Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reading Glen Beck* makes you smarter

I apologize for the slightly misleading post title.

The Daily Beast "crunched the data on the brainpower of America’s 55 largest cities, from first-to-worst." Silly surveys always spawn silly arguments about their results, but I think it's more interesting to look at methodology (or to compare similar surveys that use different data -- if you're a real glutton for punishment). I really don't care that The Daily Beast says that New Orleans is a slightly less intelligent city than Birmingham but a slightly more intelligent city than Houston, Dallas, or San Antonio. This tells me all I need to know:
Then we divided the criteria into two halves: Half for education, and half for intellectual environment. The education half encompassed how many residents had bachelor’s degrees (35 percent weighting) and graduate degrees (15 percent). No credit was given for “some college,” or “some grad school”—we rewarded those who finished the race. The intellectual environmental half had three subparts. First, we looked at nonfiction book sales (25 percent), as tracked by Nielsen BookScan, the nation’s leading provider of accurate point-of-sale data, which tracks roughly 300,000 titles each week. We focused on nonfiction as an imperfect proxy for intellectual vigor, because overall sales are dominated by fiction works that, while entertaining, aren’t always particularly thought-provoking. We also measured the ratio of institutions of higher education (15 percent), as defined by the federal government—different than just measuring college degrees, this acknowledges that universities don’t just churn out diplomas, but instead drive the intellectual vigor of cities. Finally, many studies link intelligence and political engagement, so we weighed this, too, as measured by the percentage of eligible voters who cast ballots in the last presidential election (10 percent). Our relatively small weighting acknowledges that numerous other local factors can affect turnout.)

Non-fiction book sales as an indicator of "intellectual vigor" because fiction works "aren’t always particularly thought-provoking."

Yeah, right:
New York Times
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Best Sellers

Hardcover Nonfiction

Top 5 at a Glance
1. HAVE A LITTLE FAITH, by Mitch Albom
2. ARGUING WITH IDIOTS, written and edited by Glenn Beck, Kevin Balfe and others
3. TRUE COMPASS, by Edward M. Kennedy
4. THE TIME OF MY LIFE, by Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi
5. THE MURDER OF KING TUT, by James Patterson and Martin Dugard

Paperback Nonfiction

Top 5 at a Glance
3. THREE CUPS OF TEA, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
4. MY LIFE IN FRANCE, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
5. THE GLASS CASTLE, by Jeannette Walls

First off, book sale figures probably don't reflect used book sales very well, and they certainly don't reflect library usage. For that reason, book sales probably reflect disposable income as much as "intellectual vigor," and it seems obvious that the proprietors of Daily Beast aren't very familiar with the non-fiction book market.

I don't want to waste my time debating New Orleans' ranking in a silly survey, but the last criterion, voter turnout in the last presidential election, would obviously be unfair to a city with a scattered population.

Minor nitpick: I don't think that number of institutions of higher education per capita is the best measurement for that category. A small school school doesn't have the same impact as a larger school -- New Orleans didn't become a noticeably dumber city when Dominican College closed down. A more appropriate statistic would involve the number of college and university faculty and staff (especially library staff) members and students (especially graduate students?) per capita. Overall university budgets and research funding would probably be factors to consider as well.

*or Ted Kennedy or Mitch Albom

Just to be clear the level of education is not a good analogue to intelligence. Many very intelligent people haven't received advanced degrees wither due to lack of opportunity or interest. Bill Gates, for example, is obviously very intelligent and a college drop out. On the other had Veronica White has a Master Degree.
Yeah, you're right. I used to think that getting a graduate degree required at least a minimum of slightly above average intelligence combined with a willingness to work hard for 2-3 years, and maybe a willingness to suck-up to faculty members. I'd no longer take the first point for granted; even Doug Feith ("the dumbest fucking guy on the planet" or "the fucking stupidest guy on the face of the Earth" according to Gen. Tommy Franks) has a JD. Somebody should start a name the dumbest public figure, local or national, with an advanced degree contest.

Those rankings are always silly, but I thought it was especially silly to assume that nonfiction readers are somehow "smarter' than fiction readers. When I saw that three of Texas' four largest cities were ranked as less intelligent than New Orleans, it seemed like a quick and easy post. I jumped on it because I'm too busy to blog as much as i used to.
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