Welcome to the site of Ranking

I decided to write a non-fiction book with the title and subtitle RANKING – The reality, illusion and manipulation of objectivity.  The book discusses the Hows and Whys of our love and fear of making ranks and being ranked through many real life examples to be viewed from three different angles (reality, illusion and manipulation) of objectivity. Ranking converts scientific theories to everyday’s experience by raising and answering such question as:

  • Are college ranking lists objective?
  • How to rank and rate states based on their fragility, corruption or even happiness?
  • How to find the most relevant web pages?
  • How to rank employees?

Life and society is really complex, consequently our message is not so simple such as ”Ranking is good!” or ”Ranking is bad!”. Since we permanently rank ourselves and others and are also being ranked, the message is twofold: how to prepare the possible most objective ranking and how to accept that ranking does  not necessarily reflects our real values and achievements. The reader will understand our difficulties to navigate between objective and subjective and gets help to identify and modify her place in real and virtual communities by combining our human intelligence with computational techniques.

 

The importance and the difficulties of measuring society I.

The reality and myth of measurement

The process of measurement was indispensable even in the ancient civilizations. The determination of length, mass, volume and time was crucial for supporting agriculture, construction, and trade. William Thomson (1824–1907), generally referred as Lord Kelvin, famously stated: ”When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.” Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) founded what is called scientific management and adopted measurement of any labor process in the production with the hope of improving productivity. This approach, called taylorism was attacked that it considers workers as cogs in the big machine of the factory, and was famously mocked in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” (1932), and in Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936). However, it’s spirit survived. ”Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you
can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.”96

The dangerous side of measurements

Donald Campbell (1916-1996) was a social scientist with an extremely broad field of interests. Campbell’s law 97 as it is commonly called, states
”The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Charles Goodhart is an economist from the London School of Economics, and a former
member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee stated ”that once a social or economic indicator or other surrogate measure is made a target for the purpose of conducting social or economic policy, then it will lose the information content that would qualify it to play that role.” Goodhart’s law 98 states that ”Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”
Managers in every areas from law enforcement to health care, travel to education, have
to report numbers to characterize the performance of their organizations. There are many well-documented examples from the former Soviet Union and related countries, which could be counted as case studies to Campbell’s law. Planners set targets for the factories, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. Directors were judged on whether or not they hit their targets.
Product quality and consumer satisfaction was not a major factor. ”When five-year plans set targets in terms of tonnage, factories made things that were comically heavy—chandeliers that pulled down ceilings and roofing metal that collapsed buildings.”99

Manipulation (cont.)

Appeal to authority We cannot say that is unreasonable to believe authorities. There is a logical model behind of appeal to authority: Assumption 1: X is an authority on a particular topic. Assumption 2: X makes a statement about that topic. Conclusion: X is probably correct. In the ideal world of scientists there is an agreement that authorities should prove their statements as rigorously as a graduate student. In politics, well . . . everybody knows this fallacy:
”An extremely credible source” has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is fraud. It should be extremely credible, since he himself stated that it is . . . . How about this statement? Einstein said that E = mc2, so it is true. There is no causal relationship between who says something and whether it’s true or not. What is true that mass-energy equivalence is a general principle, and it is the consequence of some fundamental properties of time and space. (No more physics, let’s speak about ads). What is the relationship between a celebrity actor, who became famous, as Dr. Ross, and machines, which brew coffee. He says, that ”he is proud to work with the company in its commitment – that every cup its coffee has a positive impact on the world.”89

