Left to right: Ashraf Ghani, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker © US Embassy, Kabul © Rex Features
After more than 10,000 votes from over 100 countries, the results of Prospect’s world thinkers 2013 poll are in. Online polls often throw up curious results, but this top 10 offers a snapshot of the intellectual trends that dominate our age.
1. Richard Dawkins When Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, coined the term “meme” in The Selfish Gene 37 years ago, he can’t have anticipated its current popularity as a word to describe internet fads. But this is only one of the ways in which he thrives as an intellectual in the internet age. He is also prolific on Twitter, with more than half a million followers—and his success in this poll attests to his popularity online. He uses this platform to attack his old foe, religion, and to promote science and rationalism. Uncompromising as his message may be, he’s not averse to poking fun at himself: in March he made a guest appearance on The Simpsons, lending his voice to a demon version of himself.
2. Ashraf Ghani Few academics get the chance to put their ideas into practice. But after decades of research into building states at Columbia, Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, followed by a stint at the World Bank, Ashraf Ghani returned to his native Afghanistan to do just that. He served as the country’s finance minister and advised the UN on the transfer of power to the Afghans. He is now in charge of the Afghan Transition Coordination Commission and the Institute for State Effectiveness, applying his experience in Afghanistan elsewhere. He is already looking beyond the current crisis in Syria, raising important questions about what kind of state it will eventually become.
3. Steven Pinker Long admired for his work on language and cognition, the latest book by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a panoramic sweep through history. Marshalling a huge range of evidence, Pinker argued that humanity has become less violent over time. As with Pinker’s previous books, it sparked fierce debate. Whether writing about evolutionary psychology, linguistics or history, what unites Pinker’s work is a fascination with human nature and an enthusiasm for sharing new discoveries in accessible, elegant prose.
4. Ali Allawi Ali Allawi began his career in 1971 at the World Bank before moving into academia and finally politics, as Iraq’s minister of trade, finance and defence after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Since then he has written a pair of acclaimed books, most recently The Crisis of Islamic Civilisation, and he is currently a senior visiting fellow at Princeton. “His scholarly work on post-Saddam Iraq went further than anyone else has yet done in helping us understand the complex reality of that country,” says Clare Lockhart, co-author (with Ashraf Ghani) of Fixing Failed States. “His continuing work on the Iraqi economy—and that of the broader region—is meanwhile helping to illuminate its potential, as well as pathways to a more stable and productive future.”
5. Paul Krugman As a fierce critic of the economic policies of the right, Paul Krugman has become something like the global opposition to fiscal austerity. A tireless advocate of Keynesian economics, he has been repeatedly attacked for his insistence that government spending is critical to ending the recession. But as he told Prospect last year, “we’ve just conducted what amounts to a massive experiment on pretty much the entire OECD [the industrialised world]. It’s been as slam-dunk a victory for a more or less Keynesian view as one can possibly imagine.” His New York Times columns are so widely discussed that it is easy to overlook his academic work, which has won him a Nobel prize and made him one of the world’s most cited economists.
6. Slavoj Žižek Slavoj Žižek’s critics seem unsure whether to dismiss him as a buffoon or a villain. The New Republic has called him “the most despicable philosopher in the west,” but the Slovenian’s legion of fans continues to grow. He has been giving them plenty to chew on—in the past year alone he has produced a 1,200-page study of Hegel, a book, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, analysing the Arab Spring and other recent events, and a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. And he has done all this while occupying academic posts at universities in Slovenia, Switzerland and London. His trademark pop culture references (“If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, I’d say Kung Fu Panda,” he told one interviewer in 2008) may have lost their novelty, but they remain a gentle entry point to his studies of Lacanian psychoanalysis and left-wing ideology.
7. Amartya Sen Amartya Sen will turn 80 in November—making him the fourth oldest thinker on our list—but he remains one of the world’s most active public intellectuals. He rose to prominence in the early 1980s with his studies of famine. Since then he has gone on to make major contributions to developmental economics, social choice theory and political philosophy. Receiving the Nobel prize for economics in 1998, he was praised for having “restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems.” The author of Prospect’s first cover story in 1995, Sen continues to write influential essays and columns, in the past year arguing against European austerity. And he shows no sign of slowing down or narrowing his focus—his latest book (with Jean Drèze), An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, will be published in July.
8. Peter Higgs The English physicist Peter Higgs lent his name to the Higgs boson, the subatomic particle discovered last year at Cern that gives mass to other elementary particles. Although Higgs is always quick to point out that others were involved in early work on the existence of the particle, he was central to the first descriptions of the boson in 1964. “Of the various people who contributed to that piece of theory,” Higgs told Prospect in 2011, “I was the only one who pointed to this particle as something that would be… of interest for experimentalists.” Higgs is expected to receive a Nobel prize this year for his achievements.
