Sunday, December 8, 2013

Historical Moneyball

Cass Sunstein offers on The New Republic web site a critical review a new entry in the bulging “digital humanities” genre – a new book in which Steven Skiena and Charles Ward present a statistical model for ranking the most significant figures in the history of humankind. Sunstein’s title speaks for itself: “Statistically, Who Is the Greatest Person in History? Why Quants Can’t Measure Historic Significance.” He describes how the two authors developed their model based on what they saw as “objective” indicators – taken from the latest constellation of entries in the English-language Wikipedia, and weighted with a version of Google’s algorithm. Skiena and Ward kept refining their formulas as those kept producing absurd results – until they reached a list of names which to them seemed credible, but Sunstein still finds quite ludicruous.

On the face of it, this looks like a pretty absurd project. So why were two obviously smart researchers so smitten with it? I do have a hypothesis, but it is unverifiable through statistical testing – so I would hardly expect Skiena and Ward to be impressed by it. Anyway, it goes something like this. As I wrote earlier – with reference to the “selfish gene” crowd – overly smart people may have a tendency to be stupid in a very peculiar way. Sunstein inadvertently points to some very telling diagnostic criteria for this mental condition when he admits: “All this is a lot of fun, and it must be acknowledged that the authors’ enthusiasm and sense of play are infectious.” Which reminds me of the way Bernard Shaw identified pretty much the same symptom. As he noted a century or so ago, “the sign of a truly educated man is to be deeply moved by statistics.”

By the way, I am still surprised by the extent to which The New Republic site – in addition to offering occasional gems like Dobbs’s piece – is loaded with trivia. Links at the bottom of the page there promise to take you to lists of “The 10 Most Bizarre Shoes in History,” “The 15 most Memorable Goal Celebrations in Premier League History,” “The Most Offensive Team Names in Sports,” etc.; even to a marketing pitch by a heart surgeon seeking to make an extra buck. I would have said: “What a shame,” if this word still meant something. I guess this is how this and other information outlets (like The Huffington Post and The Atlantic) have emerged as some of the fittest beasts in the competition to attract the most eyeballs.