Game change in the media manipulation ”If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed” (Mark Twain). Even in the old dayst here where threats to media objectivity. Politicians and journalists might wanted to change reality. They could exploit the fact that the media was more or less reliable. Distortion, exaggeration, fabrication and simplification was the exception, not the rule as now. Traditional authoritarians controlled of all media, and adopted censorship and ideologically oriented propaganda to maintain hegemony over their populations. In the world of the new authoritarians more sophisticated methods are employed to influence public opinion and shape political narratives. By restricting space for alternative media outlets, and ensuring the dominance of state-owned and state-friendly media assets, the new autocrats keep dissenting views out of the news and manipulate political discourse.
In the past, general interest intermediaries (think of the 1960s when there were three major news networks–ABC, NBC, and CBS–that controlled TV news) have exercised a great deal of influence over access to information, so traditional techniques of censorship have entailed shuttering newspapers, revoking broadcast licenses, or threatening (or even murdering) journalists that disagreed with a government’s agenda. But now we live in an age where ”media” has come to mean everything from CNN or NPR to one’s Facebook feed. With the decline in the relative power of general interest intermediaries and the rise in the influence of personalized media, manipulation
and censorship techniques now focus on making the entire media landscape seem
illegitimate and sowing distrust in what have historically been considered ”objective” institutions and voices.90.

The future of free speech and new form of censorship and manipulation are now hot topics in our changing world 91. A new type of manipulation seems to emerge. We read what we want to read, and it is major threat 92 If technology efficiently use filters, people get predetermined information by delivering them a personalized journal, the ”Daily Me”. So, they (we) will live in echo chambers which are means to amplify beliefs. (Remember for confirmation bias!). It would exclude to get surprising news from people living in other ”chambers”, and contribute to live in a society where people are closed by their own choice to their own mind.

 

 

Manipulation (continuation)

Selective truth Selective facts are more dangerous than fake news. We use news to bring decisions by ranking (consciously or unconsciously our options). The media mogul Rupert Murdoch declared: ”Produce better papers. Papers that people want to read. Stop having people write articles to win Pulitzer prizes. Give people what they want to read and make it interesting.”79.
As it was discussed in the previous chapter, we are subject of confirmation bias, so we prefer to read news which fits into our mental framework. So, while traditionally news were supposed to reflect reality, now there is a news filtering mechanism which amplifies our beliefs. To put it another way, media organizations tries to find out (and data and algorithms help them to do it efficiently) what are the engaging news for us, and they feed us with such kinds of news.80.

How we react if we get selective facts from the other side? Actually I have some fresh experience. I am writing this section in July 2018 in Budapest. As you already know, I am a soccer fan, so am watching almost all games of the World Cup on the state-controlled Hungarian sport channel. In the half time there are short news, and literally all items speak over an over again about crimes immigrants committed somewhere in Europe. The Hungarian leader learned the lesson: repetition, repetition and repetition (of oversimplified and one-sided) messages!
Repetition. Lewis Caroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898)) wrote in The Hunting of the Snark nonsense-poem:”What I tell you three times is true.” While English literature was probably not his strength, Hitler famously put ”no limit on what can be done by propaganda; people will believe anything, provided they are told it often enough and emphatically enough, and that contradicters are either silenced or smothered in calumny”81

We know political slogans of our time, from Yes We Can 82 to America First. In Orwell’s Animal Farm 83 Old Major repeats the same idea with slight stylistic variation to argue against the humans: ”Man is the only real enemy we have.” ”Remove Man from the scene and the root cause…is abolished.” ”Man is the only creature that consumes without producing.” ”Only get rid of Man.” More systematic psychological studies shows that repetition create the ”illusion of truth”84. My own suggestion is, please don’t repeat things without carefully checking if they are true. If you do, you are are also responsible to make a world where it is difficult to discriminate between lies and truth. So, please, please, please, think before you repeat!

Repetition. Lewis Caroll (real name: Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898)) wrote in The Hunting of the Snark nonsense-poem:”What I tell you three times is true.” While English literature was probably not his strength, Hitler famously put ”no limit on what can be done by propaganda; people will believe anything, provided they are told it often enough and emphatically enough, and that contradicters are either silenced or smothered in calumny”81

We know political slogans of our time, from Yes We Can 82 to America First. In Orwell’s Animal Farm 83 Old Major repeats the same idea with slight stylistic variation to argue against the humans: ”Man is the only real enemy we have.” ”Remove Man from the scene and the root cause…is abolished.” ”Man is the only creature that consumes without producing.” ”Only get rid of Man.” More systematic psychological studies shows that repetition create the ”illusion of truth”84. My own suggestion is, please don’t repeat things without carefully checking if they are true. If you do, you are are also responsible to make a world where it is difficult to discriminate between lies and truth. So, please, please, please, think before you repeat!

