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Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank Hardcover – 14 Oct 2013
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'This is all fun: reputational face-offs are great entertainment. And, shrewdly, Skiena and Ward have an app. More seriously, historians will put quantitative analysis to good use - and their model may help historiographers grapple with Wikipedia.' New Scientist
'I confess to simply liking the book. I still do not care about the great order of things; nonetheless, I very much appreciate a huge amount of fascinating detail that the book makes available at one's fingertips, and the orderly manner in which it does that.' Alex Bogomolny, MAA Reviews
'… the authors' enthusiasm and sense of play are infectious.' Cass Sunstein, The New Republic
In this fascinating book, Skiena and Ward bring quantitative analysis to bear on ranking and comparing historical reputations, aggregating the traces of millions of opinions, as Google ranks webpages. They present rankings of thousands of history's most significant people in science, politics, entertainment, and all areas of human endeavor.See all Product description
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The biggest problem I have with the book is the bias towards American figures. The authors acknowledge that the English Wikipedia (their main source of information) is biased towards American figures, but I don't think they really acknowledge the extent of it, and the text of the book is very American-biased as well. There are several chapters devoted to how their system ranks American figures in certain fields, ignoring the rest of the world, and it does very little to dispel the stereotype that Americans think that America is the world.
On the ranking bias, it doesn't seem to take into account how much America has increased as a power over the centuries. It would make sense for twentieth century American presidents to feature more highly in the rankings than older presidents because of America's position in the world. But it seems to view it from an entirely American viewpoint and presidents seem to be ranked in terms of their significance to America.
For example, it has Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as 5th, 6th and 10th respectively, which I would say overstates their world significance - three of the ten most significant people ever are pre-20th century American presidents according to them. Ulysses Grant is 28th despite having very little resonance outside America, whereas more recent presidents have had more of a global effect and aren't ranked as highly. If another country came to prominence as a world power in the future, would that make their past leaders retrospectively more significant? I would argue not to this extent. I would suggest that the American bias is also why Einstein (19th), who was based in America, is rated as more significant than Newton (21st).
But there are some very interesting discussions and comparisons of many significant figures of the world, and I do think that this book is for the most part an interesting read. I don't think anyone will read it and not find a lot to disagree with, but I don't think anyone could produce a list that wouldn't have this effect. But it does have Napoleon as the second most significant person ever. And he wasn't even American.
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They explain their processes and calculation very well and then provide comparisons with "experts" and "Top 100" lists, etc. to validate that what they measure is actually doing the job. Then they delve into literally scores of categories to compare the most significant figures. Was Thomas Edison more significant than Alexander Graham Bell or Eli Whitney? Who was the most significant world leader between the world wars? Which King or Pope had the most long-term significance?
They do admit that the data in Anglo-centric, all of the data is in English, and they have made a correction for recency. All in all it is fascinating to wander through their tables and graphs and see where my personal favorites fell.
One criticism I have is that there is really too much data and too many categories and too many comparisons. It would have been better to focus in more depth on fewer categories and dive deeper into the data, leaving the more esoteric areas to another volume or to the internet (they have a very nice companion website).
For everyone interested in history and interested in numerical comparisons (for any area - baseball, business, the arts, etc.) the book is highly recommended.
The Time article explains how the study was conducted:
"When we set out to rank the significance of historical figures, we decided to not approach the project the way historians might, through a principled assessment of their individual achievements. Instead, we evaluated each person by aggregating millions of traces of opinions into a computational data-centric analysis. We ranked historical figures just as Google ranks web pages, by integrating a diverse set of measurements about their reputation into a single consensus value."
"Historically significant figures leave statistical evidence of their presence behind, if one knows where to look for it, and we used several data sources to fuel our ranking algorithms, including Wikipedia, scanned books and Google n-grams"
"...we adjusted for the fact that today's stars will fade from living memory over the next several generations... By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it..."
"Since we analyzed the English Wikipedia, we admittedly measured the interests and judgments of primarily the Western, English-speaking community... Our algorithms also don't include many women at the very top... This is at least partially due to women being underrepresented in Wikipedia".
The authors then dissect the study results and examine how individuals in many different fields and pursuits were ranked - Part II of the book examines American political figures, modern world leaders, individuals in science and technology, religion and philosophy, sports and the arts.
And here is where I almost immediately found an error, leaving some doubt in my mind regarding the rigor and accuracy of the work the authors have presented.
In Chapter 14, the authors present a tabulation of the "most significant classical composers", stating that "19 rank among the most 500 significant figures in history".
Except -- they have overlooked two composers at least - from the top 100, Richard Wagner is at #62 on the list and Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky is at #63. If the full listing of 500 was examined then how many more composers may have also been omitted? And I haven't examined any of the other tabulations to determine whether or not other omissions may have been made in those specific listings.
This is unfortunate. The study is fascinating and perhaps ground-breaking. But the authors need to step back and carefully examine the conclusions that they are presenting. If this reviewer has been able to catch a fairly obvious error so quickly, then it suggests that others may be present as well. Once these are fixed, the book will be fully deserving of 5 stars.
But in truth, the more things change the more they remain the same.
The reason is that the data used is from Wikipedia, and it all really just distills down to people's opinions once again. The number of hits, the links and the length and contents of articles are all reflections of someone's opinion when you come right down to it. True the authors approach the data from multiple sides so as to come up with what they feel is a truer picture of importance, but that really is just their opinion, and biases, being factored into the equation.
Once they explain their methodology they then splice and dice the results, generating numerous lists, no doubt with the intent of creating interest and maybe even controversy, but I found it all rather tiresome and tedious, and the problem is that because it is all so quantified it is like studying a spreadsheet- its only about the numbers.
I much prefer a book like The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History by Michael H. Hart which is a qualitative comparison reflecting one man's opinion. I may not agree with everything written , but it's interesting to read about each person's life and why he or she was rated as they were. It is not objective or scientific but it is interesting- something this book woefully is not.