Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On My Hermeneutical Thickheadedness

College Ranking
The New Yorker

Although he published it two years ago, I've only recently read Malcolm Gladwell's excellent 'deconstruction' of college rankings, "The Order of Things: What college rankings really tell us," in The New Yorker (February 14, 2011), but I'm not here this morning to summarize his argument. Rather, I'm here to confess my obtuseness in trying to distinguish Gladwell's use of "heterogeneous" and his use of "comprehensive." Ironically, I was baffled by Gladwell's attempt to clarify the distinction between "heterogeneous" and "comprehensive" through his example of car rankings. Here are two passages that were at the crux of my confusion:
In other words, in trying to come up with a ranking that is heterogeneous -- a methodology that is broad enough to cover all vehicles -- Car and Driver ended up with a system that is absurdly ill-suited to some vehicles.

. . .

A ranking can be heterogeneous, in other words, as long as it doesn't try to be too comprehensive. And it can be comprehensive as long as it doesn't try to measure things that are heterogeneous. But it's an act of real audacity when a ranking system tries to be comprehensive and heterogeneous -- which is the first thing to keep in mind in any consideration of U.S. News and World Report's annual "Best Colleges" guide.
These two passages appeared about a page apart, and I had to ponder the two for a while -- maybe half an hour -- before I figured out that the "all" of "all vehicles" in the first passage did not identify the same thing as the "comprehensive" of the second passage

From other passages, I came to understand that whereas "heterogeneous" referred to two or more categories grouped together, "comprehensive" referred to all variables. The "all" of "all vehicles" in fact referred to all vehicles in all categories -- hence "all" in this case meant "heterogeneous" (categories) and didn't imply "comprehensive" (variables). (Another way to consider this is in logical terms of objects and properties, e.g., a sports car and a family car being two objects from different categories, but acceleration and fuel efficiency being two properties considered as variables.) What finally enlightened me was this third passage between the other two:
A heterogeneous ranking system works if it focusses just on, say, how much fun a car is to drive, or how good-looking it is, or how beautifully it handles. The magazine's ambition to create a comprehensive ranking system -- one that considered cars along twenty-one variables, each weighted according to a secret sauce cooked up by the editors -- would also be fine, as long as the cars being compared were truly similar.
This in-between passage -- as I began focusing more attention on it -- finally clarified things for me, but only as I began to relinquish my assumption that "all" implied "comprehensive."

That's how thickheaded I am . . .



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