The Manipulator

We have seen huge scientific advances from quantum computing to space exploration during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It would be silly to assume that psychology did not develop during this period as well 9 . If we consider the ranking game a competition, some players are always ready to violate the rules to ensure that their priorities are well-managed. If the rules are unwritten, they are even easier to breach. In many games there are referees, umpire, judges, or arbitrators. However, “Life is a game with many rules but no referee,” as we know from Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), the Russian-American Nobel prize-winning poet. (To provide some context, Brodsky was once asked: “You are an American citizen who is receiving the Prize for Russian-language poetry. Who are you, an American or a Russian?,” to which he answered: “I’m Jewish; a Russian poet, an English essayist – and, of course, an American citizen.”) Manipulators have the intention of gaining an advantage by adopting various tricks, from simply cheating to sophisticated propaganda techniques. Their goal is to lead the list of successful people.

5.2.1
Psychological manipulation
How to manipulate?
Appeal to fear Appealing to fear is a technique used to motivate people to take a specific
action, or support a particular policy decision, by arousing fear in listeners. As the reader knows well, this strategy has been adopted by US presidents, who have made claims like, “If we don’t bail out the big automakers, the US economy will collapse. Therefore, we need to bail out the automakers,” or “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life.” Experts often point out that these tactics exaggerate the present threat, but the strategy persists; the current (2018) president’s “formula is very clean and uncomplicated: Be very, very afraid. And I am the cure.” 10 .
The Hungarian election campaign in 2018 had a single topic: fear. One pundit has written, It hardly seems to matter that the migration crisis has largely passed and that there are now more posters in Hungary about the danger of immigrants and refugees than actual refugees and immigrants let into the country this past year. The poster is in keeping with a campaign that has been rife with dirty tricks, false news stories, vicious personal attacks, conspiracy theories and perceived enemies all around.” 11 .

Black-or-white fallacy ”Who, you’re not with us is against us. Another US president in this
century declared: ”Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” 12 . if you were asked which would you rather be: against the Patriot Act, or a patriot, the question implies that if you are against the Patriot Act, then you cannot be a patriot. However, if someone is not your ally does not imply that she opposes you. You can’t exclude that she might be neutral or simply undecided. If you are forced to choose among two options, and other options are eliminated, this logical fallacy.

The Ignorant

There are at least two different reasons why we may not have objectivity in our ranking
procedure. In principle ranking agents should be Objective, but they are more often than not, are Ignorant or Manipulator. Ignorant people may have absence of knowledge of some facts or objects, or just don’t know how to do something. However, they (well . . . never we . . . ) are not necessary uninformed, but misinformed67. Manipulators change, control, or influence something or someone cleverly, skilfully, generally for their own advantage. The actions of Ignorants and Manipulators imply deviation from ”true ranking”, and lead to the illusion and to the artificial change of the reality.

Dunning-Kruger effect reflects a very important psychological mechanism for biased ranking. It is well-known that competent students underestimate themselves, while incompetent students overestimate themselves regarding their class ranks. Young drivers grossly overestimate their skills and response times while operating a vehicle. Literary and movie characters often embody Dunning-Kruger effect, so their ranking ability is biased. Simply, they cannot estimate correctly in their places in their communities. The combination of being uninformed and misinformed
and disinformed (to the memory of Elemér Lábos (1936-2014), a medical doctor and mathematician 69).

