Friday, August 28, 2015

Nobel Wars: How Harvard & Columbia Grads Hacked Wikipedia to Inflate Their Nobel Count

If you ever wonder how far schools will go to increase their bragging rights for Nobel Prizes, consider the case of Harvard and Columbia. For some time now, Harvard and Columbia grads or friends have been hacking Wikipedia to inflate the number of Nobels affiliated with the schools. At the same time, they have deleted Nobelists affiliated with other schools to reduce the competition's count.

You may have seen the Wikipedia list claiming Harvard and Columbia as having the most Nobel prize winners affiliate of all the universities in the world.

But don't believe it. Actually the University of Chicago and the Marine Biological Laboratory (a UChicago subsidiary) combined have more Nobels than any other university in the world.

I know because I went through the Wikipedia list of winners a couple of years ago and vetted every name for the top schools with each university. Shortly after I contacted Harvard, someone (let us assume a Harvard grad, not Harvard itself) began hacking Wikipedia and greatly inflated Harvard's total. There are a couple dozen people listed who have no real affiliation with Harvard. Likewise, Columbia grads have been hacking the list for some time as well. About the same time, someone removed the Marine Biological Laboratory from the list because they realized those would count toward UChicago's total and make UChicago number one.

Pretty much every name in the "Academic staff after award" column for Harvard and Columbia is bogus.

For instance, laughingly, the Harvard list claims that Enrico Fermi was staff at Harvard after he won--when actually he was a professory at UChicago. He merely gave a couple of lectures at Harvard. When I contacted Steven Chu and asked him how he was affiliated with Harvard, he was stunned, saying, "(I) am a professor at Stanford University. Apart from an honorary degree at Harvard, I have no current affiliation. I was on the Physics Department visiting committee." That is, he served on an external review committee of a Harvard program while he was at Stanford.

(Harvard notes in its description of visiting committees that often they include people who are not affiliated with Harvard:

The Harvard University Board of Overseers appoints a Visiting Committee to report on each school, department or administrative unit at the University. Each committee is typically chaired by an Overseer, and includes as members alumni active in the field and experts from outside Harvard.


Similarly, the Harvard list includes other people who merely received honorary degrees or had their books published by Harvard University Press. They were never students, faculty, or staff at Harvard.

While Columbia University itself has been above board and conservative in counting Nobelists, the university's own policy wasn't exciting for some grads or friends who decided to take matters into their own hands and inflate the school's count. Columbia grads have been hacking Wikipedia's total for some time now. For instance, Elie Wiesel is on the Wikipedia list as a Columbia affiliate. I asked Columbia University how he was connected; officially Columbia denied there was a connection and does not count him. But apparently a Columbia grad put him on the list because he gave a lecture at Columbia. The Wikipedia list also counts Liu Xiaobo as a Columbia affiliate, calling him a "visiting scholar." But Columbia University itself debunked that theory. The representative said:

 "Visiting scholar" or "visiting scientist" is not an appointment.  It is simply a courtesy designation that the departments or schools give to scholars who need to use the University's facilities (e.g., special collections in the libraries; scientific equipment that other institutions do not have).

In other words, this would be like Northwestern counting a UChicago Nobelist because he borrowed some books from Northwestern's library through their reciprocal borrowing program.)

While there are various ways to count Nobel affiliates, the broadest legitimate way is to count anyone who has ever been faculty, staff, or a student at a particular university. However, the Wikipedia list for Harvard and Columbia goes even further--counting anyone who ever gave a lecture at Harvard, received an honorary degree, had a book published by the university press, or (in one case) borrowed books from the university library.

Now, Nobel Prize winners give lectures all over the world all the time. Ohio State University did not start counting President Obama as a Nobel affiliate because he once gave the commencement address there. Similarly, UChicago, Cambridge, and MIT would have many more Nobelists if you also counted people who gave lectures on campus or received honorary degrees or had books published by the university press. For instance, Steven Chu, Elie Wiesel, T.S. Eliot and others have lectured at UChicago but UChicago doesn't count them. Furthermore, counting honorary degrees is silly, because any school can give an honorary degree to anyone, regardless of whether they have an actual connection with the institution. So if school X suddenly gave honorary degrees to all Nobel Prize winners tomorrow, then that school could suddenly claim all Nobel Prize winners are "affiliated" with it. Yeah, right. But that's what the Wikipedia list claims for Harvard and Columbia

The list is comparing apples with oranges. Harvard's and Columbia's lists include anyone who ever stepped foot in Boston or NYC, whereas UChicago, Cambridge, MIT and the others are only including alums, faculty, and staff (whether present or past.)

Don't trust Wikipedia as a source. It is easily hacked and no one actually checks. I plan to publish an article on this soon giving the actual total for each school.