Adventures In the Land of Logic

Central Connecticut State University has released its annual list of the “Ten Most Literate Cities in America.” For the second year in a row, Washington D.C. tops the chart (and Sacramento receives a no-show, though San Francisco appears at #9).

When I read the USA Today article reporting on the study, I immediately clicked through to the source to see how the investigation determined literacy. I envisioned data on library loans, book and e-book purchases, book reviews, locally-written blogs, and other information about how many books the residents of these cities actually read.


The study examined six factors to determine a city’s “literacy” level, only one of which actually suggests active readers. The factors are: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, educational attainment, and Internet resources.

In other words: the study examined the number of books available, not the number the residents actually read.

In the world of logic, we refer to this as a fallacy. Specifically, as post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning – the same type that leads you to say that washing your car makes it rain.

The fact that an area has more bookstores, bigger libraries, better access to the Internet and higher levels of educated citizens does, in fact, suggest that its residents might read. The inverse, however, is equally likely to be true. Better access to the Internet could mean more pervasive participation in online gaming. As someone who once received a newspaper for six months without reading a single page (true story…), I object to the assumption that newspaper subscriptions equates to readership – and I am not at all convinced that reading a newspaper renders anyone more literate than a person who opts to receive his news from another source.

Assumption fail, CCSU.

The fact that resources exist does not mean that people use them, or that they use them in ways that evidence literacy. I do respect the study’s openness with regard to the factors used, however. That disclosure lets readers evaluate the research and draw their own conclusions as to its meaning.

I have no doubt that the residents of Washington D.C. are glad to accept the title of “Most Literate City, 2011.”  I’m even glad to congratulate them on the prize. But I think, under the circumstances, I’ll also put an asterisk next to the research as a reminder to keep my own work free of logical fallacies.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go wash my car. The garden needs rain.