the power of number

I wrote the first version of this post a long time ago, back in February.  I’m not sure of the etiquette of revising a post, rather than replacing or supplementing, but what the hey.  Math is a strange subject, one that many people find hard to come to terms with, and I find that easy to forget.   So I’ll do what I can to avoid getting technical, but I think it’s inevitable that I do from time to time.

I’m curious about the psychology of numbers and of rankings.   And in a (strong) sense, this post is the beginning of my exploration of what is a very large topic, because I have not yet done any significant reading (though an excellent book on the subject, Who’s #1 by Langville and Meyer, is sitting on my shelf, trying to make its plead to be read heard above the pleas of all the other books that have been there longer, and so make a more compelling case).  And so, as I read and as my understanding of the topic expands, I’ll come back from time to time, to revise the thoughts I am putting down now.

We as humans like to put things in order.  We like to know which things are better than which other things, from schools to doctors, deodorants to diet plans, songs to books, even when the criteria and data we are using are highly problematic.   Part of this problematic-ness comes from the questions we ask and the methods we use to gather the data, while another part comes from the means we use to combine and weight all of this data in order to obtain a final ranking.  After all, when we get down to ranking things, we have first to decide which are the criteria that are important and which are not, and which ones we want to weight more highly than the others.

But the point I want to make here, at this early place in the discussion, is not to get into the details of how we create the rankings.  Rather, it is just the observation that even when we know that the ranking is problematic, even when we know that the questions are leading (as all questions have to be), even when we’re aware of how dirty and unreliable the data is, even when we’re aware of how unevenly the different aspects of whatever are weighted in order to compile a final, single number, we then forget everything and take the number as gospel.  We give numbers an enormous power.

I’ve had conversations with people who know better but confess to doing this, and I have done it myself.  We see a number associated to something and we accept the number.  We ignore the possibility that our own priorities may be very different from the person or group who constructed the ranking and hence that the final ranking will not accurately reflect our personal preferences.

~ by Jim Anderson on 10 February 2013.

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