Who's #1?: The Science of Rating and Ranking
reviewed by José Vázquez - August 24, 2012
Title: Who's #1?: The Science of Rating and Ranking
Author(s): Amy N. Langville & Carl D. Meyer
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691154228, Pages: 266, Year: 2012
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The premise of the subtitle of this book dealing with the science of rating and ranking suggests an interesting reading. The authors indicate the possible target audience in the Preface (p. xiii) to include sports enthusiasts, engineers, and college and high school teachers of linear algebra, or special topics classes, among others. Well, here is the first problem I found with this book, the audience at which it is targeted. Those without a sophisticated background in linear algebra and/or sports ranking will be at a loss when reading this book.
The authors maintain an engaging writing style and reassure the reader that the field of ranking items is the result of increased interest coming from todays data collection capabilities (p. 1). After providing a brief historical overview of ranking, the book goes into various popular ranking methods used by those practicing in the field. One serious limitation of this book is the recurrent use of sports examples chapter after chapter without branching out into many examples from other fields. Moreover, the examples used are highly repetitive. For many of the ranking methods discussed the historical background, applications, and summaries are provided, thus making it easier for those of us who are not experts to be able to follow the concepts. Most of the chapters provide an Aside vignette at the end, which turn out to be some of the most interesting material presented, but unfortunately those are brief examples and do not go into greater detail.
Perhaps the most interesting example for those of us in education is the explanation of the ranking of U. S. colleges published each year by US News. The methods used are briefly described on pages 77-78 and the authors go a step further by comparing the method used to the more established Markov method. Table 6.6 shows such comparison and it suggests that the method used by the US News may not be too sophisticated at all given all the possible variables that those ranking are based on. The great lesson learned from this example is that different methods can produce vastly different rankings (p. 78). Another interesting example is provided in the chapter on point spreads. Here the authors emphasize the usefulness of this method as the Holy Grail for those in the betting world (p. 113). While the overall theme of the chapter is very interesting, the mathematics presented may make this chapter unappealing to a broader audience. The topic of ranking aggregation is presented in chapters 14 and 15. The subject is divided into two chapters and seems well developed even for the general audience. I found the Aside section on the Google bomb spamming interesting and appealing, as it describes the mechanism behind some of the blogs during the presidential election in 2000 (pp. 163-164). The authors then discuss another spamming technique dealing with the ranking of web pages.
While this book attempts to do justice to the science of ranking, its use of so many mathematical formulas and abstract topics may prevent a wider audience from reading it. The authors even acknowledge their excessive use of examples from sports on page 220. The Epilogue provides a list of methods that were not discussed in the book and that may be useful for some ranking applications. The glossary proved to be very helpful for the non-expert like myself. The book is an interesting addition to the subject of ranking given its engaging writing and the format of using short chapters. However, the repetitive information and the excessive use of mathematics prevent it from being enjoyed by those without a solid background in linear algebra. I would have preferred to see some end-of-chapter questions to probe the understanding of the subject. In addition, more Aside vignettes like those presented at the end of some chapters would have sparked more interest in some of the methods discussed. That being said, the book could be inspiring for teachers and students with a particular interest in what goes on when formulating rankings.