The art and science of guessing a Nobel Prize

By Karl Ritter

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Oct. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

After suspected leaks ahead of recent announcements, the literature panel has taken additional measures this year. A press release declaring the winner will no longer be delivered by courier to the offices of major news organizations in Stockholm, including The Associated Press. And the panel's permanent secretary, Peter Englund, has stopped giving his customary interviews in the weeks leading up to the prize.

"We just think it's better this way," Englund told the AP in an email.

Betting on the literature prize is in full swing, with Ladbrokes offering 3/1 odds for Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan — an outsider whose name appears in the Nobel buzz every year though the committee has never given the prize to a musician — placing fourth at 10/1. The last American to win the Nobel Prize in literature was Toni Morrison, in 1993.

In perhaps the most elaborate example of Nobel guesswork, the scientific division of news and financial information provider Thomson Reuters analyzes thousands of citations and papers in high-impact academic journals to identify possible winners of the science and economics awards.

Even though they allow themselves three guesses for each of those four prizes, the Thomson Reuters analysts led by David Pendleton haven't predicted a winner since the 2009 medicine award. Of the 158 scientists they have identified as potential Nobel laureates since 2002, 26 have won, but only nine in the year they had predicted.

"If we do get any of these right it's all the more remarkable, because we have no field expertise," said Pendleton, whose academic background is in ancient history. The main difficulty in making forecasts, he said, is that "there are more people of Nobel class than there are Nobel Prizes to go around."

The scholars and literature buffs speculating on Nobel Prizes may be different from the crowd predicting scores in sports bars, but the psychology is similar: they keep making their guesses known to others even though they know they are more likely to be wrong than right.

When accurate guesses are rare, a person making an inaccurate guess can easily dismiss it by saying that most other people got it wrong too, said Jiao Zhang, a professor at the University of Miami who has studied the dynamics of guess-making.

"Whereas in the rare case when his guess is accurate, he can say to himself, 'I'm among the few who got it right,'" he said in an email. "Vindication and validation are sweet."

Economics — which wasn't in Nobel's will but was tacked on to the other prizes by Sweden's central bank in 1968 — is arguably the most difficult discipline to predict. Unlike Nobel-winning scientists who discovered things like X-rays or the AIDS virus, economics laureates are typically rewarded for abstract theories about market behavior.

Hubert Fromlet, a professor of international economics at Sweden's Linnaeus University, each year offers a "narrow" list with the 10 economists he believes are most likely to win. He also provides a "relatively narrow" list with 20 names and a "broader" one with 40.

But with 40 names, does it really count as I-told-you-so if one of them wins?

"Of course I feel happy when I have someone in the Top 40," Fromlet said. "But if you have someone in the top 10, it's a little bit more fun. It's not a competition. It's just something I like to do."

Associated Press writer Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm contributed to this report.

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