Utah is the most depressed state! (Or perhaps it’s the happiest state.) Utah has the highest bankruptcy rate of any state! Utah uses the most porn per capita of any state! Why are we interested in these rankings? This is probably obvious, but I think it’s because we read them as revealing what the effects of being Mormon are.
I see two problems, though, with looking at state rankings and drawing inferences about Mormons. First and most obviously, living in Utah is not a terribly good proxy for being Mormon. Not all Utahns are Mormons–far from it. To complicate the matter, a fair number of non-Utahns are Mormon. Although the Mormon population in states other than Utah is generally negligible in percentage terms, the presence of Mormons does highlight the fact that the populations of other states are quite religiously heterogeneous, what with all the Catholics and Muslims and Baptists and Buddhists and atheists and agnostics. So it’s kind of an odd comparison in the first place to look at Mormons versus the vast and varied set of people we would classify as “non-Mormons”: differences among non-Mormon religious groups are in many cases likely to be larger than differences between Mormons and the average of all non-Mormons.
The second problem, although it is less obvious, may be an even larger issue. Consider which categories of state rankings we focus on. Do we look at all of them? Do we care about how Utah’s state anti-cockfighting laws stack up against those of other states, for example? (They’re 44th in severity, in case you’re curious.) Of course not! The rankings we talk about are the ones where (1) Utah is extremely high or low, and (2) we imagine we can draw a causal arrow between Mormonism and Utah’s ranking.
The problem with our selective attention to only the dramatic rankings that seem connectible to Mormonism is that it leads us to overestimate both how different Utah is (and therefore Mormons are) and how clear the causal link is between Mormonism and the things being measured in the rankings. But given lots of measures that states get ranked on, Utah is going to score really high or really low on some of them, even if only by chance. And some subset of those measures will surely seem obviously related to having lots of Mormons. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually are all related.
Just to be clear, I definitely concede that some of Utah’s extreme rankings are almost certainly related to Mormonism. For example, I suspect that Utah’s low rankings in diseases like lung cancer can likely be directly linked to observance of the Word of Wisdom. I’m not saying there are no such links. I’m just saying I think we overstate how many of them there are and how sure we can be of them. Recall for example the discussion of Utah’s high bankruptcy rate. Perhaps it was the strain of paying tithing, some of us thought. Maybe it was the high average household size, others suggested. But it turned out to be easily accounted for by differences between states in bankruptcy laws rather than by any peculiar Mormon predilection for declaring bankruptcy.
It’s one thing for me to make this argument, but it might be more convincing to show it. If I’m right, then we’ll generally be worse at predicting how Utah will rank on a particular measure than we are at coming up with explanations after the fact that connect Utah’s ranking to Mormonism. So let me give you a little exercise to try, if you’re so inclined, to see how well you can predict how Utah ranks on a bunch of measures.
Of course, you may be concerned that I’ll be selective and pick measures on which Utah does not have an extreme ranking just to make my point. This is a valid concern. To avoid it, I’ve tried to search for state rankings in an unbiased way. I did a Google search of the words “rankings states” (just the words, not as a phrase) and took ranks from the first 20 usable matches. A few more notes on my method:
- For sites that had multiple rankings, like the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, I just used the first one listed that was based on per capita values (rather than totals, which would generally be heavily influenced by Utah’s rank in terms of population).
- If data were given for multiple years, I used the most recent year available.
- I threw out a few sites that (1) didn’t have any U.S. state rankings or (2) didn’t list ranks for all states, or (3) didn’t give numerical ranks at all (for example, the Animal Legal Defense Fund), (4) belonged to individual states, or (5) ranked states on measures that duplicated previous matches.
I’ve put the answers in white text so that they’ll initially be hidden, but you can easily click and drag across them to reveal them. Each answer is between # signs so you’ll know where to drag. (Sorry this is such a kludge; I couldn’t come up with a better way to do it.) For example, here’s the cockfighting law ranking:
How severe are Utah’s cockfighting laws? ## 44 ## (Source: Humane Society)
If you click and drag between the # signs, you should see the answer: ## 44 ##.
For each of these new ones, before looking at the answer, try to predict where Utah will generally rank and relate its ranking to Mormonism if you think there’s a connection.
How does Utah rank in terms of . . .
Percent change in population from 2000-2008? ## 3 ## (Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States)
Overall health? ## 5 ## (Source: America’s Health Rankings)
Intelligence? ## 38 ## (Source: Morgan Quitno, publisher of annual Education State Rankings)
Livability? ## 2 ## (Source: CQ Press)
Obesity? ## 44 ## (Source: CalorieLab)
Health risks from hazardous air pollutants? ## 26 ## (Source: Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site)
Child friendliness? ## 3 ## (Source: Kids Count)
Driver knowledge? ## 7 ## (Source: GMAC insurance)
Bicycle friendliness? ## 18 ## (Source: League of American Bicyclists)
Percentage of children in excellent or very good health? ## 6 ## (Source: National Survey of Children’s Health)
Jobs in clean energy? ## 35 ## (Source: Pew)
Well-being? ## 1 ## (Source: Gallup)
Cigarette excise tax? ## 36 ## (Source: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids)
How exploitative driving laws are? ## 41 ## (Source: National Motorists Association)
Friendliness to business? ## 5 ## (Source: CNBC)
Volunteering rate? ## 1 ## (Source: Corporation for National and Community Service)
Mortgage closing costs? ## 32 ## (Source: Bankrate.com)
Unemployment rate (July, 2009) ## 4 ## (Source: U.S. Department of Labor)
Openness to charter schools? ## 4 ## (Source: Center for Education Reform)
Utah actually had more extreme ranks than I had anticipated. But I do think there are a few rankings that really make my point. For example, what about the cigarette excise tax? Before looking at it, did you suspect that Utah would be among the highest, since Mormons don’t like smoking, and might want to penalize those who do? Or did you suspect that Utah would be among the lowest, since Mormons tend to not like taxes? Neither explanation seems unreasonable, but in fact, neither is needed, since Utah scores pretty much in the middle. Or how about jobs in clean energy? My impression is that Mormons tend to be interested in new technology, so maybe Utah would rank high. But then, Mormons also tend to be unenthusiastic about environmentalism, so maybe Utah would rank low. But again, Utah ranked in the middle.
So were there any ranks that surprised you?