CRAIG F. WALKER/GLOBE STAFF
Imagine you invested countless hours to create the definitive statistical formula for ranking every NFL quarterback in history. You ran all the numbers, accounting for accuracy and opponent quality, era, home and road splits — everything quantifiable, you quantified.
And imagine that, when you finally tallied everything up, the formula told you that the greatest quarterback in history was (drum roll). . .
And Tom Brady? He was last.
You’d be upset to learn that your formula was garbage, right? You wasted all that time on something hopelessly broken — something that inexplicably valued shoe size over touchdowns. You’d have to start over.
You certainly wouldn’t call your list “Best Quarterbacks.”
But that’s what U.S. News & World Report — ranker of colleges, cars, cruises, real estate agents, law firms, hospitals, and more — does every year with its “Best States” list.
Even when Massachusetts finished first last year, the list was confounding. This year, we’re eighth, which . . . whatever. Eighth is still pretty good, and these lists are fundamentally meaningless anyway.
So why do they work us into such a lather? Why do we spend days arguing about them? Why do officials devote even a single second to touting their places near the top of the list?
Well, part of it is the name: Best State. That’s not exactly nuanced. And who doesn’t think their state is the best?
And to be sure, there’s a lot of valuable and interesting data that goes into the production of the list.
“The Best States rankings are measuring government performance and factors that a government can influence with policy,” Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer at U.S. News, said in an e-mailed statement.
It’s not so much a ranking of which state is the best state, apparently. It’s a ranking of which state’s governments are the best at doing right by their people.
“The rankings reflect reality,” Kelly said. But that “reality” can be a little puzzling.
For example, if I gave you 49 guesses, you might not come up with the number-one ranked state in all the land under the new-this-year category “Quality of Life.”
Go ahead, I’ll wait (hours elapse; day turns to night; I go out for a sandwich and return; you are still guessing; months pass; I begin to waste away; suddenly, my skeletal remains jolt back to life at my desk): NORTH DAKOTA.
If you thought “quality of life” described the extent to which people actually enjoy living, you’d be wrong. Instead, by some mystical calculus involving air and water quality and “social connectedness” factors such as voter participation, North Dakota ranked first among all states in U.S. News’s Quality of Life metric.
“North Dakota is the best state for quality of life because its citizens are engaged and the natural environment proves better than other states” in the categories that U.S. News weighed, Kelly explained.
As it happens, I have spent some time in North Dakota. I even lived for several years in South Dakota (it’s like North Dakota, but less so). And I loved my time there. In fact, I’ve loved my time everywhere I’ve lived. People who complain that the place they live is boring are quite often boring people, and just about every place is as good as you make it.
So I will not fall back on East Coast liberal elite stereotypes of the Great Plains. I would never point out, for example, that North Dakota has more cows than people, and that the “quality of life” for each is — by any reasonable measure — roughly the same for both species. No, I’d never say anything like that. North Dakota has a lot going for it.
But America’s best quality of life? North Dakota? Come on. Really? Come on. No.
And if I gave you 49 more guesses, would you land on the state that finished dead last in quality of life? California.
It’s true. According to this U.S. News ranking, the worst state for quality of life is California and the best is North Dakota. On the bottom: A vibrant and diverse state with an economy that rivals some countries, renowned for its cultural contributions and an unparalleled natural landscape. On the top: A state known for frigid temperatures and oil fields. U.S. News: Gimme the oil fields!
It’s as if someone did all the legwork but accidentally input the data for wolves instead of humans.
Are we wolves?
We are not. But these lists are a lot like howling at the moon.
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