K Professor’s Book Earns High Rankings Abroad

K President Jorge G. Gonzalez applauds Professor Peter Erdi at Rankings Presentation
Kalamazoo College President Jorge G. Gonzalez applauded Henry R. Luce Professor of Complex Systems Studies Peter Erdi when Erdi presented his Lucasse Lecture in 2019, while giving a preview of his book, Ranking: The Hidden Rules of the Social Game We All Play.

If we compiled a list that ranks the coolest things Kalamazoo College faculty members have achieved as authors, Péter Érdi’s latest accomplishment would be on it.

Érdi, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Complex Systems Studies, wrote the 2019 book Ranking: The Hidden Rules of the Social Game We All Play. The book examines how and why humans rank certain aspects of our lives and how those rankings are viewed.

“We like to see who is stronger, richer, better and more clever,” Érdi said. “Since we humans love lists, are competitive and are jealous of other people, we like ranking. The book applies scientific theories to everyday experience by raising and answering such questions as ‘Are college ranking lists objective?’ ‘How do we rank and rate countries based on their fragility, level of corruption or even happiness?’ ‘How do we find the most relevant web pages?’ and ‘How are employees ranked?’”

The book has already been published in German and Chinese, both with simple and complex characters. Korean and Hungarian translations are in the pipeline. In Japan, however, Érdi’s book is creating the most buzz. Japanese officials have requested additional printings of the book and are negotiating the rights for an e-book.

Adding to that success is that Toyo Keizai, which is a weekly magazine about the Asian economy, and three large daily Japanese newspapers — Asahi, Nikkei and Youmiuri — have published reviews. Kalamazoo College Associate Professor of Japanese Noriko Sugimori notes that newspapers in Japan are extremely important to their society and it’s rare for all three papers to review the same book at the same time.

Youmiuri has a circulation just under 8 million, the largest in the world.

“Nowadays, accountability and transparency are emphasized, and society and companies tilt towards measurement and evaluation based on quantified index, including the use of ranking and pursuit of objectivity,” the Youmiuri review says, according to Sugimori’s translation. “This book touches on challenges of being objective consistently, but it does not deny the effectiveness of quantified index. The author advocates the rule of ‘trust, but carefully,’ and this is exactly the behavior pattern that is required in digital society.”

“Although it may contain something stupid, rankings are convenient in their own ways,” the Asahi review says. “Probably, we will cope with numerical estimations even more. Therefore, the author recommends that one should change the attitude of ‘not caring about evaluations.’ Whether you like it or not, evaluations are something one needs to self-manage. This book delineates such times and people who sustain the times.”

The Nikkei review states: “True rankings need to satisfy the following three requirements: Completeness, asymmetry and transitivity. Aside from a case such as the largest lake in the world, many actual rankings do not satisfy these requirements. Subjective standards intervene. There is a room to manipulate something to get the higher rankings. It is discernment that matters in handling with abundant rankings around them. Therefore, this book focuses on the rules of social games that are called rankings. This book showcases not only theories that are based on the rankings mentioned above, but also findings and discussions from human behaviors, cognition, social psychology, politics and computational neuroscience.”

Érdi has been a prolific researcher with more than 40 publications and two books published since joining Kalamazoo College. In that time, he has given more than 60 invited lectures across the world, and he received the 2018 Florence J. Lucasse Fellowship for Excellence in Scholarship, honoring his contributions in creative work, research and publication. He also has been the editor-in-chief of Cognitive Systems Research and served as a vice president of the International Neural Network Society.

“You can like it or not, but ranking is with us,” he said. “It is not a magic bullet that produces order out of chaos, but it is not the product of some random procedure. We are navigating between objectivity and subjectivity. It’s our very human nature to compare ourselves to others. The question is how to cope with the results of these comparisons. The reader will enjoy the intellectual adventure to understand our difficulties to navigate between objective and subjective and gets help to identify and modify her place in real and virtual communities by combining human and computational intelligence.”

Ranking: The Hidden Rules of the Social Game We All Play is available online through Oxford University Press.