Lies, Damn Lies, and Magazine Surveys
June 21, 1996
A Surprising Result
There I was reading the July issue of Money magazine. Not that I HAVE any money. I was reading it to find out how to GET some money. And instead of money, the feature article is "The Best Places to Live." So, I give it a glance. I figure the best place to live in the USA must be, like, Honolulu. But the best place to live according to the wackos at Money Magazine is.......Madison, Wisconsin!
Being a professional researcher, I ask myself, "How did they come to this to-say-the-least counterintuitive conclusion?" I mean, the last time I spoke to anyone in Madison it was 25 below zero (not counting the wind chill), and to my knowledge, the city's greatest contribution to the rest of the world is some kind of orange cheese. Am I wrong on this?
And so, I read on to find out how they reached this conclusion. I mean the "Best Place in the Country" is a rather bold claim, no? Well, it turns out that they did a survey of the residents of 300 cities and asked them to rate their OWN towns on the basis of a bunch of things like economy, health, housing etc. Madison wins.
Perception Is Reality
First, let's look at the methodology. Money Magazine goes out and asks a bunch of people questions like, "How good is health care in your city?" "How good are the educational facilities in your city?"; "How good are the leisure time activities in your city?" They rate everything on a scale of 1 to 100. Now if all these people have never been anywhere else, how would they know "how good" any of this was? I mean, compared to what? Their only benchmark is the past. So, if there was never anything to do, but you just got cable TV, you'd say, "Wow! Does it get any better than THIS?"
Another benchmark they have, of course, is pain. And to their credit, the good people of Madison did rate "the weather" at 11 points out of 100. So, they're not completely out of touch. This is a place where the average HIGH temperature in the winter is 20 degrees F. That's the average HIGH. They didn't mention low. But, clearly this is a place where you have to move briskly to keep your thighs from freezing together.
And look at some of the other ratings for this "Best Place to Live":
When you include the weather rating of 11, FIVE of the NINE factors are absolutely stinko! So, what's so good about Madison?
Well, the economy scored 94. That means everybody's working. Good. I guess the cheese industry had a bumper crop last year.
Health scored 99. I guess the hospitals have specialists in frostbite treatment.
And here's a biggie. "Transit," which I assume means public transportation, scored a whopping 85. But since leisure and arts scored so abysmally, this means that it's easy to get around--but there's no place to go!
On the other hand, if THEY'RE happy what else matters? Perception IS reality.
It may be reality for them, but not necessarily for us.
So, I guess one way to look at this is that what Money Magazine did is fine--but the title of the article is ALL wrong. It shouldn't be "What's the Best Place in the USA to Live." It should be, "What's the Best Place in the USA to Live if You Already Happen to Live in Madison Wisconsin and Don't Know Any Better."
Am I out in left field or what?