Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Pareto is always with us

Pareto was an Italian economist and sociologist back at the turn of the last century and is most famous for the development of a technique to identify the basic drivers of a situation, i.e. among the many potential causes, which few causes result in most of the outcomes. Very frequently this follows an eighty:twenty rule, e.g. 20% of drivers cause 80% of the accidents.

I have recently finished reading the NEA's 2004 report Reading at Risk. They have the data to answer a number of questions but it is not presented in a fashion that makes it easy to check their figures or do your own analysis.

One of the questions I had was to what degreee is reading a demographically concentrated activity in America. While they do not answer that in the report, there is a way to back into an answer through manipualtion of some of the data they do present along with a couple of conservative assumptions.

The result is that you can determine that 83% of all literature read in the US is read by 16% of the population.

Not surprising I guess, but arresting. It implies a high concentration of "cultural literacy" and capacity for close reading among a small part of the population. Instinctively, I can't help but feel that that is not too good.

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