The QS World University Rankings are a load of old baloney

The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.

The University of Cambridge is the best university in the world, according to the eighth annual QS World University Rankings for 2011/2012, out today. Oxford came fifth in the tables and there is a total of five UK universities in the top 20. What a load of old baloney.

Here are the rankings:

1. University of Cambridge
2. Harvard University
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
4. Yale University
5. University of Oxford
6. Imperial College London
7. UCL (University College London)
8. University of Chicago
9. University of Pennsylvania
10. Columbia University
11. Stanford University
12. California Institute of Technology
13. Princeton University
14. University of Michigan
15. Cornell University
16. Johns Hopkins University
17. McGill University
18. Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
19 Duke University
20 University of Edinburgh

This ranking is complete rubbish and nobody should place any credence in it. The results are based on an entirely flawed methodology that underweights the quality of research and overweights fluff:

40 per cent -- academic reputation from a global survey
10 per cent -- from employer reputation
20 per cent -- from citations by faculty
20 per cent -- from student faculty ratio
5 per cent -- proportion of foreign students
5 per cent -- proportion of foreign faculty

The methodology is designed to underweight the performance of US universities that tend not to have a high proportion of foreign students or foreign faculty members -- but who cares about that? It is unclear whether having more foreign students and faculty should even have a positive rank; less is probably better. So, the UK faculty all say they are wonderful, but that isn't a plausible measure of quality. Another way to improve the rankings of UK universities would be to replace the 20 per cent for citations with a 20 per cent weight to any university whose name started with the letters CAM or OXF; the ranking is that absurd. Or they could weight by the proportion of buildings on the campuses built before 1500.

A more realistic ranking is provided by the University of Shanghai, that ranks the quality and quantity of research output of its faculty as well as the receipt of Nobel Prizes and field medals by both its faculty and alumni heavily. The number of faculty members from Botswana and the number of students from Chile quite rightly have zero impact, which is as it should be. Here are the weights used in their much more believable methodology:

Criteria
Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals -- 10 per cent
Faculty of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals -- 20 per cent
Highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories -- 20 per cent
Research Output Papers published in Nature and Science -- 20 per cent
Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index -- 20 per cent
Per Capita Performance Per capita academic performance of an institution -- 10 per cent
Total 100 per cent

Note that since 2000, the faculty of the University of Cambridge has been awarded one Nobel Prize, in 2010, which was its first since 1984, while UCL and Oxford have both had none. Indeed, the University of Oxford's faculty hasn't received one since 1973. By contrast, MIT and Columbia have both had five; UC Berkeley has had four while Stanford, Rockefeller, Johns Hopkins, Chicago and Princeton have each had two and Harvard one.

Here is Shanghai University's much more believable 2010 ranking that ranks Cambridge fifth and Oxford tenth, and these are the only two UK universities in the top 20:

1. Harvard University
2. University of California, Berkeley
3. Stanford University
4. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
5. University of Cambridge
6. California Institute of Technology
7. Princeton University
8. Columbia University
9. University of Chicago
10. University of Oxford
11. Yale University
12. Cornell University
13. University of California, Los Angeles
14. University of California, San Diego
15. University of Pennsylvania
16. University of Washington
17. University of Wisconsin, Madison
18. The Johns Hopkins University
18. University of California, San Francisco
20. University of Tokyo

The QS is a flawed index and should be ignored. The University of Cambridge is not the best university in the world.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear