The Greatest Person in History is….

from The New Republic.

Who was the greatest baseball player of all time?It is certainly possible to rank baseball players in terms of batting average, wins, hitting streaks, and home runs. But people vigorously disagree about the relationship among those particular rankings and overall “greatness.” Can we mediate these disagreements? Baseball statisticians are trying. After all, the goal of a baseball player is to help his team to win.

Maybe we can measure greatness in baseball by exploring how much a player contributes to wins. In fact, a statistical measure called Wins Above Replacement Player (warp) tries to isolate each player’s contribution, by specifying how many wins a player adds, compared with a standardized lesser player (say, a player who does not normally make it into the starting lineup). It turns out that Mays had 156 warp over his career, Cobb 151, Young 168, DiMaggio 78, and Aaron 142. With these numbers, we might be inclined to conclude that Young was baseball’s all-time greatest player (with the exception of Babe Ruth, who heads the warp list at 184).

And who was the greatest president in American history?

Reasonable people might say George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But how is presidential greatness measured? Can we devise a warp for presidents—something like Wins Above Replacement President? If so, we would need to specify the functional equivalent of “wins.” Maybe the term would refer to economic growth or to wars averted or to wars won, controlling for historical circumstances; if so, we would need to produce some kind of measure what would aggregate presidential “wins.” The problem is that history is run only once.

In 2011, Jean-Baptiste Michel and multiple co-authors published an article in Science, helpfully if not colorfully titled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” which announced that more than five million books had been digitized, thus giving us a new tool by which to identify cultural trends and to quantify changes over time.

You can see when certain words become popular, how grammar evolves, when scientific developments begin to be discussed, which illnesses receive attention, which philosophers are mentioned and when and how much, and far more. From millions of digitized books, we should be able to learn a great deal about culture and social norms and how they change. In important ways, we might also be able to rank people, places, and things.

“We lack standards to measure social contributions, certainly across time and across diverse fields and enterprises.”

Steven Skiena and Charles Ward in their book Who’s Bigger? (from Cambridge University Press, over here) are keenly interested in, even delighted by, rankings. In particular, they are interested in ranking people along one dimension: significance They n offer a significance ranking. Here is their list of the twenty most significant people of all time:

1. Jesus
2. Napoleon
3. Mohammed
4. William Shakespeare
5. Abraham Lincoln

6. George Washington
7. Adolf Hitler
8. Aristotle
9. Alexander the Great
10. Thomas Jefferson

11. Henry VIII
12. Charles Darwin
13. Elizabeth I
14. Karl Marx
15. Julius Caesar

16. Queen Victoria
17. Martin Luther
18. Joseph Stalin
19. Albert Einstein
20. Christopher Columbus
Read the rest here.

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