On awards - the ideological perspective

by Oded Goldreich

[written 2002, minor revision 2006]

See my later essay On Struggle and Competition in Scientific Fields: In fact, Sec. 2.2 details the following discussion, after a theoretical framework is presented in Sec 2.1.

The (relatively new) obsessive preoccupation of SIGACT with the institution of awards gets on my nerves. In general, I see nothing positive about any type of award (in any arena, be it science, art, humanities or social service). [This page is focused on the ideological perspective of the subject; see a companion page on practical considerations.] [See also a somewhat related discussion of FOCS/STOC special issues.]

Typically, awards glorify and focus attention on one achievement or contribution or individual, while ignoring the wider context (which typically includes many contributions by many individuals). This approach may be rarely justified. (One may argue that singling out one contribution is justified in case of real scientific revolutions, but such revolutions occur very rarely and do not provide enough substance for a yearly award.) In contrast, in any given year, there are a few outstanding contributions, and (arbitrarily) selecting one of them for an award seems unjustified. Things are even worst, because the border between the outstanding works and the rest is not that clear. This is not merely saying that the work of the selection committee is very hard, but rather that the latter is faced with a task that makes no sense.

Of course, one can claim the same holds with respect to hiring decisions and selection of a program to a conference. However, the difference is that in the latter cases (i.e., hiring and conference's program), resources are objectively limited and so a selection is unavoidable. Of course, if one institutes an award, then one creates a new limited resource (and a selection is again called for), but my point is that there is no objective justification for creating this award at the first place.

Typically, awards are actually a lottery (which is non-biased at best) among equals, and once the outcome is determine people treat the winners as if they were better. How does this process serve truth and beauty (or science and art)?

Awards are bound to be superficial and attract attention to the superficial. Needless to say, there is a superficial aspect in any human, the question is whether it should be encouraged. Indeed, I should confess that I have participates in such activities (i.e., made nominations and cared about their outcome), but I'm far from being proud about it...

If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God's sake let him alone until he is dead;
no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up
around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies, but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have
killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.

Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

Added quote by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859): The French want no-one to be their superior. The English want inferiors. The Frenchman constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety. The Englishman lowers his beneath him with satisfaction.
Indeed, I'd prefer that they be no awards at all; but given they exist, I'm annoyed when some get them and others (who are not less deserving) do not.

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