Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel Prizes for all

There is an important message buried in the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize not only to Al Gore but to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Science rarely comes from one person or one eureka moment.

We all love the myth of the maverick scientist, the patent clerk that works out the theory of general relatively. Most scientific advances don't happen that way, they come from gradual increase in the understanding of the different aspects of a problem. There are breakthroughs along the way, there are people that rightly receive recognition for those breakthroughs, but none of it would happen without the work that came before.

Our knowledge of climate change comes from the work of tens of thousands of scientists around the world conducted over decades, much of it thankless grunt work in the field, in the lab, or in front of the computer screen. The genius of the IPCC (and the UN Framework Convention) is the recognition that with an issue this important, the world requires a summary analysis of the work of the entire scientific community. It is unique in all of science. It is by no means perfect, but without it, we would be left without evidence of the strong consensus among the scientific community about climate change, evidence that is needed to advance public understanding and public policy.

As for Al Gore, the duel awarding of the Nobel Prize says that an issue or cause needs a figurehead, and the figurehead needs that large community of workers to hold him/her up.


Anonymous said...

As I've noted elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the last Nobel Peace prize to go to a scientist for doing science (as opposed to a scientist doing mostly something else, Like Linus Paulings nuclear test-ban efforts) was:

1970 Norman Borlaug

and unless I miss something, this is the first time they've given a Nobel Peace prize to a scientific organization for doing science...

However, I think calling Gore a figurehead has slightly wrong connotations, i.e., he took the time to talk to scientists and did a (mostly) good job of articulating what they said for a broader audience.

the way I'd put it is that one needs both to do the science and to communicate it.

The IPCC:Gore case could perhaps have a parallel with:
smoking researchers: Luther Terry, i.e., Kennedy's Surgeon General, who took an active role in pulling together a set of researchers (of whom 50% were smokers!) to do the 1964 report. Allan Brandt's "The Cigarette Century" includes a fine account of Terry's efforts to make that happen and get the word out, in the face of determined opposition (which of course continues). Anyway, Terry didn't do the research, but his political skills in making it happen were crucial.


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