Giving Jesus The Wikipedia Treatment

In an interview, Steven Skiena and Charles Ward, authors of Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank, explain how they developed a ranking system that attempts to quantify human significance.  Their analysis finds that Jesus was the most historically significant person who’s ever lived:

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.

You can explore the Bigger webpage here, which includes the data that informs the book and arranges rankings by category and country. Cathy Lynn Grossman unpacks the methodology – and notes what it misses:

Wikipedia and Google ngrams (a searchable collection of words in scanned English language books) are the basis of the “Bigger” research — and also the source of its bias toward the Anglo-American, English-language version of history in books and online.

Relying on Wikipedia, where only 15 percent of editors are women and user-generated data can be riddled with errors, is also a risky choice, critics have noted.

This methodology … crimped the authors’ ability, for example, to rank the Dalai Lama. The current leader of Tibetan Buddhism was often listed by his official title, the 14th Dalai Lama, which is a status, not an individual, in the data. That meant his ranking couldn’t be calculated.

Cass Sunstein is unimpressed. He concludes that “Skiena and Ward have produced a pretty wacky book, one that offers an important warning about the misuses of quantification”:

Wikipedia is an immensely valuable and in some ways astonishing resource; and if the goal is to measure what interests people, it is hardly senseless to consult it. But Wikipedia itself reports that in October 2010 it had about 116,000 editors (who made at least one edit), and there is no reason to think that the interests and concerns of those 116,000 people—as measured in October 2010—are an accurate reflection of the interests and concerns of the planet’s seven billion people. As I have noted, Skiena and Ward used the English-language version of Wikipedia, but there are more than 280 other versions, and other Wikipedias would likely produce different rankings. If the goal is to learn about worldwide fame or significance, it is more than a bit strange to rely exclusively on the English-language version of Wikipedia. At most, the resulting rankings reflect only the preoccupations of the English-speaking world, and mainly the United States. Surely Jesus would not have done so well in China, to say nothing of all those American presidents. What Skiena and Ward have really done is take a particular version of Wikipedia, as of a certain day in 2010, and use a statistical model from Ngram to project changes, over time, from specific measures of Wikipedia “fame” on that day. It is a nice trick, but it doesn’t help us to rank historical figures in terms of significance.