2000 – 2010: End of Year/End of Decade Lists: Top Five Politically Significant Days of the Decade?

I love lists and I hope you do too. Several lists have occurred to me recently, and I was going to ignore my itch to make them because there are probably lots of good end-of-year lists floating around now. But do any of them take a quantitative approach to list-making? I’m going to try the procedure.

How to make an End-Of-Decade List of the most Significant Days of the Decade?


Several months ago there was a widely-circulated news story about “the most boring day in history”: the finger was pointed at April 11th 1954. William Tunstall-Pedoe’s computer program ‘True Knowledge’ (an interesting phrase) identified that date, and the best I could find when skimming google for his methodology was that the decision was involved:

“being fed some 300 million facts about “people, places, business and events” that made the news. Using complex algorithms, such as how much one piece of information was linked to others…”

But is there a simpler DIY way? More importantly, if we can come up with the most boring day, we should be able to come up with the most politically significant day?

That’s the question that interests me. In the past ten years, which were the days when everyone knew that everyone was watching the news? What stories about ‘where you when x happened’ will bind a generation together?

In the next few days I fully expect to see these lists cropping up all over the place, so I thought I’d think about what quantitative political science can contribute to that process:

– What are the criteria we use to summarise ‘political events’ as such?

– How do we rank those events?

– What kinds of personal characteristics affect the way we perceive and rank ‘political events’?

I think the best way to tackle those questions is to think about them from the perspective of how they affect the different methods that I contemplated when constructing my own list:

–          What about a list purely constructed from my own opinion? Hopefully it would have some value. If I was being toyed with by some evil genius[1] and, in one of the less-sick games I was forced to play, everyone on the planet had to answer the question “what’s the most politically significant day in the past ten years?”… if my life depended on guessing the same answer as everyone else, I’m pretty sure I could do it. But where is that confidence coming from?

The next method that occurred to me was the google search. Count the hits, and rank the days that way. Simple and classic (see XKCD). But a number of issues arise with this method, especially about the validity of the measure – why should the number of google hits tell us anything about political significance? Given how I attempted to deal with the problems, it’ll be interesting to see whether the eventual product is at all sensible:

–          Is there a way to design an algorithm that submits every single day to the search engine? If not, how do I decide what dates to try?

  • I decided to set the agenda myself. The submission of dates then will be essentially unscientific in that it’s not easily replicable. I pick out days I think might be significant for a particular reason, and used the internet to help jog my memory.
  • So how to pick the dates? This is the big question, because it’s another way of saying ‘how do I define significance’? Essentially I think I’m looking for the intersection of several sets:

I don’t promise that every included event fits those criteria, but I think any qualitative or quantitative undertaking should answer to those criteria. I submitted any date that I thought might fit that criteria: approximately 50 dates in all.

A number of subsidiary problems that were only unsatisfactorily solved:

–          If I am searching for a date, do I use numerals (D/M/Y or M/D/Y) or words?

  • Numerals seemed to be the best bet, since multiple languages use those numerals.
  • I went for the American date formulation because I felt like that would give the biggest chance to pick up accurate readings from US websites for US events, which tend to be politically significant.

–          And what time zone do I use to delineate ‘a day’?

  • Many political events take longer than a day (Should the start or end date of a war be used to represent that war?) but the country where an event happened was used for the ‘date’ of that event.

–          And is the number of google hits really an indication of significance? Surely it’s still biased towards ‘significance’ to people with internet access, disposable incomes, etc – just as a list composed of my own opinion would have been?

  • This is not a problem that can be easily overcome, but more worrisome was the time trend. Do events in early 2001 have a chance against events in late 2010 given how much the internet has grown?

It’s this problem that is the most significant. Internet hits for 2010 events were consistently greater than those for 2000 events. I think this problem would crop up in a qualitative list too – which year do you remember better, 2010 or 2000? In this attempt at a quantitative format though, I can try to deal with it:

–          Regress ‘hits’ on ‘months since Jan 2000’ and subtracting the predicted y from the actual y.