Probably the worst case scenario of being an Ignorant is to have misleading mental models composed of false theories, facts, metaphors, intuitions, and strategies which might feel as useful knowledge. (I cannot resist to refer ”The Dunning-Kruger Song”, from The Incompetence Opera70, three minutes long, it is worth to see.)
A movie character embody the Dunning-Kruger effect is Rodney Farva from Super Troopers. He is a rather terrible cop, but he gets really excited to be involved of whatever the team is doing and insists on ”helping out”, while it is obvious for everybody that he’s not really helping. See Best of Farva at youtube71.
While I am far from praising Ignorance, it might have benefits, or may lead to success, as
well. Christopher Columbus is known of believing he had discovered a new continent, not a new path to the Asia. A young Swedish guy, Ingvar Kamprad, who had a mail order company, once he tried to fit a table into his car to sell it, and couldn’t. As he was suggested to remove the legs, he got the idea of flat-packed furniture, and led to the emergence of IKEA. Totally knew companies adopting new business model, as Amazon, Uber abd Airbnb were not established by people having deep knowledge in the book-selling, taxi and hotel industry. Some ignorance combined with having a new insight might have establish innovative ideas. What happens when the ignorance is too much? We all know, so let’s see the next subsection.

 

Marry Mr. Goodenough!

We need more data to justify the hypothesis (and we can’t do anything better in the age of data deluge than to believe in the power of collecting and processing data, but I can already hear the critical voices protesting) that people living in long-term relationships are happier than the singletons.
In any case, in her provocative bestseller Mr Good Enough: The case for choosing a Real
Man over holding out for Mr Perfect, Lori Gottlieb argues that marrying a guy that satisfices is better than to waiting forever for Mr. Right. She believes that it is not a good idea to have unreasonably high expectations about the features of one’s dream guy. It is not difficult to prepare a fixed list of several dozen characteristics you may be seeking, from hobbies to eye color. To make things more difficult, even when we have a list, the importance of the elements are not the same. What has more weight for you, a sense of humor or financial stability? (My choice is the first, but this is for a different story.)
Maximizers have a fixed list, and they are probably able to assign specific weights to the
individual features of their dream guy. They are also able to rate the real world candidates as well. If the features of two objects (or subjects) are compared, the question is whether or not they are “sufficiently close” to each other. By adopting a somewhat more technical terminology the question is whether or not the deviation is smaller or larger than a predefined threshold. If it is smaller, the real world candidate is “good enough.” The advice is that at a certain age, it is worthwhile to increase the threshold, so that you may let pass and marry Mr. Goodenough!

Choice as a source of happiness and misery

Barry Schwartz influential book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less published in 2004 was motivated by Herbert Simon’s concept of ”bounded rationality”, and describes the conflict between the ”maximizers” (those who always search for the best possible choice) and ”satisficers” (those who feel ”good enough” is really good.
While logic might suggest having more options makes us happier, it is not necessarily true. How many options of toothpastes, insurance policies, colleges, long term partners, cereals, retirement plans, cell phones, vacation plans, TV channels we need? We have cognitive limits to make comparative evaluation of too many things, events, or everything else. Maximizers might have the feeling that they choose a sub-optimal option. They might blame themselves for bringing not sufficiently good decisions, and the feeling makes them unhappy and even depressive.
The massive omnipresence of the supply of everything provided by the social media dramatically amplified an ever-present feeling, what is now called ”fear of missing out”, or as we all have come to know it: FOMO. Recent social psychological studies provided data mostly for adolescents and college students, just take a look to the title of this paper:”I don’t want to miss a thing”: Adolescents’ fear of missing out and its relationship to adolescents’ social needs, Facebook use, and Facebook related stress59. Whether or not we will be able to educate the next generation to increase their degree of internal autonomy for being able to rank the seemingly infinite options remains the secret of the future.
However, there are some recipes to avoid being overwhelmed by too many options60
Restrict consciously your options! It might be enough to visit two stores in a mall when shopping for clothing.
Learn to stop when you meet ”good enough”!
Don’t worry about what you’re missing!
Don’t expect too much, and you won’t be disappointed!