The trouble with letting survey respondents select themselves is that the results can be very odd. How likely is it, for example, that even though the Muslim world does not have a single university in the world’s top 500, it nevertheless produces all ten of the world’s top ten public intellectuals, according to the latest Prospect public intellectuals poll?
I must confess to not even having heard of seven of the ten. And what has Tariq Ramadan done in the last three years to push him up from 58 to 8?
If we ignore the campaign to get Muslims to vote and delete the top ten, we have the same situation as in 2005 with Noam Chomsky, who apart from his loyal band of leftist followers is not taken seriously outside linguistics, as number one. Al Gore is number two, perhaps reflecting the fashionability of his issue.
Another problem is that the starting point is Prospect‘s list, with half of the top 10 and 17 of the top 50 in 2008 seemingly not even worth considering in 2005.
There is no easy way to conduct polls like this, but perhaps voters having to write in names without a predetermined list would both include intellectuals Prospect missed, and minimise blog-driven campaigns for particular individuals.
Though this is a marketing gimmick for Prospect, even gimmicks need a certain level of credibility. A list of top universities that put, say, Cairo University above Princeton is not going to be taken seriously. Whatever the merits of Fethullah Gülen, he is not the world’s top public intellectual, and Prospect lacks an even semi-plausible public intellectual ranking.