Back in middle 1980s, when I was a magazine editor, we would sit around my office one night shortly before each deadline and concoct each issue’s all-but-obligatory lists —Who’s Hot, Who’s Sexy, Who’s Who, etc., etc.— that would fill a double spread and be emblazoned across the cover.
The selections would be a combination of solid picks (Michael Caine, Terri Garr), a shameless showcase for personal favorites (there was a surprising recurrence of Genevieve Bujold and Emmylou Harris) and, mostly, a determined attempt to epater le bourgeois — or at least to epater them enough to make them plunk down $2.50 at a newsstand.

Thus, a list of “Sex Symbols for the Thinking Man and Woman” included Susan Sontag (“if we said you have a beautiful interpretation, would you hold it against us?”) and Tina Brown (“Vanity Fair‘s Sharpe cookie”).  A list of “The Romantics” (described as being, among other things, intense, vulnerable, optimistic, capable of surrender, ardent) included Eurythmics, Armagnac, Helmut Jahn, Mort Zuckerman, and Old Coke, while the corresponding “Un-Romantics”  (cautious, skeptical, studied, sophisticated, interested in calculated effect) were Talking Heads, Cognac, Michael Graves, Donald Trump, and New Coke….you get the idea.

So I know exactly what is going on when the Telegraph decided to publish a list of “The Top 100 Living Geniuses.”  In fact, the story was considered sufficiently important (read: provocative) that it was actually being re-published; it had originally appeared in October 2007.

Then why am I —who was serially guilty of exactly such an offense back in the day— now somewhat exercised about this particular list.

Partly, of course, it’s because I’m now an old fart.  But I like to think it’s also because even when I was part of the problem I had at least a modicum of respect for words, and “genius” is not one to be lightly used.  I would have thought that it would be hard to fill a list of the one hundred geniuses in the history of the world.  But the idea that there are 100 currently alive is a sign of both the deterioration of the language and the triumph of generational hubris.

Here’s the methodology:

The top 100 living geniuses was compiled by a panel of six experts in creativity and innovation from Creators Synectics, a global consultants firm.

The company emailed 4,000 Britons in the summer of 2007 and asked them to nominate up to 10 living people who they considered geniuses.

Each genius was then awarded scores out of ten against criteria which included: paradigm shifting; popular acclaim; intellectual power; achievement and cultural importance.

Creators Synectics, by the way, is a firm without a website; for the matter of that, without much of a web footprint of any kind.  Whoever they are, at least they’re upfront about their conception of genius: intellectual power is the third of five components of “genius.”

And then there’s the list.  I fully realize that I am now the bourgeois that an earlier me once set out to epater — but, the idea that George Soros ranks as Number Four…..or Dario Fo as Number Seven…..and Nicholson Baker, of all people, as Number Eighteen, and……..and…….   Give me a very large break.   Number Forty-three is Osama Bin Laden.  Need I say more?

Here’s the Top 10:

1.  Swiss Chemist Albert Hoffman

2,  British Computer Scientist Tem Berners-Lee

3.  American Invertor + Philanthropist George Soros

4.  American Satirist + Animator Matt Groening

5.  South African Politican + Diplomat Nelson Mandela

6.  British Chemist Frederick Sanger

7.  Italian Writer + Dramatist Dario Fo

8.  British Physicist Steven Hawking

9. A 3-way tie between Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer, American Composer Phillip Glass, and Russian Mathematician Grigory Perelman

Clearly not a genius: the editor of the list who, perhaps distracted by the 11-way tie for Number 72, misspelled Nile Rogers’ name.