Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why Rankings Are All About Me

I find it incredibly amusing that this Slate post is on both ranking graduate programs and sorting psychological syndromes.  That is, the piece discusses how the new "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 10 years in the making, will exclude "narcissistic and paranoid personality disorder" so I guess I cannot refer to myself as a narcissist anymore.  At the same time, the article talks about the flawed system used to rank graduate programs, which is an important exercise for those whose self-esteem depends on how other see them. 

The heart of the piece is neither the psych manual or program rankings, but how do we compare and sort and categorize.  The rants of the political science rumor mills are chock full of "top tier, not a top tier, your dad cannot beat up my dad" comparisons.  But the key really is: who needs the rankings/sortings and what are they needed for?  For psychologists, having a book that sorts the various possible indicators into a series of categories is quite useful for diagnosis and treatment (I guess, I am not a psychologist).  For academic rankings, the consumers tend to be aspiring graduate students figuring out where to apply and deans/provosts who use such rankings to justify their predelictions about who fund or cut.  It is not clear whether the new ranking system or the old did any favors to either aspiring graduate students or administrators. 

One of the consistent themes in this blog has been of metrics: how to do you measure success/failure/progress.  The graduate program rankings may do a better job now by being more honest with the reality that no program can fit onto a single point, but do probably fit into a range.  The funny thing is that the application of more sophisticated social science to ranking departments created heaps of initial confusing and upset, and then silence, more or less.  I guess I would be a better narcissist if I didn't pay attention to such stuff.

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