Top Four Reasons We Should Ignore Rankings (But Won't)

Hancock is skeptical of end-of-year rankings as Warren Buffett plummets from the top of Foreign Policy's list.
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December 2, 2011

Foreign Policy Magazine has just published – amid great anticipation – its Top 100 Global Thinkers for 2011. Not content with merely ranking the world's most competitive economies, prestigious universities, livable cities, or effective ways to leave your lover, FP has gone for the "big picture" and identified the brainiest people on the planet (at least until next year). Leaving aside that the list is suspiciously top heavy on politicians, economists, and do-good activists who claim to be changing the world – and silent on the geneticists, physicists, and computer scientists who are actually transforming it – there are several reasons to be concerned about these top "whatever" lists, and even more concerned about why we all rush to read them.

Here are my top four reasons:

1. What qualifies FP to rank the world's Top 100 Thinkers, anyway? Or, for that matter, the World Economic Forum to decide the most competitive economies? Or Maclean's the top universities? These lists are delivered with such authority and gravitas that few of us question the data or methods used to compile them. Yet many, if not most, are closer to fiction than to fact. FP, for example, doesn't even bother to explain how it reached its conclusions – which is probably wise given that the process seems to involve little more than asking friends-of-the-editor who this year's big thinkers are, and then jotting down the list over morning coffee.  

2. Why do the rankings change so dramatically from year to year? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett were the Top Global Thinkers of 2010, according to FP, but, a year later, Bill has slipped to the 13th spot and Warren has fallen off the list entirely. Did the Sage of Omaha suddenly stop thinking big thoughts? Or did FP get it wrong the year before? And, come to think of it, why did the United States tumble from the world's most competitive economy in 2007, according to the WEF, to fifth place (and falling fast) this year? Sure, lots of bad economic things happened to the United States in the intervening four years, but none diminished the basic productivity of American workers or factories. If anything, the Great Recession, together with mass unemployment, has actually spurred U.S. productivity in the form of longer hours, leaner wages, and less "fat" all around. Static, unchanging lists would not be nearly as suspenseful – or marketable – but they would be a lot more credible.

3. Is the impact of individuals, institutions, or countries even measurable, given that what's being assessed are qualities more than quantities? Profound thinkers have an impact that is, well, profound – often not fully grasped for years, decades, or even centuries. Johannes Gutenberg, for instance, would almost certainly not have made FP's list – he died poor, embittered, and largely ignored, but his printing revolution turned out to be one of the most important events of the modern age, making possible the renaissance, the reformation, and the scientific revolution. If it is hard enough to instantly measure the impact of great thinkers, how much harder is it to measure the impact of whole institutions or countries?

4. Even if the global impact of individuals or institutions were measurable, does it make any sense to rank them? Ranking is a zero-sum game in which one participant's gain is unavoidably the other's loss. McGill being ranked Canada's No. 1 university in this year's Maclean's survey necessarily pushes someone else – in this case, the University of Toronto –into second place. But does this blunt ranking say anything about how similar these two universities are? Or how different (apples versus oranges)? And what if the quality of university professors and students is generally improving across the board­­, so that the university that fell from, say, the fifth to eighth spot actually got better? A one-two-three ranking sheds no light on that trend – in fact, it obscures it.

Maybe the modern world's obsession with ranking everything – from brightest minds to coolest gadgets to sexiest women and men – says more about us than the subjects we are listing. In a chaotic and ever-changing world, we grasp on to numbers and rankings to provide us with "facts" and "truth," embracing the illusion that someone (anyone) can deliver "certainty" in an uncertain age. Casting doubt on a Top Global Thinkers list is tantamount to suggesting that no one really knows what's going on – even the great minds identified by FP! And that's a little too much truth for most of us to handle.

Then again, maybe it's all American Idol's fault.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.