Statistically, Who's the Greatest Person in History?

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: statistics, quant

Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Simpler: The Future of Government (Simon & Schuster). He is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

...We now have access to digital versions of millions of books, and we can search them to know who and what is mentioned, and where, and how much. The term “culturonomics” sounds both faddish and ugly, but it refers to a promising new field, and we are going to be able to learn a lot from it. In 2011, Jean-Baptiste Michel and multiple co-authors published an article in Science, helpfully if not colorfully titled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” which announced that more than five million books had been digitized, thus giving us a new tool by which to identify cultural trends and to quantify changes over time. You can see when certain words become popular, how grammar evolves, when scientific developments begin to be discussed, which illnesses receive attention, which philosophers are mentioned and when and how much, and far more. From millions of digitized books, we should be able to learn a great deal about culture and social norms and how they change. In important ways, we might also be able to rank people, places, and things.

Steven Skiena and Charles Ward are keenly interested in, even delighted by, rankings. In particular, they are interested in ranking people along one dimension: significance. It would certainly be interesting to develop a kind of warp for significance. How much did Einstein, Darwin, Descartes, Freud, Michelangelo, Mozart, Picasso, and Bob Dylan contribute to the world, compared with the average human being? That seems to be an interesting question, but it raises obvious conceptual and empirical challenges. We lack standards and tools to measure social contributions, certainly across time and across diverse fields and enterprises.

Skiena and Ward do not argue against this conclusion. Undaunted, they nonetheless offer a significance ranking. Here is their list of the twenty most significant people of all time: 

1. Jesus

2. Napoleon

3. Mohammed

4. William Shakespeare

5. Abraham Lincoln

6. George Washington

7. Adolf Hitler

8. Aristotle

9. Alexander the Great

10. Thomas Jefferson

11. Henry VIII

12. Charles Darwin

13. Elizabeth I

14. Karl Marx

15. Julius Caesar

16. Queen Victoria

17. Martin Luther

18. Joseph Stalin

19. Albert Einstein

20. Christopher Columbus

Skiena and Ward compile this list by reference to what they see as five objective indicators, every one involving the English-language version of Wikipedia. (That is a big problem, and we will get to it in due course.) Their first two indicators draw on Google’s famous algorithm, called Page-Rank. Skiena and Ward contend that the pages of significant people end up getting a lot of links. If numerous Wikipedia pages end up linking to Abraham Lincoln, we have a clue that Lincoln was a major figure. With this point in mind, Skiena and Ward ask: what is the probability that a random Wikipedia page will link to a particular person’s page? The higher the probability, the more significant that person’s page....

Read entire article at The New Republic