FOM: secrecy

Reuben Hersh rhersh at
Mon Sep 14 14:46:51 EDT 1998

Norbert Wiener resigned from the National Academy of Science.
He regretted having accepted membership in the first place.

Of course election to the NAS is by secret ballot, but Wiener's
main issue was not secrecy, but the very existence of competitive
honors and awards.  He believed that competition and disappointment
in not receiving such awards was harmful to the work of young
scientists, and receiving them late in one's career could
make one complacent about no longer being creative or productive.

I think most mathematicians like the Fields Prize.  It tells us
what the leaders of our profession consider important and promising.
But does it harm those who hope to get it and don't?  Does it
foster  a self-perpetuating elite?  Does it do harm to fields
like logic which are not included in what the leaders consider "hot"?

In cold war years, and even since then, there have been charges
of bias for or against certain nationalities.

Would open ballotting worsen such nationalistic pressures?
Would it pressure judges to vote for friends whom
 they would not have chosen in secret?

Are there examples of great mathematicians who failed to get
Fields prizes because of personal or political or national 
differences, or because their work was underrated by the judges?

Prizes, awards and so on are so prevalent in our society and
in our scientific and academic life, there is no chance thatmathematicians
will  give them up.  Maybe open voting would be more harmful
than secret ballots.

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