Arizona is fast-growing, livable, dumb, moldy, dangerous — and yet safe — according to the myriad of “best” and “worst” lists released by various organizations in 2006.
If the lists are to be believed, the Grand Canyon State has been a place of extremes during the past year, nearly always landing among the cream of the crop or at the bottom of the barrel in subject areas including growth, crime, education, health, safety and lifestyle.
But local researchers said such lists, while they can have practical uses beyond that of fodder for water-cooler banter, should not be taken too seriously.
“The data is usually accurate but often taken out of context and not representative of the overall picture of what’s going on,” said Dennis Hoffman, an economics professor at Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.
Particularly suspect are lists and research reports issued by special interest groups such as political think-tanks and advocacy organizations, Hoffman said. He cautioned the public and the media to consider the source of such information and whether it may be skewed to serve a particular purpose.
“It’s important to let people know who is doing the study and what agendas they might have,” Hoffman said.
Even list-makers with the noblest intentions of impartiality often achieve mixed results, he said, because a list is only as good as the breadth and accuracy of data upon which it is based.
Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that in 2006 some lists appeared to contradict others.
The results of a traffic safety study conducted by Allstate Insurance Co., “Allstate America’s Best Driver’s Report 2006,” listed Phoenix as the safest place for drivers compared with other cities with populations of more than 1 million residents.
Another list issued by the Emergency Nurses Association, the wordily titled “2006 ENA National Scorecard on State Highway Laws: A Roadmap for Injury Prevention,” ranked Arizona dead last among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., when it comes to laws protecting motorists from injury and death.
Other lists seemed to fly in the face of reality.
According to the 2006 “Most Livable State” rankings compiled by Kansas-based research firm and publisher Morgan Quitno Press, Arizona came in below average at No. 29. Yet, Arizona must be enticing as the U.S. Census Bureau says its the fastest-growing state.
Alaska was considered a more livable locale, standing 23rd, Morgan Quitno said. Iowa and Minnesota were ranked No. 3 and No. 2, respectively, bested only by livability champion New Hampshire.
And then there were lists that just seemed downright cruel.
Another Morgan Quitno creation, the “Smartest State” list, put Arizona in last place, prompting national headlines about the country’s “dumbest state.”
Morgan Quitno was generally unkind to Arizona in 2006, ranking it No. 4 on the “Most Dangerous State” list and No. 40 on the “Healthiest State” list.
Scott Morgan, president and co-founder, said his company has been compiling lists for 17 years and has built its reputation on a strict policy of objectivity and political disinterest.
“For better or worse, our angle is just crass capitalism,” said Morgan, whose bread and butter is selling the extensive data his company compiles to libraries, researchers and policy-makers.
Morgan said his company never actually referred to Arizona as the dumbest state: The list was based on 21 educationrelated indicators including school spending, and Arizona performed the worst overall.
Still, he recognizes that such lists are controversial — and by no means infallible. “It’s a very subjective process, picking those numbers,” he said, adding that some criteria have changed in response to valid criticism.
The “Most Livable State” is determined by 44 individual factors affecting quality of life, including crime, poverty and unemployment rates, Morgan said.
“Livability is an ill-defined term at best,” he said. “We pick factors that we think get at what we’re trying to say.”
Despite the inherent shortcomings of lists, Morgan said there is real and useful information to be gleaned from them.
“Numbers are only part of the story, but they’re an important part,” he said. “If you ignore what numbers have to tell you, you’re really missing out on an opportunity to define a problem.”
List of lists
Arizona and Valley cities appeared on many “best” and “worst” lists in 2006. A Top 10 list of those lists might look something like this:
1) “Fastest-growing State,” Arizona ranked No. 1 (U.S. Census Bureau) 2) “Smartest State,” Arizona ranked No. 50 (Morgan Quitno Press)
3) “America’s Best Drivers,” Phoenix ranked No. 1 (Allstate Insurance Co.)
4) “National Scorecard on Highway Safety Laws,” Arizona ranked No. 51* (Emergency Nurses Association)
5) “Most Livable Cities,” Mesa ranked No. 3 (Money magazine)
6) “Most Dangerous State,” Arizona ranked No. 4 (Morgan Quitno Press)
7) “Best Cities for Singles,” Phoenix ranked No. 5 (Forbes magazine)
8) “States at Risk for Mold,” Arizona ranked No. 6 (Greenguard Environmental Institute)
9) “Healthiest State,” Arizona ranked No. 40 (Morgan Quitno Press)
10) “Most Livable State,” Arizona ranked No. 29 (Morgan Quitno Press) * Among 50 states and Washington, D.C.