Seriously, must we rank absolutely everything?

Rankings illustration

Seriously, must we rank absolutely everything?

How do you evaluate something’s worth? Here’s our process. Less than 4 stars? Probably not on our radar. Not in the Top 10? Assume we’re not interested.

But is this the right way to measure value? Collectively, have we all become too rankings-obsessed?

A number can only tell you so much
From food delivery to overnight accommodations to health plans, our society rates literally everything. But maybe not everything should be subjected to some number-crunching formula.

Should doctors, professors, rideshare drivers and others be sized up the same way as a plate of pasta? A great satirical episode of the sci-fi series Black Mirror showed the logical conclusion of this, where we all rate our daily interactions with each other in real-time – with predictably disastrous results.

Another big question: can complex and highly individualized experiences, like a college education, be rated in a meaningful way? Or does a rigid scoring system tend to strip away context and nuance? Some institutions are deciding it’s the latter.

A rankings backlash
On the heels of many law schools rejecting the U.S. News rankings, Harvard Medical School recently followed suit, with its dean saying that rankings can’t reflect the school’s “high aspirations for education excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care.”

The school has since been joined by other top 10 medical schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford. While these schools will no longer submit their data for scoring, U.S. News still intends to size them up. The ranking must go on!

Trust issues to resolve
There’s also reason to question how much rankings should be trusted, especially when data is reported by those with a vested interest in a positive outcome. For example, Columbia University – outed by one of its own math professors – admitted last year to falsifying data on class sizes and professors’ education levels. (Its ranking dropped, shockingly, from #2 all the way to #18, calling U.S. News’s methodology further into question.)

In the business world, despite the best efforts of companies like Amazon, TripAdvisor and Yelp, fake reviews are well-documented and pervasive. This has the effect of eroding customer confidence in the overall believability of rankings. To make a point about the power and vulnerability of review sites, one London writer went so far as to create a fictional restaurant, then orchestrated its rise to #1 in TripAdvisor’s ratings (out of 18,000 restaurants!) by writing fake reviews.

Where do we go from here?
Of course, we all know rankings aren’t going anywhere. They do what they do very well, which is encapsulate a great number of opinions and a great amount of information in one decisive verdict. They’re an incomparable shortcut for people.

But it’s worth considering what we miss when we focus primarily on the quantitative over the qualitative. And whether rankings and ratings are even appropriate in some cases. After all, while numbers may not lie, they can certainly mislead.


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