Prospect’s dubious list of top public intellectuals

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.

11 thoughts on “Prospect’s dubious list of top public intellectuals

  1. Why would they even publish something like this, the list itself not only lacks credibility but it also makes the magazine look silly and lacking in credibility overall.


  2. Interesting that in the poll that saw a concerted push by Mulims for Muslims, Bernard Lewis (currently out of favour in most Middle East studies departments because of his support for US foreign policy) moved up quite a few places to 13th and Aayan Hirsh Ali came in at 15th.

    Re “the Muslim world does not have a single university in the world’s top 500”, this does not necessarily mean Muslims are less likely to appear in intellectuals’ lists: they could be working at prestigious Western universities, or not even working at a university (for example Naguib Mahfouz was certainly a contender for intellectual honours).


  3. It’s true that good intellectuals can emerge under even very unpromising circumstances. But given that the institutions that foster intellectual life – universities, book publishers, and the media – are generally weak and/or censored in the Muslim world, it would be very surprising if they could produce the world’s top 10 intellectuals – and indeed have produced them in the last 3 years, given their much weaker showing in the same poll conducted in 2005.


  4. So Craig Venter is no 72 on this poll and Al Gore is no 12?

    Says it all about the literati really.

    A century from now our post-human descendants may remember Venter. They sure aren’t going to remember anyone up to perhaps no 19.


  5. I have probably read more GMB and read more reviews of GMB’s work by now than any of those mentioned above.
    When he decided to leave catallaxy he single handedly engineered a recession on interesting (particularly to Asperger et al) commentary that seems impossible to reverse given the link between freedom of speech and libertarianism that was severed when the Red Brigades/Genghis Khan’s mob brought him to the guillotine.


  6. Re “Says it all about the literati really”:

    I guess if you accept the “Long March [of the left] through the institutions” phenomenon, it isn’t surprising that this kind of TV Week vote of the intelligentsia pulls up number 1 for old Noam (adjusted for the Turkish stack).

    The nice surprise is that the magazine itself is pretty good (as AN said); the other nice surprise is that Bernard Lewis can get recognised. So things are not 100 per cent dark.

    BTW Prospect ran a good article on the whole stacking exercise.


  7. I think it’s pertinent that these Muslims appear on a list irrespective of the rank so that this ‘big wide wprld’ of ours knows that their are others who are making a postive contribution to humanity.

    Also, just because they weren’t on the list in 2005 doesn’t mean they didn’t exit or were not ‘intellectualising’ 🙂 It might prove those at Prospect had their head in the sand not to realise things are happening outside of their own socio-political worlds!


  8. It is a shocker really. I voted myself, and can’t seem to spot many in the top 100, and I thought that I went with rather conservative (that is, ‘mainstream’) suggestions!


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