Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fame and Skill Go Together

A few days ago, The New York Times ran an op-ed piece called “The Geography of Fame.” It was written by an economist, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who used Wikipedia as a database and extracted the birthplaces—specifically, the counties of birth—of more than 150,000 Americans who are listed in the online encyclopedia. He combined this data set with figures on the number of births in each county and computed, for each county in the United States, the odds that a baby boomer born there would become notable enough to be listed on Wikipedia. He limited his study to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, in order to allow his subjects a full lifetime in which to achieve notability.

His most striking finding was that the counties that produced the highest density of Wikipedia personages tended to encompass college towns. For example, among the top 13 were the counties that are home to the Universities of Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Florida, as well as the counties of Tompkins, NY (home of Cornell) and Mercer, NJ (home of Princeton). The second most significant attribute of counties that produce famous people was the presence of a very large city. (All of these cities, such as Boston, New York, and Washington, also are the sites of universities.)

These two findings were remarkably similar to what I discovered when I did an analysis of the metropolitan areas where high-skill jobs are particularly concentrated. (I reported on my findings in my blog of August 10, 2011.) For example, here are the top 10 metropolitan areas with a high density of occupations requiring a high level of communication skills:

1. Durham, NC
2. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV
3. Trenton-Ewing, NJ
4. San Jose–Sunnyvale–Santa Clara, CA
5. Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH
6. Hartford–West Hartford–East Hartford, CT
7. Gainesville, FL
8. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT
9. San Francisco–Oakland–Fremont, CA
10. Rochester, MN

Most of these are college towns, and several are very large cities.

I also found that many metro areas came up repeatedly when I looked at different skills. For the nine skills that I looked at, Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH appeared on seven of the top-20 lists. The metro area where I live, Trenton-Ewing, NJ (home of Princeton), appears on five of the nine lists, as does New Haven, CT, the home of Yale.

One factor that Stephens-Davidowitz noted but that I missed was the influence of immigrants. You may not be surprised to find that college towns and metropolises attract many immigrants, but the economist also found that when two counties with similar populations and college attendance are compared, the county with the higher concentration of immigrants tends to produce more notable Americans. Having immigrant parentage, he discovered, also increases your chances of elevation to Wikipedia.

Now, I’ll admit that there is no easy way to determine the skill level of the people profiled on Wikipedia. But I’m sure you’ll agree that most of them did not achieve their fame purely by luck. And this supposition is borne out by the fact that the same environments that produce famous people are also home to the highest-skill jobs.

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