–          This procedure is very rough and ready, and sensitive (as everything else is) to the inclusion or exclusion of various political/non-political events, but the adjusted formula rank does match the unadjusted formula rank in most cases.


So, here’s the top 25 political events on the list. Hopefully a decent reminder of the last decade in poilitcs:

Date Primary Reason Primary Area Category Hits (approx) Adjusted
01/12/2010 Haitian Earthquake Haiti Natural Disaster 813000000 564532577.6
08/16/2010 China overtakes Japan China Economic 323000000 84540062.1
01/01/2002 Euro Currency Introduced EU Economic 80700000 72412206.62
03/26/2000 Russian Presidential Election Russia Electoral 5440000 49691500.47
11/07/2000 US Presidential Election USA Electoral 20600000 44836531.38
10/07/2001 Afghanistan War Begins Afghanistan War 20400000 22119691.16
09/11/2001 WTC/Pentagon Terrorism USA Terrorism 20800000 20017820.02
05/01/2004 EU Enlargement EU Conference 89300000 8457943.672
11/02/2002 Iraq UN Resolution 1441 USA Conference 35600000 -208375.88
06/08/2004 Largest Yet G8 Summit USA Conference 74500000 -8843927.464
03/11/2004 Train Bombings Spain Terrorism 65100000 -10738314.06
12/07/2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit Denmark Conference 235000000 -10965551.3
11/02/2004 US Presidential Election USA Electoral 80600000 -15253283.14
05/12/2008 Sichuan Earthquake China Natural Disaster 184000000 -16931870.86
04/20/2010 Gulf Oil Spill USA Natural Disaster 241000000 -17474906.98
11/04/2008 US Presidential Election USA Electoral 193000000 -22943097.67
07/07/2005 Train Bombings UK Terrorism 87600000 -25766381.1
03/20/2003 Iraq War Begins Iraq War 18800000 -27015860.42
03/14/2003 Human Genome Sequenced UK Science 18500000 -27315860.42
06/04/2009 EU Elections EU Electoral 201000000 -29954324.49
01/03/2009 Israel-Gaza War Israel War 184000000 -34444968.81
09/08/2008 LHC Switched On France Science 171000000 -39939355.4
07/11/2006 Terrorist Attacks India Terrorism 103000000 -42890705.86
03/14/2004 Russian Presidential Election Russia Electoral 26900000 -48938314.06
05/13/2004 Indian Election India Electoral 26300000 -54542056.33

My thoughts? I was surprised September 11th dropped so low, perhaps the time trend fix I attempted was even more ineffective than I feared. My further thoughts?

–          2000 was a big year for elections, and internet coverage seems to reflect what, in hindsight, seem like particularly significant elections in Russia and the US. Indeed, since every site is essentially created ‘after’ the event it’ll be interesting to see how the list changes if compiled again in another few years.

–        The new pope didn’t make the top 25, neither did Hurricane Katrina, the Asian Tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake in 2008, Obama’s inauguration, the Lehmann collapse, the opening of the Beijing olympics, Benazir Bhutto’s assassination… will we say the same if the list is compiled again in the future?

–          March and September seem to be big months in the Human calendar. I suppose September always seem big for those in academia, but apparently the season appeals to lots of people… terrorists planning attacks, bankers planning collapses, etc.

I might revisit this in the next few days, or write up a series of other lists I find interesting. Especially if there’s a better measure out there for specifically ‘political’ significance…

But overall, I think this is a list that gives us an interesting quantitative baseline, against which to judge lists of ‘days that changed the world’ from this decade.

[1] Thomas Schelling’s evil twin

About Ben Farrer

Ben is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Knox College. He received his PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2014. Ben was previously a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and previously held a research position in the Department of Political Science at Fordham University. His research and teaching interests are centered around parties and interest groups, particularly those from under-represented constituencies. A great deal of his work deals with the political organizations of the environmental movement. He studies both American and Comparative politics.

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