One the the recent memes to plague the blogosphere is an insipid little chart published by a CalTech student that purports to correlate SAT scores with favorite books, effectively determining which are the books for the "dumb" kids, and which tomes are hallmarks of the "smart" students. Our friends at SFSignal have pared down the list to include just the sci-fi and fantasy entries, which we've reprinted above.
What's dumb is the original chart, and anyone who takes it as something more than a quaint conversation piece. As a former literature and sociology double-major, the whole thing rankles me on several levels. First, the CalTech kiddo gathered his data from Facebook, the online social network that used to be just for students but now is open to anybody. Facebook lets you list your favorite books if you want to, and the chart's originator used that to match up reading habits with the published average SAT scores of the school that the Facebook member claims to attend.
Thus, what you really have here is a crude SAT correlation of the reading habits of those students that A) use Facebook and B) included favorite books in their Facebook profiles. Even assuming that the profiles were filled out honestly and that the published SAT data is accurate, there is absolutely no way this approaches anything like a representative sampling of college student readers. It might be a representative sampling of collegiate Facebook users, and I'll leave it to you what that implies about the data set.
If you look at the original chart, there are more books listed near the middle of the bell curve SAT distribution, which illustrates just one thing—that there are more readers (and students) at the middle of the bell curve, which you'd expect. You'll also note that a lot of the books that appear in the center of the bell curve are known to appear in Literature or Humanities 101 courses, as in the kind of general education requirements that every student must suffer through on the way to a degree (I liked these courses, but then I was a Lit major). Wow, so kids list books that they've been forced to read as favorite books. To me, this speaks more to a lack of voluntary or elective readership—the only books I've read are the ones I've been forced to read—than anything else.
I mean, do you actually expect me to believe that the average Hamlet reader is dumber than the average Eragon reader? Or is it more likely that the average person who claims on Facebook that Hamlet is their favorite read is dumber than the average person who claims that Eragon is in their top books list? Are people that love Fahrenheit 451 really less intelligent that people who brag that they don't read at all? Given that the premise of Fahrenheit 451 is that the populace is better off in a police state without books, this is a chilling notion.
Besides, if the chart is to be believed, a lot narrower constituency of 18 to 22-year-olds have read Harry Potter than have read Cat's Cradle. Yeah, right. Let me show you some New York Times bestseller numbers of recent vintage, and then let's talk about whether this data is honest and accurate. I'm pretty certain it's more socially impressive to claim to be a Vonnegut fan than to swear your devotion to J. K. Rowling. But that couldn't possibly have affected the students' professed reading habits, could it?
If the chart has any redeeming value—and I'm skeptical—it's in suggesting which books make for effective status symbols (I'm cool because I read this) for which SAT group. Some books have more social purchase with the "smart" kids than do others. Almost nobody in the chess club would brag about liking Flyy Girl, even if it were true.
I hate junk data. I really hate junk data taken at face(book) value. Anybody want to tell this statistical humbug he's wrong? If not, I'll be outside the local student union conspicuously reading The Alchemist.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.