Thursday, January 12, 2012

Celebrate the ordinary, build up the banal!

The CAT results have been declared today. You have obviously seen the headlines in the newspapers screaming their guts out.  Now what is so significant about a written exam results being out? 1.85 lakh students attempted the exam, for admission to 13 Indian Institutes of Management. As an aside, can you name the 13? I can't. I believe if you list all the IIT's and IIM's in alphabetical order, all letters of the alphabet are covered!


Anyway, 13 institutes have a common exam, with a couple of hundred seats on average on offer in each institute. They decide to gang up together and offer the CAT.  A couple of lakh students attempt the exam. Everyone waits for the results with bated breath. The reporters too. They are being strangled by their editors for news, so their breath is more bated.


And then the big day arrives. And these are the headlines:

"Nine score centum in CAT". "Bangalore does not have anyone scoring centum".  And then it gets more bizarre. "West Bengal and Maharashtra produced the highest number of candidates, two each, who scored a perfect (emphasis mine) 100 percentile in the Common Admission Test (CAT)". Now what is perfect about 100 percentile? If 1.85 lakh people write the exam, their scores are ranked in order, and whatever the marks, the first 1850, by definition, are between 99 and 100 percentile. This is irrespective of the actual score of the toppers – in the percentile system, that does not matter. Now, if the first 900 (for example) happen to get the same marks they are all placed at 100 percentile, and the 901st candidate is placed at 99.49 percentile.


But then we are all used to celebrating statistics which in our view are "achievements" – we graph and chart a bunch of numbers and look for patterns in them. Then we slice them, dice them, average them, sum them, draw bell curves, compute standard deviations and conclusions based on sigma limits (never mind if a normal distribution is not applicable),  analyze them in several different ways, and try to draw conclusions from the results. Never mind if we have completely misinterpreted the numbers to start with!  To continue with our quotes : " A whopping 1800 candidates scored between 99 and 100 percentile,  all of them now celebrating and awaiting call letters from the IIMs."  How amazing!  !.85 lakh candidates write the exam, and 1.8 thousand are in the top one percentile!


To quote further: "But many candidates are shocked with what they got. There are always some candidates who are expecting a particular score and end up scoring less. This time, there are just too many such cases", said the head of a coaching institute.  Firstly, on a relative scale, what is less, and what is more?  Secondly, such comments are mere space fillers – in any exam, this is likely to be the case anyway.


Talking of "such" comments, I think our newspapers are now being heavily influenced by reality TV. The actual news occupies less space and there is more space and time devoted to the reactions of people, how elated they are, how depressed someone else is,  photographs of the couple of them celebrating., and so on. Someone figured out that human beings are emotional animals, and banal content with dripping emotions is what appeals to them, and media has never been the same since! Some more quotes: "It's a great feeling and I am elated over the fact that I achieved what I desired. Now I am keeping my fingers crossed…", "The brothers speak of their joy of studying together" speaking of two brothers who both cleared with high percentiles.  There are several more touching examples.


Then of course, there is the obligatory, I worked hard and hence I succeeded angle. A couple of stories of people who burnt the midnight oil, or people who got a good score on the third attempt where the in-between two years of heartbreak and effort is covered in great detail… working hard to succeed is always a nice angle to pursue. Parents who read the paper will call their teenage sons and daughters and read it out aloud to inspire them.


Coming back to statistics, there is a separate section that talks about what a "percentile" is. Presumably, this was given to another reporter by the editor – I assume there were many reporters on the story, each one covering a different angle, like statistics, achievements, human emotions and drama, etc.!


Throw up 1.85 lakh random numbers, in this case scores, and collect some parameters of the people who got those scores like university, state, region, age, gender, preferences on where they would like to study, parents, educators, teachers, deans, coaching institutes, and you can come out with tons of exciting analysis, a lot of them underpinned with "hard" numbers. And, numbers, as we are all told, don't lie!

(All quotes from the Times of India, Bangalore edition, dated 12 January, 2012)

A disclaimer, just to clarify matters:  I have the greatest of respect for IIM's and their students in general, and I think they are the CAT's whiskers.  

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