Boulder is smarter than you

By Phil Plait | February 12, 2008 7:00 am

Kewl. rated Boulder the smartest city in the U.S. I’d take all the credit since I moved here in June, but it turns out it placed in the top spot last year too.

Actually, I’m not all that surprised. The sheer number of research centers around here is staggering. There are at least four astronomy/space science centers here — the University, of course, SWRI, SSI (where Carolyn Porco works), and Ball Aerospace (not to mention UCAR and NREL). In fact, one reason I live here now is because I came to Ball back in 1996 to help test STIS, a camera on board Hubble (that died a few years back, but will be fixed in the upcoming servicing mission). I really loved Boulder, and when my wife and I were looking for places to live, it was a natural.

Ironic, though: I was sitting in a rec center yesterday, thumbing through the Boulder Weekly newspaper, and it was loaded with incredibly ridiculous stuff. New Age healing, antiscience mumbo jumbo, and the like. Page after page of garbage. This place may be smart, but it could be a whole lot smarter, too. I guess that’s true of everywhere, and all of us.

Tip o’ the mortar board to Fark.


Comments (56)

  1. Michelle

    Why do all newspapers attract nonsense?

    I really can’t wait for the day when a newspaper editor will stand up and say “Our newspaper has NO ASTROLOGY SECTION and we’re proud of it!”

    And it seems that not even the smartest places are free of garbage

  2. Angel

    Speaking of nonsense, I saw a commercial last night for homeopathic pain medicine for DOGS! $19.99 a bottle. Criminal.

  3. ex-Boulderite

    If you are going to stay in Boulder you need to work on your tan. It is not enough to be smart and live in Boulder.

  4. MKR

    In any sufficiently large group of people, every sort of person will be represented and marketed to. :)

  5. Brown

    That Ramsey business of a few years ago made me wonder how smart the people in Boulder were (particularly the people in the police department).

  6. K

    Heh, ya’ll aren’t smart enough to live where it doesn’t snow.

  7. Justin

    That doesn’t really surprise me; I recall reading somewhere that having a college education actually increases one’s belief in various kinds of woo. I live in a city that won an award for “Intelligent Community of the Year” last year, yet I pass multiple woo-purveyors (palm reader, naturopath, chiropractor) on my walk to class. It seems like they’re on every block.

  8. ccpetersen


    Boulder has ALWAYS had that kind of dichotomous thinking… it really flowered in the late ’60s (back when I was a pre-teen) and has never really gone away. My mom went to CU, too and she said even then the place had its share of “out there” thinking.

    I’d say leave it be… the place is unique because of it, and it’s not NEARLY as fundy as Colorado Springs, down the road a piece.

    Besides, Boulder has always had folks come in because they love it and then the moment they get there they either want to close the gate so nobody else can move there, or they want to start changing it.


    That said, I do miss the place. It has always been the center of the universe for me, even though I haven’t lived there for quite a while. I spent 17 years of my life either attending CU for my degrees or working in research on campus, and that adds up.

  9. Gray Lensman

    All that woo is a holdover of the 60’s and the hippies who made Boulder the interesting town it is. Some of us who live in Denver go to Boulder to recapture the “kinder, gentler, more tolerant” time we think we remember. Peace, Brother!

  10. Michelle

    @Angel: Oh yea. Homeopathy for pets is really flourishing lately. Only difference is that while the animal does not get better, the OWNER has some sort of perception it does. The owner gives them the stuff, and they just go “Wow! It seems as if my dog is coughing less now!” when all that happens is that they just never really counted the coughs before… and now they do.

    Pretty sad.

  11. Well, you’ve got to have something to balance out Colorado Springs.

  12. Sergeant Zim

    Seeing that list made me wonder, which cities are on the OTHER end of the list?

  13. Speaking of nonsense, I saw a commercial last night for homeopathic pain medicine for DOGS! $19.99 a bottle. Criminal.

    Is it really criminal to separate stupid people from their money? It’s not like homeopathy is a complicated fraud that a lay person would be hard pressed to debunk. Homeopathy is WELL debunked and there is a boatload of information to explain the truth of its magic.

    Homeopathy isn’t a fraud that preys on the arithmetically impaired (like a Ponzi scheme), it doesn’t prostitute itself in the short term looking for a long-term payoff (like a blonde 30 year old stripper marrying a 90 year old billionaire), it doesn’t steal – people give over their money willingly. At best it’s a confidence trick, but even then it’s not like people can’t verify the claims… technically nothing is hidden about homeopathy even if the homeopath won’t tell you.

    All it does is take money from people too stupid to not spend it. In that way, it’s no different than a lottery, except that in a lottery, at least one person actually wins other than the people who run the lottery.

  14. Seeing that list made me wonder, which cities are on the OTHER end of the list?

    Dover, PA?
    Dayton, TN?
    Topeka, KS?

  15. Dave

    Just have to add something!!
    I am considered smart and judging from my
    own past experiences and others that I know
    to be smart/educated… What is being said here
    about the “woo factor” is very astute! We smart
    folk can be really dumb bunnies sometimes!!!

