Kevin Berger:

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. 

This is one of those statements that ought to create immediate skepticism. If we think only of the present moment, we can easily discover that there are approximately 2.3 billion Christians alive today, all of whom have heard of Jesus — but how many have heard of Plato and Aristotle? 

So if you go to the Pantheon website, you find this description of their methods

To make our efforts tractable, Pantheon will not focus on culture, as it is understood in its broadest sense, but on cultural production. In a broad sense, culture can be understood as all of the information that humans — or animals — generate and transmit through non-genetic means. At Pantheon, however, we do not focus on the entire range of cultural information, but in a subset of this information that we define narrowly as cultural production. That is, we do not focus on cultural information such as passed on family values or societal trust, but on cultural production as proxied by the biographies of notable historical characters. 

Why they believe that “the biographies of notable historical characters” form a reliable proxy for “cultural production” they do not say. Isn’t there a great deal of cultural production that is non-biographical in character? Art, music, literature, clothing, cooking, moral guidelines and taboos, religious teaching … the overwhelming majority of we typically think of as “cultural production” is non-biographical, it seems to me. So I’m already scratching my head. 

But even setting that aside: the Pantheon website directs readers to cite the article that presents the structure of Pantheon 1.0, and if you consult the preprint of that article available here you’ll see that the dataset draws heavily, I think it’s fair to say primarily, from … Wikipedia. And similar sources. By the way, an earlier attempt at the same kind of ranking — one that Pantheon tries to improve on by using more foreign-language Wikipedia sites — put Jesus at the top, followed by Napoleon (?) and then Mohammed. 

This is all poppycock and balderdash. It’s interesting and perhaps even useful to see what data dominates Wikipedia, but Wikipedia, in any and all languages, is not a reliable indicator of universal historical “popularity” — whatever that means — and still less of “cultural production.” I think the Pantheon database will be valuable, but it won’t ever do what its makers are saying it already does.