Public intellectuals poll

Prospect Magazine

Public intellectuals poll

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How did 1,000 voters and the media respond to our poll?

There was a noisy response to Prospect’s list of Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals. Two issues attracted the most attention. First, how few women were on Prospect’s original list (12 out of 100). The Guardian women’s page ran its own alternative list of “101 overlooked women intellectuals” and then added another 42 based on readers’ responses. Both lists, however, confused celebrities or well known media personalities with public intellectuals.

The Guardian failed to address the central issue with any rigour: are there fewer women intellectuals than men? If so, why? Why are women public intellectuals, even taking the Guardian list as a basis, concentrated in so few areas: 30 per cent are writers or critics and 12 per cent journalists or broadcasters? By contrast, there is one scientist, two economists and three women in medicine.

The second issue that came up was the centralisation of British intellectual culture. Newspapers, magazines, publishers and television are overwhelmingly concentrated in the southeast. It is also the home of many of our great teaching hospitals and top universities. The Manchester of Lewis Namier, the young AJP Taylor and Michael Polanyi is no more. Many of Scotland’s top intellectuals are in London.

What do the votes of Prospect readers show? First, there are few surprises. Of the top 30 names the only surprise is Amartya Sen (voted third), a major international figure in his field, but who would have thought that development economics would attract such a popular following without either a significant media presence or a bestselling book? Elsewhere, the names are familiar enough from television or radio: Dawkins and Greer, Miller and Bragg, Ignatieff and Frayn. Historians are prominent: Hobsbawm, Schama and Niall Ferguson are all in the top ten. Political essayists, too: Ignatieff and Garton Ash, Monbiot, Hitchens, Hutton and AC Grayling are all in the top 20.

The dog that didn’t bark is science. Richard Dawkins came top, by a long way, but it’s a long fall to Susan Greenfield and Robert Winston (in the top 30, but only just). That’s it: three scientists in the top 30. The other poor showing is for politics, think tanks and law: Marquand and Le Grand, Mulgan and Grant, Pannick and David Green are all near the bottom. It seems we prefer historians and political essayists, the intellectual culture of BBC2, Radio 4 and higher journalism including, after 100 issues, Prospect.

  1. November 29, 2009

    Frank Li

    If Dawkins didn’t win the poll, that would had been a huge slap to the face to the scientific community.

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David Herman

David Herman is a former television producer 

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