Top 10 Reasons to Distrust Top 10 Lists

A recent email from Orbitz provided a list of the ten best islands. Not in the Great Lakes, mind you. Not the best desert islands or tropical islands, Greek islands or Caribbean islands. No, the 10 best islands in the world.

To which the obvious response is, “Says who?” Followed quickly by, “How do they know?” Have the raters visited every island on earth, all 180,000 of them? Probably not even the 7,000 Japanese islands. And on what criteria were they being rated? Climate, beaches, number of penguins?

It’s all nonsense. Totally subjective. Impossible for anyone, or even a huge team, to have vetted the many possible entrants in most categories. Nor should one dismiss the possibility that the fix is in. How many of the top ten on the island list got there by offering the judges a free trip to the island to experience its many charms.

This is hardly an isolated absurdity. Every year we are inundated with lists of the Best Colleges, Best Hospitals, Best Resorts, the Top 10 restaurants in Biloxi, the Top Ten supermodels or pickup trucks. At least the Forbes 400 and S&P 500 are based on something quantifiable; how much money they are worth. But most of the rest are sheer moonshine, a way to sell magazines or whet your appetite for what the adjacent ads are selling. But would you really want to bet your life on such a list, as in the case of Top 10 Open Heart Surgeons?

These lists used to thrive because of a natural desire for some sort of authoritative advice to help sort the wheat from the chaff in a big universe of data. But lately the internet seems to have displaced the supposedly knowledgeable guide, the restaurant or movie critic, say, with crowd sourcing. But the wisdom of crowds may be over rated, as most riots suggest.

For instance, you go to Yelp or Urbanspoon and ask which Mexican Restaurant in town is the best and find that one is rated really poorly. Oh, oh, red flag. But then you read the reviews and find things like this: “My boyfriend said I should try Mexican for once in my life and I got really drunk on margaritas which was cool. But I didn’t like the food which had a lot of beans in it and some kind of sauce and was sooo spicy. Yeck! Not nearly as good as Wendy’s chili?”

Despite the populist appeal of rating everything from lunch to cancer hospitals by the number of “Likes,” it may have certain drawbacks. A huge number of reviews by people who know nothing is probably not preferable to one or two reviews by people who have a lifetime of experience and are willing to share it. Sadly, all opinions are not created equal.

So read all the lists you like, but caveat lector.

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