UC Davis, #1 ecology & evolution program?

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMay 5, 2006 5:30 AM


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I see that UC Davis is touting that its ecology & evolutionary biology program was ranked #1 by US News and World Report. Check out the "Best Graduate Schools" online sampler at US News and World Report. I had a friend who narrowly chose Harvard over Davis for evolutionary ecology, so it doesn't surprise me that much. In ecology & evolutionary biology Berkeley & Harvard were #2 & #3 respectively. Does this mean anything? I don't know, I don't really think so on the most basic of levels:

do US News & World Report's graduate school rankings give you information you wouldn't have had???

Rather, to some extent I don't see this as much more than a variation on astrology, it is precise, but it isn't necessarily more accurate. I trust that US News & World Report isn't just pulling these numbers out of a hat, or going on gestalt discernment on the part of its editors. Rather, they've got some real algorithms which pop out precise rank orders. And that's the problem, they gotz themselves algorithms, it doesn't mean those algorithms map on to reality that much better than what you already knew! The contextual issues of the particular field in ecology & evolution that you have an interest in seem much more important than the arbitrary weights US News gives to its general parameters. That doesn't mean that the rankings are inaccurate. Check them out and you'll see that they follow your general intuition of how the world works. Additionally, they also display enough counterintuitive results (like UC Davis) to "keep it interesting" (like any good story, keep it grounded but mix it up with surprises). And that's the key, these rankings appeal to our need for faux precision, which we assume will be more accurate than what we already know. I'm not one to deny the importance of quantitative metrics, but, as my posts on ancestry testing attest to one must interpret the numbers and be cautious about what they tell us and what they don't. That's why scientists rely on artificially agreed upon p-values to constrain their tendency to see "trends" in modest correlations. The same principle of mostly convential wisdom + some curve balls applies to the proliferation of online quizzes for personality and intelligence. They can't be so wack that they are implausible, but it doesn't hurt if they offer an extra dollop of information, ergo, the perception of a more accurate model of your personal reality (who wouldn't want that?). For example, person x may know that their IQ is about 2 standard deviations above the norm, but when they take an IQ test which attempts to decompose their various "strengths" and "weaknesses," then it is adding some value. This is not to denigrate psychometrics, I am a "believer," but more on the populational level. A difference of 5 points here and there on the individual level might be swamped out by the noise of life (though this noise might cancel out on the populational level). Anyway, it's all fun. I take online quizzes in part for personal entertainment, but also because it is a way to "socialize." As long as we don't look beyond that, then it's all good.

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