Justin Bieber or Chester A. Arthur? Greg Louganis or the Empress Dowager Cixi? Dan Quayle or Kirsten Dunst? These are questions that have probably never been asked before, but now you can feel free to ask away. While it’s by no means definitive, Steven Skiena and Charles Ward have put together a ranking system—along with a book, Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank—that tries to answer the previously unanswerable. Using a number of Internet-based metrics they’ve created a massive, ranked database of human history’s most significant figures. The top 10:
3. William Shakespeare
5. Abraham Lincoln
6. George Washington
7. Adolf Hitler
9. Alexander the Great
10. Thomas Jefferson
We spoke to Skiena, who, among other things, finally put the Bieber-Arthur controversy to bed.
How would you best describe what your list is quantifying? Jesus is number one, which means he is “the [blank] person ever?”
Our book, Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank (published by Cambridge University Press) is about measuring the significance of historical figures. We do not answer these questions as historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluate each person by aggregating the traces of millions of opinions in a rigorous and principled manner. We rank historical figures just as Google ranks Web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value.
Significance is related to fame but measures something different. Forgotten U.S. President Chester A. Arthur (who we rank at 499) is more historically significant than young pop singer Justin Bieber (currently ranked 8,633), even though he may have a less devoted following and lower contemporary name recognition.
We would call Jesus “the most significant person ever.” We measure meme strength, how successfully is the idea of this person being propagated through time. With over two billion followers a full 2,000 years after his death, Jesus is an incredibly successful historical meme.
What made the two of you want to try to quantify this?
First, we are both broadly interested in history and culture. Computer scientists are not Philistines. Our work revolves around the large-scale analysis of text streams like news feeds and social media, and we have been particularly interested in using our analysis to fuel research in the social sciences.
Ranking things is a natural operation computer scientists do. Ranking the relative importance of Web pages represents the entire foundation of Google, which is where my co-author Charles now works.
“With over two billion followers a full 2,000 years after his death, Jesus is an incredibly successful historical meme.”
What was the most difficult part of doing so?
It is very difficult to fairly compare reputations of different people living at different times, just as it is difficult to compare a hot pizza before you now with the gourmet meal you ate last Saturday night. We had to build a model of reputation decay based on a computational analysis of millions of scanned books to do this in a rigorous and meaningful way.
What are the system’s biggest weaknesses?
Many readers kvetch that our rankings overly favor Americans, because we base our analysis on the English version of Wikipedia. The real question is whether this is a bug or a feature. We accurately measure meme strength from an Anglo-American perspective, which is our stated goal. Rankings only make sense in a particular cultural context. Our rankings reflect the people who Americans know or should know.
The interesting comparisons in the book are all apples-to-apples, the relative rankings within a particular subgroup of historical figures. The coverage of Wikipedia is broad and deep enough that we can provide effective rankings for the political leaders of essentially every nation on Earth in our book, or effectively rank who are the greatest classical Indian and Chinese writers. But if you demand a culturally-independent comparison of Laozi (ranked 512) against Susan B. Anthony (ranked 432), we can’t really make promises.
Beyond fodder for conversation, what else can these rankings provide?
Rankings do many useful things. They focus attention on topics people should be informed about. Frankly, we think it would be valuable for just about everyone to run through our top 100 people and refresh your acquaintance with them.
But the interesting applications of our rankings are where we use them to address questions like (a) who really belongs in American history schoolbooks, (b) to exactly what extent women are underrepresented in Wikipedia, and (c) the accuracy of human decision processes: How effective are people at recognizing the historical significance of contemporary historical figures? It is impossible to make progress resolving such issues until you have a general way to measure significance.
What ranking surprised you the most? Is there any one person who came in way higher or lower than expected? And is there a certain type of person—composers, authors, politicians, etc.—that ranks higher or lower than conventional wisdom might suggest?
It is obviously debatable whenever you place artists, politicians, gangsters, athletes, and scientists in a head-to-head contest. But I find it generally instructive when we place people in a single ordered list. I don’t always agree without algorithms, but I am generally impressed with the basic logic and amused by the juxtapositions.
As a group, I think we might rank classical composers a bit too high, but my co-author Charles (who is a concert-level pianist) may well disagree.
The rankings are fluid, right? Does that mean Jesus could lose his spot any time soon? If not, is there anyone in the top 10 or 20 who could lose his or her spot in the somewhat-near-future?
Our rankings will continue to evolve with Wikipedia, and yes, people can move up or down over time. But Jesus seems pretty secure in his position. Most at risk are contemporary figures and celebrities, since their reputations are most volatile, and hardest to measure.
The highly ranked fellow most on the bubble is George W. Bush, who our algorithms put too high at 36. This is an artifact of his having dominated coverage during eight years of Wikipedia’s rapid growth. Objectively, he belongs in the main body of presidents we rank at around 200 or so.