All we want around here at The Audit—all we’ve ever wanted—is a few smart neighbors. We are just so sick and tired of the dopes hanging around the Columbia campus, especially in the Journalism Building. Talk about stupid! Cripes.

That’s why we were psyched—pumped!—when we saw Forbes.com’s recent ranking of the twenty-five “Smartest Cities” in America. Finally!

As the story says:

Some people are drawn to settling in or traveling to a particular locale because of its eternally warm weather, others find themselves moving around due to family matters or work-related necessities. But what if you’re looking to surround yourself with academic excellence in a haven for intellectual stimulation and scholarly achievement? In that case, it’s not the sun you’re pursuing but the smarts.

That’s us. IntelleckCHUal stim-u-LAY-shun!

Printing out the list, we packed our abacuses (abaci?) and slide rules and piled into the gleaming Audit-Mobile, speeding up I-95 until we arrived in the nearest smart city we could find:

Bridgeport!

Hey, don’t get us wrong. We like Bridgeport just fine. But is that really the “smartest” city in the New York area? And since when do a million people live there?

The business press likes lists. We don’t know why. But it does. List-making seems more a clerical than journalistic function, but that’s just us.

But this one is at the bottom of our list of lists.

It’s not just the equation of intelligence with percentage of residents who have a bachelor’s degree, or the unsurprising fact that much of the list consists of—get this—college towns. We are talking here about torturing statistics. It is only through such waterboarding that “Cambridge” becomes a place that includes Framingham, but not Boston, and “San Francisco” means places over the Golden Gate Bridge but not the Bay Bridge.

As it turns out, none of these “smart cities” are cities at all. Forbes.com is applying the shorthand “city” to two Census Bureau categories, one more problematic than the other.
“Bridgeport,” for instance, is actually a Metropolitan Statistical Area, a widely known geographic designation that is often—but not always—useful for the general reader. Even more problematic is Forbes.com’s use of a new and justly obscure subset of the MSA known as a Metropolitan Division, which is fine for the Census Bureau, but as we’ll see, isn’t really a “city.”

Spawned by the 2000 Census, a Metropolitan Division, or MD, strings together several real-life cities into a “city” that no one would recognize as such, rendering any rankings useless and in some cases just weird.

So now a chunk to the north and west of Boston —called the Cambridge-Newton-Framingham Metropolitan Division— is one of the most educated “cities” in the country:




Framingham. Cambridge. So not the same thing.

And we have Washington, D.C., an MSA split into two MDs, each of which makes the list separately. So, according to the Forbes.com list, Bethesda-Gaithersburg-Frederick and a few other towns are a single place, and the nation’s second-smartest city at that. Washington, D.C., and Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, are another place, ranking a relatively stupid thirteenth. (Forbes.com puts Alexandria in Maryland, and we have to agree: Who cares?)

And here is San Francisco as you have never seen it before: a gerrymander reaching around the west side of the bay—what the Census calls the San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City Metropolitan Division. What’s left out, as anyone familiar with San Francisco would realize, is Oakland and its environs. Or, in statistical terms, the Oakland-Fremont-Hayward Metropolitan Division. Together, these two divisions make up the San Francisco MSA, but the dumb one is dropped off:




San Francisco, by the way, is smart, but not as smart as “San Francisco.”

Forbes.com lists the San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City MD as having 43.12 percent of its residents with at least a bachelor’s degree. According to Bert Sperling’s BestPlaces, the source for the Forbes.com data, the entire San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont MSA has just over 38 percent with at least a bachelor’s. The whole metro area would still have made the Forbes.com list of twenty-five, but it would have dropped out of the top ten and moved closer to the end.

Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.