Saturday, June 6, 2009

The American Ranking Obsession

I'm out on my storm chase vacation for this week and the next, and have just had one very exciting day - on 05 June - we saw the entire life cycle of a large, long-lived tornado in southeastern Wyoming and had a great vantage point for seeing both the tornado and the storm that produced it. It's just what I wanted from this year's chase! See Vickie's blog for some preliminary images.

So I run into some fellow chasers - and I start hearing about how this storm was second behind the great 26 May 2007 (or whatever) storm they saw. OK - what's my problem with this? Two questions: First of all, why in the world is it important for me to know where a particular event fits into your life experiences? I really don't give a damn about how this storm compares to whatever it is you've managed to see during your chase experiences! Why would you think that anyone besides yourself cares about your personal rankings?

Second, it seems we Americans have some sort of fetish about rankings. Isn't it enough to recognize that it was a great event? Does it somehow need the extra bit of recognition that comes with placing it in some sort of ranking order?

And who decides precisely how to place a particular storm chase event into a hierarchy? Ranking in sports is widely recognized to be futile and any effort to develop a ranking scheme is fraught with arbitrary decisions and subjectivity, anyway. If there was a way to rank storm events, it would have precisely the same arbitrary and subjective issues that sports ranking schemes have. Yet we seem bound and determined to place everything in its "proper place". For the most part, having been involved with some efforts to do rankings, I think I know more than most how silly most of this effort to create an ordering is, unless there is one simple number that encapsulates everything about some event. An event that can be characterized by a single number isn't a very interesting event, as I see it. Being able to establish rankings for it is pretty much a "who cares?" exercise.

Interesting events (like successful tornado intercepts) are complex because they have multiple facets - technically, they require multiple dimensions to describe. The strength and duration of the tornado, how visible it was, the structure of the storm that produced the tornado, the impact of the tornado, etc., etc., etc. That leaves us with the problem of deciding how to rank each of these aspects - is one facet unabiguously the most important? If so, what's the next most important factor? Who decides, and how would they get everyone to agree? Everyone who buys into this ranking obsession apparently has an opinion about what's most important to him/her. But it's just their opinion, and there's at least a finite chance that I'm going to disagree about how to weigh and combine all the different aspects of some complex event to produce a final ranking.

Hence, a universal ranking system for rating storm chase experiences seems to be an impossible quest, to say nothing of being a waste of time. Lacking such a system, why not just forget about trying to rank your chase experiences, or to compare yours to someone else's? Enjoy the moment. Savor its unique qualities because another such event will never happen again.

And don't bother explaining to me where it fits in your ranking hierarchy, if you have one. I don't give a shit.