9. Mohamed ElBaradei The former director general of the UN’s international atomic energy agency and winner of the 2005 Nobel peace prize, Mohamed ElBaradei has become one of the most prominent advocates of democracy in Egyptian politics over the past two years. Since December, ElBaradei has been the coordinator of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of political parties dedicated to opposing what they see as President Mohamed Morsi’s attempts to secure power for himself and impose a new constitution favouring Islamist parties. Reflecting widespread concern about Morsi’s actions, ElBaradei has accused the president of appointing himself “Egypt’s new pharaoh.”
10. Daniel Kahneman Since the publication of Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011, Daniel Kahneman has become an unlikely resident at the top of the bestseller lists. His face has even appeared on posters on the London Underground, with only two words of explanation: “Thinking Kahneman.” Although he is a psychologist by training, his work on our capacity for making irrational decisions helped create the field of behavioural economics, and he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics in 2002. His book has now brought these insights to a wider audience, making them more influential than ever.
Biographies by Daniel Cohen, Jay Elwes and David Wolf. Additional research by Luke Neima and Lucy Webster
RANKINGS 11 TO 65
11. Steven Weinberg, physicist 12. Jared Diamond, biologist 13. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author 14. Ai Weiwei, artist 15. Arundhati Roy, writer 16. Nate Silver, statistician 17. Asgar Farhadi, filmmaker 18. Ha-Joon Chang, economist 19. Martha Nussbaum, philosopher 20. Elon Musk, businessman 21. Michael Sandel, philosopher 22. Niall Ferguson, historian 23. Hans Rosling, statistician 24 = Anne Applebaum, journalist 24 = Craig Venter, biologist 26. Shinya Yamanaka, biologist 27. Jonathan Haidt, psychologist 28. George Soros, philanthropist 29. Francis Fukuyama, political scientist 30. James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, political scientist and economist 31. Mario Draghi, economist 32. Ramachandra Guha, historian 33. Hilary Mantel, novelist 34. Sebastian Thrun, computer scientist 35. Zadie Smith, novelist 36 = Hernando de Soto, economist 36 = Raghuram Rajan, economist 38. James Hansen, climate scientist 39. Christine Lagarde, economist 40. Roberto Unger, philosopher 41. Moisés Naím, political scientist 42. David Grossman, novelist 43. Andrew Solomon, writer 44. Esther Duflo, economist 45. Eric Schmidt, businessman 46. Wang Hui, political scientist 47. Fernando Savater, philosopher 48. Alexei Navalny, activist 49. Katherine Boo, journalist 50. Anne-Marie Slaughter, political scientist 51. Paul Collier, development economist 52. Margaret Chan, health policy expert 53. Sheryl Sandberg, businesswoman 54. Chen Guangcheng, activist 55. Robert Shiller, economist 56 = Ivan Krastev, political scientist 56 = Nicholas Stern, economist 58. Theda Skocpol, sociologist 59 = Carmen Reinhart, economist 59 = Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, economist 61. Jeremy Grantham, investment strategist 62. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, economists 63. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, political scientist 64. Robert Silvers, editor 65. Jean Pisani-Ferry, economist
Only three thinkers from our 2005 top 10, Richard Dawkins, Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen, appear in this year’s top spots. The panelists who drew up the longlist of 65 gave credit for the currency of candidates’ work—their influence over the past 12 months and their continuing significance for this year’s biggest questions.
Among the new entries at the top are Peter Higgs—whose inclusion is a sign of public excitement about the discoveries emerging from the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, Cern—and Slavoj Žižek, whose critique of global capitalism has gained more urgency in the wake of the financial crisis. The appearance of Steven Pinker and Daniel Kahneman, authors of two of the most successful recent “ideas books,” further demonstrates the public appetite for serious, in-depth thinking in the age of the TED talk. The inclusion of Ashraf Ghani, Ali Allawi and Mohamed ElBaradei—from Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt, respectively—reflects the importance of their work on fostering democracies across the Muslim world in the wake of foreign interventions and the Arab Spring.
One new development was the influence of social media, with just over half of voters coming to the world thinkers homepage via Twitter or Facebook. Twitter also gave readers a chance to respond to the list and highlight notable omissions—Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky were popular choices.
As always, the absences are as revealing as the familiar names at the top. The failure of environmental thinkers to win many votes may be a sign of the faltering energy of the green movement. Despite the presence of climate scientists lower down the list, the movement seems to lack successors to influential public intellectuals such as Rachel Carson and James Lovelock. Serious thinkers about the internet and technology are also conspicuous by their absence. The highest-placed representative of Silicon Valley is the entrepreneur Elon Musk, but beyond journalist-critics such as Evgeny Morozov and Nicholas Carr, technology still awaits its heavyweight public intellectuals (see Thomas Meaney, £).
Most striking of all is the lack of women at the top of this year’s list. The highest-placed woman in this year’s poll, at number 15, is Arundhati Roy, who has become a prominent left-wing critic of inequalities and injustice in modern India since the publication of her novel The God of Small Things over a decade ago.
Many thanks to all those who voted. Do let us know what you make of the results.
MORE ON THE WORLD THINKERS OF 2013:
Do public intellectuals matter? asks AC Grayling
The XX factor: Jessica Abrahams looks at the women on the list
Follow Prospect on Facebook and Twitter