“Books That Make You Dumb”

Virgil Griffith, creator of the wonderful Wikiscanner–which details how people tweak the Wikipedia pages of the companies they work at–has a new project up now, titled “Books That Make You Dumb.” (BTMYD after) Here’s how it works:

  1. Get a friend of yours to download, using Facebook, the ten most popular books at every college (manually — as not to violate Facebook’s ToS). These ten books are indicative of the overall intellectual milieu of that college.
  2. Download the average SAT/ACT score for students attending every college.
  3. Presto! We have a correlation between books and dumbitude (smartitude too)!

    Books <=> Colleges <=> Average SAT Scores

  4. Plot the average SAT of each book, discarding books with too few samples to have a reliable average.
  5. Post the results on your website, pondering what the Internet will think of it.

Right, yes, what to think of this? Well, BTMYD will likely quickly become a blunt instrument for racists and antireligious zealots who want to argue that black and religious schools are full of low-IQ types: The Color Purple, Flyy Girl, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Purpose Driven Life, and the Bible are among the books on the low-SAT end. Clearly somebody’s fallen into the correlation/causation trap; reading those books doesn’t make you any dumber, nor does it signify a lack of intelligence. What it does speak to is how the most selective colleges tend to serve wealthy white kids–see Peter Schmidt‘s Color and Money on this point–who likely have no particular compulsion to read True to the Game. (And look at the page for that book: The list of schools where the book is popular includes Bowie State, Delaware State, Lincoln University, and other historically black colleges.)

If BTMYD wants to argue that what gets read at America’s colleges and universities relates to SAT scores and in turn relates to who gets to go to elite colleges, I’m interested. But the very title of the site proves that that’s not where its intentions lay. Congratulations, Virgil–you’ve just reinvented phrenology.