End-of-the-Year Lists and So On

by Will on December 13, 2012

Can we all just come out and say it? The end-of-the-year “top 100 most awesome”  lists and “most awesome of all” pronouncements, prominent in all media in December — Times’s “person of the year”, and so on — are not terribly worthwhile.

There are three reasons not to take them too seriously.

The first is that we have little reason to believe the people who come out with these things have trustworthy judgment. While a music critic probably can tell us what good albums came out during the year, the pundits covering current events have little specialized expertise. Their qualification to be pundits is that they like following politics, and thus have more of a tolerance and for it than the average person. However, their hoary repository of knowledge is largely based on things like well-worn anecdotes, firm handshakes, winning smiles, and off-the-record briefings. None of these makes a sound basis for science, so the resulting pronouncements are in no way scientific, and are little better than random guesses.

The second reason is the flattery factor. Imagine Time picking a person of the year back in 1633. In choosing between the stargazer Galileo Galilee and the church figures who condemned him to house arrest, they would have had to take into account Galileo’s unpopularity and the church figures’ ability to make their lives as newsmen less pleasant. So even if they thought Galileo was right on the merits, they would have been likely to tout the case for the pope instead, or to tout someone uncontroversial, maybe some obscure Teutonic prince. Their incentives do not make for objectivity.

The third reason is that there is an element of uncertainty that makes it impossible to judge the meaning of current events from such close range. The hypothetical Time writers of 1633 would have had no idea how the heliocentrism controversy would play out. We only think that Galileo is the better choice because we know that subsequent astronomical work bore out his heretical conviction that the earth was not the center of the universe. We can see, looking back, that Time, for instance, named as “person of the year” many a historical figure who was soon after deposed or otherwise rendered irrelevant. Context is essential when we judge the importance of historical figures.

But I am probably taking these pronouncements too seriously, even in dismissing them. A moment’s thought tells us that they make no real claim of authority, but exist simply to spur discussions and disagreements. And they serve that purpose. But what doesn’t?

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