Scott: Rankings have inherent limits

Scott argues that lists that aspire for objectivity render themselves unusable to subjective humans.

Zach Scott

Zach ScottWhether it’s rattling off the top-ranked public universities, most affordable colleges or the institutions of higher learning where you’re most likely to have your wallet stolen, someone is always out there trying to quantify Temple.

In but the latest example of this list-centric list-mania, U.S. News and World Report released its latest rankings of medical, law and graduate schools. You may have heard something about it. Temple’s medical school was ranked second best in the city; a rank it undoubtedly earned.

Admittedly, this may not be too big of a deal for the average student. But I absolutely adore lists. They’re just a natural intersection of my interests in random areas of pop culture, ordinal structuring and arguing about stuff. Ask any one of my coworkers and they’ll tell you. I’ve managed to avoid hours of work by engaging in conversations about each NBA franchise’s all-time starting five, the pantheon of great TV shows and the Top 10 greatest hip-hop albums of all time. And I mean “engaging” less like how you would begin friendly banter and more in the sense of combat.

Yes, this might surprise some of you, but I’ve never struggled to express my opinions, and lists give me the perfect forum to do so. But even I have to admit that sometimes lists sort of corrupt the central concept of themselves.

Take, for example, U.S. News and World Report’s lists of graduate programs. As someone wrapping up this daunting process, I will readily admit the first place I went to try and untangle the massive web of information about the hundreds of programs that are out there was that very publication. It really helped me get a grasp on what exactly I was doing in the first place.

But what worries me is the inherent stench of objectivity that lurks around the whole thing.

[blockquote who=”Zach Miley” what=”TTN designer”]And I mean ‘engaging’ less like how you would begin friendly banter and more in the sense of combat.[/blockquote]

After all, U.S. News and World Report doesn’t just pick names out of a hat or rely on a system of smoke signals. It has standards. It has a methodology. One that includes, “two types of data: expert opinions about program excellence and statistical indicators that measure the quality of a school’s faculty, research and students” and “surveys of administrators at more than 1,250 programs and more than 13,000 academics and professionals.”

All of that combines to equal an ordering that is meant to be as far removed from arbitrary as it can possibly be.

So as a consumer of this list, the only tool I should really need to decide where to invest the next sizeable chunk of my life – theoretically – is basic arithmetic. Which number is lowest should be the only question on my mind.

But of course that’s not the way it works out in practice, because this attempt at objectivity is like a square peg in the round hole of my innate subjectivity. We’re just not compatible. It can throw around all the “statistical indicators” it wants, but that really doesn’t apply too well to my individualized level.

Lists like this have, by necessity, clearly defined parameters that allow them to function as reliable sources of information for the greatest number of people possible. But it’s exactly those parameters that prevent it from adapting to my personal needs and it’s exactly those parameters that essentially render them useless past the initial stages of data gathering.

And that stubborn objectiveness, I believe, is where I have to draw the line. When I originally realized that a list was insufficient for my needs here, I began to worry that maybe this meant that I had dedicated so much of my time and enthusiasm to a broken system.

But I’ve come to believe that the system itself is fine, so long as the user knows how to utilize it properly. Lists have myriad purposes behind their shared structure – helpful, categorized bits of data, conversation starters and seriously anything to let me avoid actually working being just a short list of examples. You can’t appropriate a one-size-fits-all mentality to them no more than you can list all the various reasons that they’re great.

Zack Scott can be reached at or on Twitter @ZackScott11.

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