the 2007 Peace Prize with Al Gore – a lifelong politician – the role the IPCC has played in raising climate change awareness was being recognized.

Back in 2001, when the United Nations as a whole won the Peace Prize, it seems unlikely that everyone employed by the UN began describing themselves as a Nobel laureate. Likewise, when the UN Peacekeeping Forces won it in 1988, it’s difficult to imagine that all those who’d served as peacekeepers were automatically considered Nobel laureates.

But since 2007, anyone who helped write an IPCC report has been encouraged to describe themselves as a Nobel winner. This is a problem because it muddies the water. Media reports frequently don’t state clearly that the individual in question did not, in fact, win one of those rare science Nobels.

I recently blogged about a media story of this sort, and later observed that some of the people who are now being called IPCC Nobel laureates possess decidedly weak scientific credentials.

Subsequent research on my part suggests that it isn’t at all rare for media reports to imply that IPCC-connected personnel are scientific Nobel laureates. This is distressing to those of us think a bona fide Nobel in physics actually means something – and that anyone who earns one of those illustrious awards should never be confused with an individual who contributed a few pages of text to an IPCC report.

  • In an article dated today and published in an Australian journal of “social and political debate,” meteorologist David Karoly is described as a “Nobel Prize winner.” That this is the Peace Prize isn’t specified.
  • Yesterday, a Sri Lankan publication described physicist Mohan Munasinghe as a “nobel co-laureate” without mentioning the Peace Prize status of his Nobel.
  • In December, a UK news source similarly described Sir John Houghton as a “Nobel Prize-winning scientist” when his actual honour was the IPCC Peace Prize.
  • A July 2010 Australian Broadcasting Corporation article announcing the death of physicist Stephen Schneider ran under the headline Nobel climate scientist dead at 65. Although the article says the Nobel was shared with Al Gore, nowhere is it made explicit that Schneider’s Nobel wasn’t actually for science. (The Sydney Morning Herald made the same mistake, so did the Canadian Press news service, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Stanford Daily.)
  • When a Michigan community newspaper announced a talk at a local library in July 2010, it described Henry Pollack, an emeritus geophysics professor, as a “Nobel Prize winner” in the headline and referred twice more to his Nobel Prize without once mentioning that it was awarded for peace rather than for science.
  • In February 2010, a South African publication told its readers the IPCC had “won a Nobel Prize” in 2007, but wasn’t more specific.
  • In January 2010 the Washington Post mentioned the IPCC’s Nobel Prize twice in a news story, yet omitted the “peace” part on both occasions. (A columnist at the Times of London committed the same oversight that month – as did India’s Economic Times and Germany’s weekly news magazine, Der Spiegel.)
  • In December 2009 an Indian news article described IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri as a “Nobel laureate” without talking about the Peace Prize.
  • In January 2008, the New York Times ran a story which did, in fact, acknowledge that ecologist Steven Running‘s IPCC-related Nobel is for the Peace Prize. But this occurred only after the story had described him as a “Nobel laureate climate scientist” and again as a “Nobel laureate climate researcher.” Moreover, two quotes in this news story suggest that some members of the public may well hear the word “Nobel” and not pay close attention to the details. One person says: “He’s a Nobel scientist, highly distinguished.” while someone else declares: “We were disappointed the school board would turn down an opportunity for a Nobel laureate to speak.”

In fairness, one can also find examples of accurate and responsible media coverage in this regard, including:

  • a Los Angeles Times story regarding Stephen Schneider’s July 2010 death
  • a UPI news service article from February 2010
  • a January 2010 story from the Australian

And, in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit to having resorted to shorthand myself. More than a dozen times on this blog I have made reference to the IPCC’s “Nobel-winning report” or to the IPCC as a Nobel-winning organization (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, here, here, here, and here). Only once, though, have I referred to an actual person – Al Gore – and failed to mention that the Nobel I was discussing was a Peace Prize rather than a science prize.

Big picture, this problem is mostly about rushed and sloppy journalism. After all, the NobelPrize.org website is easily accessible and is equipped with a Search Box. Before describing anyone as a Nobel laureate one would expect journalists to verify this information.

But this is also about human nature – about our tendency to exaggerate the credentials of those with whom we agree. It’s also about our tendency to overlook such exaggeration if we think it’s in the service of a good cause.


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