From the Ten Commandments to the Top Ten Lists

Ten Commandments seem to be an unranked list. However, in the rabbinic literature there are different interpretations whether or not some items have higher rank than others. Say, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi said: Be as scrupulous in observing a minor commandment as a major commandment, because you do not know the value of each commandment; (Pirkei Avot 2:1). (Pirkei Avot is generally translated as Ethics of the Fathers.) Actually the situation is more complicated. In the rabbinical Judaism to refer to the 613 commandments (mitzvah) given in the Torah at biblical Mount Sinai and the seven rabbinic commandments instituted later for a total of 620. ”There IS a value to each mitzvah; we just don’t know what it is. A specific mitzvah may be worth dozens of other mitzvot. Only the Master of Opinions knows how the comparison between sins and merits is made; (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1-2). Our obsession with chart rankings, top ten list etc. might be considered as some secular echo of the litanies of faith.

Competitive Titles

toThere are several excellent books, which discuss different aspects of ranking, from the mathematical algorithms to ranking academic institutions, countries or political candidates.

The book   Who’s #1?: The Science of Rating and Ranking  written by the mathematicians Amy N. Langville and Carl D. Meyer (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012) grew up from the authors’ studies on mining the Web, and offer a broad overview on the mathematical algorithms and methods used to rate and rank sports teams, political candidates, products, Web pages etc., and is naturally located on a shelf for math books.

Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation, and Accountability (Russel Sage, 2016) by two sociologists, Wendy Nelson Espeland and Michael Sauder analyzes the history and present practice of evaluation and ranking of the quality of higher education institution, particularly law schools. Ranking not only reflects but also shapes social hierarchy. The book well demonstrates our paradoxical emotions to ranking, quantification of performance are both needed very much and also source of anxiety.

Rather parallelly, Ranking the World: Grading States as a Tool of Global Governance   (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2015) edited by Alexander Cooley and Jack Snyder (Editors) describes our paradoxical emotions to ranking. International ranking of states performance are characterized by about hundred different indices, from ”Human Freedom Index” via ”Corruption Perceptions Index” to ”World Happiness”. The pattern is that ranking organizations are not totally independent, and some ranked countries (say, China and Russia) occasionally reacted angrily to the performance analysis, still they are interested in the result.

Majority Judgment: Measuring, Ranking, and Electing (MIT Press, 2011) by by Michel Balinski and Rida Laraki is about ranking political candidates, and the authors argue that ”The intent of this book is to show why the majority judgment is superior to any known method of voting and to any known method of judging competitions.”

I was somewhat positively surprised that the narrative of all the three social science books seems to be conform with the take away of my own planned book: we like ranking with the hope that it reflects objectivity, but frequently the objectivity is illusion only, and might be subject to manipulation. The challenge is to write a popular, easily readable integrative book on ranking and rating in accordance with both the modern theories of social and computational sciences and the everyday’s experience


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.