I received a copy of “Who’s Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank,” by Steven Skiena, a computer scientist at Stony Brook University, and Charles Ward, an engineer at Google. Here’s the blurb I gave the publisher:
Skiena and Ward provide a numerical ranking for the every Wikipedia resident who’s ever lived. What a great idea! This book is a guaranteed argument-starter. I found something to argue with on nearly every page.
Here’s an argument for you. Their method ranks obscure U.S. president Chester Arthur as the 499th most historically significant figure who has ever lived. William Henry Harrison, who was president for one month, is listed as the 288th most significant person. This seems ridiculous to me. We’re considering all people who have ever lived (who are on Wikipedia), including inventors of drugs, discoverers of physical laws, founders of countries, influential religious leaders, explorers, authors, musicians, newspaper editors, etc etc. Surely there are many thousands of people who are more historically significant than these two minor figures who just happened to be president of the United States for brief periods.
How did this happen? I can’t be sure, but think about this: Right now, as you read this, there’s probably a 7th grader somewhere who’s googling Chester Arthur as part of a class project on American presidents (and is not allowed to write about Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln). And somewhere else there’s a 5th-grade teacher who has assigned a different president to each of the students in his or her class. These kids are all going on Wikipedia, and lots of other pages link to these presidents’ pages.
In his historical baseball abstract, Bill James ranks approximately 1000 of the best baseball players. The ranking is, of course, ultimately subjective (in that James has to make choices in what data sources to use and how to combine them) but it has a clearly-defined goal: wins. James is rating players based on how many wins they contributed to their team. In his historical basketball book, Bill Simmons ranks approximately 100 of the best pro basketball players. Simmons, like James, is entertaining, intelligent, and thought-provoking, but one thing his ratings don’t have is a clear external goal. One could say that James is ranking based on an (imperfect) estimate of a somewhat well-defined outcome, whereas Simmons is ranking for the sake of ranking. As with the notorious “U.S. News” college rankings, the ratings are not an estimate of anything but themselves. That’s fine, it’s just they way it is, I’m not trying to slam Bill Simmons, I’m just trying to make this distinction.
Skiena and Ward, like Simmons, are producing a ranking that is not an estimate of any externally-defined goal. Again, that’s fine—it’s all one could possibly do here, I think.
But . . . I found it grating how Skiena and Ward kept on referring to their rankings as “long-term historical significance,” “historical greatness,” etc. They write, “Our algorithmic rankings help focus attention where it should properly be focused. Any person interested in livestock production would miss the point if they study how to raise geese and Angora rabbits at the expense of cows, pigs, and chickens. Our rankings help answer the question ‘Where’s the beef?’ in history in a rigorous and effective way.” I don’t think Chester Arthur is very beefy at all, but I do believe that he gets lots of links because the U.S. educational system is so focused on presidents.
The part I like is when they write, “what we are really trying to do here is study what shapes the process of historical recollection.”
In summary, I have mixed feelings about this book. I like the idea of quantitatively studying the process of historical recollection. But it’s hard for me to take seriously any method that represents Grover Cleveland as the 98nd most historically significant figure who’s ever lived.