Column: The most popular Filipino in world history

Published on March 25, 2014.

Earlier this month, the Pantheon project website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab went live. Pantheon, or at least its first version, is an impressive but necessarily incomplete attempt to measure “the global popularity of historical characters” (this and other project-descriptive quotes are from the Methods section of the website). It uses two measures.

By the “sophisticated” measure Pantheon calls the Historical Popularity Index (HPI), the most popular person in history is the great philosopher Aristotle, followed closely by his famous teacher Plato. Jesus Christ only comes third—allowing the New York Times Magazine to reference John Lennon’s infamous quote in its story on Pantheon: “Who’s More Famous than Jesus?”

But who are the most popular Filipinos according to Pantheon?

Finding the answer is a simple matter of clicking on the right links. A word, however, about the limitations of the Pantheon project.

The MIT Media Lab’s Macro Connections group made four crucial assumptions when it developed the project. First, Pantheon would focus on “cultural production,” not culture understood in its broad sense of information. Second, it would use “biographies of notable historical characters” as proxy for cultural production. Third, it would narrow the project’s scope to global culture, “meaning the subset of cultural production that has broken the barriers of space, time and language.” And fourth, the main source for the biographies of globally notable historical characters would be Wikipedia. Or, to be more specific: “The Pantheon 1.0 data was curated by the creators of Pantheon and gathers information on the 11,340 biographies that have presence in more than 25 languages in the Wikipedia (as of May 2013).” (Another data source is Charles Murray’s “Human Achievement: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800BC to 1950.”)

The first measure of historical popularity is simple enough: “The simpler of the two measures, which we denote as L, is the number of different Wikipedia language editions that have an article about a historical character.”

By this measure, Cory Aquino is the most popular of the 18 Filipinos who meet the threshold criterion of presence in more than 25 Wikipedia editions, with 76. (Eight of these editions are in various Philippine languages, such as Kapampangan and Tagalog; the rest are in foreign languages such as Catala and Svenska, and in English of course.)

Gloria Arroyo is a distant second, with 60. (The same eight Philippine editions carry her biographical entry. She is in at least one Wikipedia edition where Cory is not: Afrikaans.)

To correct for certain basic and inherent biases, Pantheon also uses the HPI measure. “The most sophisticated measure, which we name the Historical Popularity Index (HPI) corrects L by adding information on the age of the historical character—as a proxy for breaking the barrier of time-the concentration of PageViews among different languages—to discount characters with PageViews mostly in a few languages—the coefficient of variation in PageViews—to discount characters that have short periods of popularity—and the number of non-english Wikipedia pageviews—to reduce any English bias even further.”

By this second measure, Ferdinand Marcos is the most popular Filipino, with an HPI of 24.424, followed by Jose Rizal, with an HPI of 24.018.

Marcos has 53 Wikipedia editions to his name, while Rizal (classified by Pantheon under the anodyne term “social activist”) has 51. Lapu-Lapu, classified like 13 other Filipinos in the list as “politician,” has an HPI of 23.509, with 28 Wikipedia editions.

What does this all mean?

The Pantheon website, at pantheon.media.mit.edu, opens with a stark reminder to its visitors that “Small differences in ranking (i.e., who is first, second or tenth) are not statistically meaningful and should not be used to draw strong conclusions about the popularity of similarly ranked individuals,” and that “Individuals are mapped to their places of birth according to present-day national boundaries, not national identities.”

The second reminder explains why Lapu-Lapu, who would likely be horrified if he heard himself being referred to by a Spanish king’s name, is classified as Filipino—and why Austria claims the dubious honor of hosting Adolf Hitler as its most popular native son. (Hitler also comes second among the 2,529 politicians included in Pantheon, next only to Julius Caesar.)

The first reminder suggests that patterns in ranking, not who came in “first, second or tenth”), may provide the better source of meaning.

Of the 18 Filipinos on the list, only three are social activists: Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Marcelo del Pilar. One is a boxer: Manny Pacquiao (naturally enough), with 39 Wikipedia editions to his name—and 25.71 million page views in the six years between January 2008 and December 2013. (Rizal is a far second, with 7.08 million page views.) The rest are politicians: Marcos, Lapu-Lapu, Arroyo, Emilio Aquinaldo, Cory, Imelda Marcos, Manuel L. Quezon, Joseph Estrada, Fidel Ramos, Noynoy Aquino, Manuel Roxas, Diosdado Macapagal, Ramon Magsaysay and Ninoy Aquino. (Through a fluke, Ramos appears twice, under his own name and under “Presidency of Fidel V. Ramos.)

We can talk all day about the biases and promises of Wikipedia (for my money, it is the best source on Philippine election data), but the picture Pantheon paints is dismaying indeed: If Philippine “cultural production” is limited largely to our political personalities, what kind of culture are we producing?

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