Genius list. Clever, then stupid, then clever again

A study published on 29 October 2007 ranks the top 100 living geniuses in the world. At first sight this seems to be interesting, until you read that the number one genius is Albert Hofman and that the list includes many other people you have probably never heard of or never considered a genius. For the record, Albert Hofman discovered LSD, so perhaps the pollsters have been questioning old hippies. You can download the whole report here:

After the initial disappointment the report is actually very interesting, though probably not for the reasons the authors intend. First of all it raises the important question of the nature of genius. Before you can decide if Muhammed Ali, Albert Hofman, Brian Eno and Matt Groening are really geniuses you need to decide what the word means. This is potentially a very interesting dinner table conversation topic. It also gives people a chance to chat about acid, The Simpsons and that mieaaauuuhhhh sound that you heard when Windows 95 started, apparently a composition of Genius Eno.

But the other reason it is important lies in the reason it was originally commissioned and published. You would have to be very naive to not grasp that the goal of the report was to generate news coverage for the company involved (it's possible they were also trying to get links to their website to improve the Google ranking). At first it appears that they were successful. Many newpapers picked up their press release and ran the story, usually without questioning it. The next day the backlash started, with people challenging the assertion that Brian Eno is a genius, though nobody questioned Albert Hofman. Are journalists all ageing hippies? Then people started to question the effectiveness of the campaign.

Attracting attention is easy. Just throw an egg at a head of state and you will get some news coverage. But turning that into consulting contracts is another matter. After reading the actual report my first reaction was to think that I would never work with a company that could produce such rubbish. But then again I am not so certain, because on closer inspection the attention getting is contrived more cleverly than most.

The company cleverly picked a topic that has broad interest and is controversial without being offensive, guaranteeing a lasting debate in the media and the blogs. It was also a clever stroke to mention mostly UK citizens -- playing for the home crowd -- but also to add a few token geniuses from other countries. Check out the media coverage: "Yorkshire Childhood Behind a Genius" says the Yorkshire Post. "Muhammed Ali Makes Living Geniuses List" says "Two Iranians Among World's 100 Geniuses" says Press-TV Iran and so on.

Part of me is reluctant to give them this satisfaction of being named again, but since you can find out anyway I may as well tell you that behind this story is a consulting company called Synectics. If their goal was to generate publicity then it obviously worked. Some people might be turned off by their bizzarre choices, but others will look more closely and recognize some interesting thinking, and maybe that is what people want from their consultants. I guess we'll see how much business this generates for them, but I think that perhaps it will generate more for their PR company.


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