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Influential People

November 14, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

A recent episode of the excellent podcast Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe presented the following Skeptical Quote of the Week: “Biographical history, as taught in our public schools, is still largely a history of boneheads: ridiculous kings and queens, paranoid political leaders, compulsive voyagers, ignorant generals, the flotsam and jetsam of historical currents. The men who radically altered history, the great creative scientists and mathematicians, are seldom mentioned if at all.”

The quote is by Martin Gardner (1914-2010), a mathematician and writer who had a prominent place in the skeptical community. It’s quite a strong statement and I think it makes a fair point, but just how accurate and justified is it?

First I should look at whether history classes (and by extension our society in general) really do concentrate on political and military leaders. I found an interesting list of important figures at Time magazine where they used a computational process to analyse credible sources, including scanned historial books, to establish a list of the most influential people in history. This isn’t really what the original quote was about but I think it is still worth commenting on.

Here’s how Time described their process: “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.” and “By analyzing traces left in millions of scanned books, we can measure just how fast this decay occurs, and correct for it.”

Anyway, here’s the list…

1 Jesus
2 Napoleon
3 Muhammad
4 William Shakespeare
5 Abraham Lincoln
6 George Washington
7 Adolf Hitler
8 Aristotle
9 Alexander the Great
10 Thomas Jefferson
11 Henry VIII of England
12 Charles Darwin
13 Elizabeth I of England
14 Karl Marx
15 Julius Caesar
16 Queen Victoria
17 Martin Luther
18 Joseph Stalin
19 Albert Einstein
20 Christopher Columbus
21 Isaac Newton
22 Charlemagne
23 Theodore Roosevelt
24 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
25 Plato
26 Louis XIV of France
27 Ludwig van Beethoven
28 Ulysses S. Grant
29 Leonardo da Vinci
30 Augustus
31 Carl Linnaeus
32 Ronald Reagan
33 Charles Dickens
34 Paul the Apostle
35 Benjamin Franklin
36 George W. Bush
37 Winston Churchill
38 Genghis Khan
39 Charles I of England
40 Thomas Edison
41 James I of England
42 Friedrich Nietzsche
43 Franklin D. Roosevelt
44 Sigmund Freud
45 Alexander Hamilton
46 Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
47 Woodrow Wilson
48 Johann Sebastian Bach
49 Galileo Galilei
50 Oliver Cromwell
51 James Madison
52 Gautama Buddha
53 Mark Twain
54 Edgar Allan Poe
55 Joseph Smith, Jr.
56 Adam Smith
57 David, King of Israel
58 George III of the United Kingdom
59 Immanuel Kant
60 James Cook
61 John Adams
62 Richard Wagner
63 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
64 Voltaire
65 Saint Peter
66 Andrew Jackson
67 Constantine the Great
68 Socrates
69 Elvis Presley
70 William the Conqueror
71 John F. Kennedy
72 Augustine of Hippo
73 Vincent van Gogh
74 Nicolaus Copernicus
75 Vladimir Lenin
76 Robert E. Lee
77 Oscar Wilde
78 Charles II of England
79 Cicero
80 Jean-Jacques Rousseau
81 Francis Bacon
82 Richard Nixon
83 Louis XVI of France
84 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
85 King Arthur
86 Michelangelo
87 Philip II of Spain
88 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
89 Ali, founder of Sufism
90 Thomas Aquinas
91 Pope John Paul II
92 René Descartes
93 Nikola Tesla
94 Harry S. Truman
95 Joan of Arc
96 Dante Alighieri
97 Otto von Bismarck
98 Grover Cleveland
99 John Calvin
100 John Locke

It’s easy to point out how bizarre some of this list is and plenty of people did that in the comments. Of course it wouldn’t make any difference who was in the list and in what order because someone would find it strange. But I will make a few points about the list and quote a few of the better judgements made by commenters…

While there is good reason to believe Jesus didn’t even exist I think the (probably fictitious) character should be near the top because there is no doubt that the religion his followers founded has been incredibly influential: in both good and bad ways. The same applies to Muhammad.

Similar points were made by commenters, such as this one: “There’s zero [I disagree with the word zero here] evidence that Jesus ever actually existed, therefore he should not be included in this list. If you’re going to include Jesus then you may as well also include Superman and Batman.”

A similar point might be made about King David (position 57) and King Arthur (who is almost certainly a fictitious figure) at position 85. And what about Socrates (at position 68)? There’s some question regarding whether he really existed as well. Still, you could make an argument to say that idealised characters can be even more influential than real people.

The list is clearly western (and especially American) focussed, including George Bush at 36? Really? The inclusion of so many other American presidents in general is totally ridiculous. To the world as a whole most of these people were completely irrelevant.

Here’s a comment about Bush I liked: “If you guys believe that G W Bush belongs in such a list of greats then you should be fair and give a shot to Homer Simpson and Sponge Bob!”

As well as being very western-centric the list is also very male-centric. You might say that until recently women have had little chance to make big contributions but surely we could at least have had Marie Curie who is usually listed amongst top scientists.

And then the women rulers who are there (Elizabeth I of England at 13, Queen Victoria at 16) are absurdly listed ahead of the greatest scientist ever, Isaac Newton (at 21). Are they for real? Political leaders might have had a lot of influence at the time they were in power but in the long term scientific progress is far more important.

In fact I find the lack of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers bizarre. Does anyone really believe that Richard Nixon (at 82) was more important than people like Turing, Euler, or Maxwell (who aren’t even on the list)? Surely not! And what about King Henry VIII at 11? A fat buffoon who started a series of pointless wars, murdered his wives and political opponents, and created a religion for his own benefit is important but the originator of quantum theory isn’t?

Maybe the most ironic thing of all is that none of the inventors of the computer which made the creation and distribution of the list possible are actually on it.

A commenter said: “A pretty weak list all around. Not enough scientists/inventors (Pasteur, James Watt, Faraday, Maxwell, Clausius, Lavoisier, Kepler, Hutton, Heisenberg, for starters). Way too many presidents and heads of state who didn’t do anything unique.”

I hope the algorithm used to create the list was faulty, because if these really are the most important people to our society then there really is no hope!

Maybe Martin Gardner really did have a point, after all.

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