Malcolm Gladwell has written his share of interesting and penetrating essays in The New Yorker in recent years. He has also authored such best-selling books as Blink, which is about rapid cognition and intuition, and The Tipping Point, which addresses the factors that contribute to unexpected change. The relevance of Tipping Point has received another big boost by the recent happenings in Egypt. Among Gladwell’s attributes is his ability to question and challenge conventional wisdom.
The virtues of Gladwell’s scalpel are on display in his New Yorker essay (February 14 and 21 issue) attacking U.S. News and World Report’s famous (or notorious) national “Best Colleges” ranking guide. Even though U.S. News is now defunct, the Guide survives and is used by millions of families. “The rankings have taken on a life of their own,” as Gladwell writes. Given the difficulty and complexity—often the sheer mystery—of knowing how schools compare, the Guide’s assignment of numerical rankings appears to have been a blessing, as it simplifies the task of evaluation for millions of students and parents. But what if it amounts to a false promise?
The Guide has been questioned by some empirical researchers, including Michael Bastedo of the University of Michigan and Jeffrey Stake of Indiana University, as well as by schools that feel unjustly slighted by its determinations. But seldom has it found itself in the sights of a national magazine like the New Yorker. Gladwell’s critique provides convincing evidence that consumers should take the Guide with a big spoon of salt.
The heart of the problem lies in the use and abuse of measurement. Gladwell tellingly begins his piece by comparing the Guide’s logic and methodology to Car and Driver’s recent comparison test of three sports cars: Chevy’s Corvette, the Porsche Cayman S, and the Lotus Evora. (Porsche won, followed by Corvette and Lotus). Car and Driver’s report is unreliable, Gladwell avers, because it applies the same twenty-one criteria to sports cars that it applies to all vehicles, thereby ignoring special concerns that sports car buyers have, such as the way the car looks. Nor did the test give much weight to cost, which matters a lot to consumers. Car and Driver attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, but “it’s an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be both comprehensive and heterogeneous at the same time.”