The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Who Smithsonian Magazine thinks is "significant"


How can you come up with 10 categories for the "most significant Americans of all time," without having a category for scientists or inventors? That's what Smithsonian Magazine did:

Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward have come up with a novel answer [to questions about the relative importance of various historical figures]…. Skiena and Ward have developed an algorithmic method of ranking historical figures, just as Google ranks web pages. But while Google ranks web pages according to relevance to your search terms, Skiena and Ward rank people according to their historical significance, which they define as "the result of social and cultural forces acting on the mass of an individual's achievement." Their rankings account not only for what individuals have done, but also for how well others remember and value them for it….

[W]e asked Skiena and Ward to separate figures significant to American history from the world population. Then, rather than simply taking their top 100, we developed categories that we believe are significant, and populated our categories with people in Skiena and Ward's order (even if they ranked below 100). This system helped mitigate the biases of Wikipedia…. [We also] made an Editors' Choice in each category, an 11th American whose significance we're willing to argue for.

The lists are interesting—but while there are categories for explorers, political figures, religious figures, pioneering women, criminals, artists, entertainers, athletes, and businessmen, there was nothing for scientists and inventors. Thomas Edison was the only one to make the lists, and he got in as a businessman (as did Bill Gates and Steve Jobs). Doesn't seem quite right to me, given how much of modern life was developed by Americans, even if one focuses just on the inventions and discoveries that came from individuals or small groups and not from team projects.