Ethics of Nobel Prize Nominations:

My post on the Nobel Peace/Literature Prize nominations of convicted but supposedly reformed multiple murderer Tookie Williams prompted some discussion: What about finding some professor who could nominate some ordinary Joe as a way to make a statement about how little the nomination means? This would be eminently possible, but would it be ethical?

The argument why it would be unethical: One's power to nominate comes with an obligation to actually vouch for the high qualities of the person being nominated. This is especially so as to academics, who (in my view, though not in everyone's) are supposed to be committed to candor in their scholarly work.

So if some professors want to nominate someone out-of-the-mainstream who they think really merits the prize, they are entirely free to do so, even if they know that most professors would bitterly disagree with the nomination (and even if the purpose is to annoy other professors, or to illustrate how easy it is to nominate someone). But I think that nominating someone when you don't sincerely believe that this someone merits the prize isn't quite right.

The argument why it would be ethical: There a parody exception or system testing exception to this obligation of sincerity, much as there is in some other contexts. For instance, we should generally be honest with our students, but that doesn't forbid us from saying something in class that's literally false but nonetheless clearly a parody or a joke — or for that matter, saying something that may be misleading but is aimed at getting the students to correct you (of course, if you promptly acknowledge this in the event that students fail to correct you).

Likewise, I think the classic Alan Sokal Social Text parody was permissible: Though a professor normally vouches for the accuracy of the material that he submits to a journal, the professor isn't acting unethically if the material is so clearly a hoax that any thoughtful reviewer would recognize it as such (and thus that the publication of the hoax is powerful evidence of how the review system is broken, at least at this particular journal). True, the argument would go, the insincere nomination isn't a real attempt to test the selection process — few people think that the nominee will actually get the prize. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate device for publizing the nature of the nomination process.

What's the right answer here? My temptation is to counsel against any facially dishonest conduct, especially by scholars, in a serious context (light-hearted gags aimed at entertainment, and unlikely to deceive anyone on an important matter, are a different story), at least unless the falsehood is an attempt to demonstrate some real failing in a review process. I don't think the open Nobel Prize nomination system is indeed a failing; the failing comes in some media outlets' misleadingly suggesting that the nominations are meaningfully screened, and I think the dishonesty to the Nobel committee would thus be unjustified. But perhaps I'm mistaken; I just mostly wanted to air what strike me as the strongest arguments on both sides.