Ranking Gladwell

Cars. Colleges. Countries.  These are just a few of the things we routinely rank-- and they are the three examples Malcolm Gladwell draws upon in his most recent New Yorker piece, "The Order of Things." (I'm assuming the alliteration is coincidental.)

His argument, in a nutshell, is that in any ranking system the formula matters.  That means both the variables in the formula that produces the rank and who the people are who write these formulas.  People are inevitably influenced by their own biases, as are the formulas and the rankings themselves. Nothing groundbreaking there.  Besides the element of, "So, what?," what I dislike most about the article is that no alternative is suggested.

The reality is, whether we like it or not, we are always going to have rankings.  And, with better technology available, it is both easier to quantify a range of things and rank them, and to spread the news of those rankings.  We famously now have national rankings for 11-year-old basketball players at sites like The Hoop Scoop and HoopsUSA.

Speaking of children, from the moment they enter this world they are ranked and ordered, by their Apgar score.  After that they routinely receive a number that represents their percentile rank for height/length, weight, and size of head at doctor's visits. Soon enough these kids enter the educational system and they receive percentiles that rank them based on what goes on inside those heads.  And, of course, then comes the all-important SAT score, and the list goes on.

Being ranked is a part of modern life.  Understanding what those numbers and rankings actually mean should be our goal, and list makers should be as transparent as possible about how numbers are produced.  Turning away from rankings isn't realistic at all.  And we should continue to study rankings, especially how institutions respond to them and how those numeric signifiers can actually shape behavior (For great work on this subject check out the work of sociologists Michael Sauder and Wendy Espeland.  Sauder is someone Gladwell should have spoken with-- though, full disclosure he is my officemate, so I'm a bit biased!).

I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of our best writers social scientists-- I certainly rank him in my top three.  But overall, this particular effort, by my evaluation, doesn't rate very high in the order of his work.