  16. Michelle

    @Evolving Squid: The problem is that homeopathy has a big place in pharmacies. For instance, take about 99% of the pharmacies around here. They all have an “natural products” section, and part of it is homeopathy. The pharmacy near my workplace has an homeopathy section right next to the prescriptions. Also, directly on the counter of the prescription section, they offer their own home brand of magnetic bracelets…

    So think for the simple folks here that don’t necessarily research what they see: They are in a pharmacy. The place that sells regular stuff that heals you (and delicious Cadbury Creme Eggs). They shove homeopathy racks right next to the genuine medicine with no mention that it might (absolutely would) not work. Don’t you think that gives homeopathy massive credibility?

    I think that most folks that buy into homeopathy are just fooled by the good trust they have in their pharmacists.

  17. John Weiss

    Yeah, Boulder is a hard to pigeon-hole accurately, like all cities. (Ignore the talk, it’s easy to see.) On the one hand, something like 1 in 24 people have PhDs and there is, as noted, all kinds of research going on around here (not to mention the tech. companies). On the other, Naropa and other New Age weirdness. Fairly liberal population, but seriously yuppy. The town likes to do things to be environmentally friendly, but there are tons of SUVs and businesses keep their doors wide open on really hot and really cool days.

    I suppose that the very idea of describing a whole, diverse population with a few words is inherently flawed here just as much as anywhere else.

  18. The problem is that homeopathy has a big place in pharmacies. For instance, take about 99% of the pharmacies around here. They all have an “natural products” section, and part of it is homeopathy.

    But that’s not a problem with homeopathy, that’s a problem with the pharmacy.

    One thing that people forget about pharmacies is that they’re a business (even in socialist Canada). They’re about making money. Homeopathy is big money, although I have to admit that for a pharmacist to sell homeopathic remedies seems unethical to me. Still, the pharmacist runs his shop and he’s there to make money.

  19. decius

    @Evolving Squid

    All quackery should be outlawed and severely punished.

    You can’t be serious in your advocacy of a fraudulent practice such as homeopathy, even though the victim is credulous or willfully ignorant.

    May I also point out that in this particular case the actual victim would be the hypothetical dog in pain, being denied effective treatment not so much because of its owner’s credulity, but because current regulations effectively allow for the public to be deceived by unscrupulous pharmacists and anyone else who profits from this disgusting industry.

  20. Michelle

    @Evolving Squid: I know that, but we still tend to trust the guy that owns the medicine that can cure our bronchitis, see. But a MASSIVE problem here is that pharmacists run ads on the radio and TV that basically goes “Your pharmacist is a trained specialist, talk to him about your problems and he will give you what is best for you.”

    Seriously. That doesn’t help. If you trust that you’re most likely gonna believe that homeopathy is a good remedy since it’s so close to the aspirins.

  21. Michael Lonergan

    I think homeopathy works for some because they BELIEVE it works. I think it’s more a testament to either the power of the mind, or proves that many people are hypochondriacs. Does anyone remember the episode of MASH where the doctors give the patients sugar pills?

  22. Michelle:

    As I said, I believe it to be rather unethical for a pharmacy to sell such remedies. But unethical and “should be illegal” aren’t the same.


    At the most fundamental level, I have no problem with people who are willfully ignorant being ripped off. I’m not sure that pharmacists should be doing that ripping off, but that willfully ignorant people get ripped off isn’t a problem for me.

  23. I live in Ames, Ia (#6). Iowa has two cities in the list. Must be all the pork and corn.

  24. I actually just sent a letter to Shopper’s Drug Mart to inquire why, exactly, they sell homeopathic remedies. I am certain their response will be interesting (although likely uninformative).

  25. Tim

    Yes, don’t forget that Boulder is home to Alan Ginsberg’s Naropa University, where folks can actually get degrees in woo-woo.

    But then again you have the Conference on World Affairs, so that makes it all okay.

  26. drow

    boulder’s an awesome, vibrant place. revel in the brilliance and lunacy alike. find keith baker and smack him around for making daelkyr and dal’quor confusingly similar in sound.

  27. CR

    Rather off-topic, but that pic Phil posted of the mountains (very nice photo, by the way!) looks remarkably similar to several pics that appear in the 1991 edition of The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Weather. I wonder if they were taken near the same place…

  28. Tim

    Homeopathy isn’t an orphan. What about the magic “ionized bracelet” who’s wonders are extolled on TV ad’s every day! I guess, at least it isn’t sold in drug store’s: yet.

  29. Perhaps, then, professionals (such as doctors and pharmacists) should be require to post appropriate labelling on homeopathy. That is something I could support. If cigarettes can have danger labels, it would be reasonable to make homeopathic remedies carry danger labels.

  30. Celtic_Evolution

    Hmmm… so looking over this list, I can’t help but notice a trend in my own nomadic life…

    I was born and raised in Boston (Cambridge, no. 8 on this list, is really just an extension of Boston, although technically a different city), I now live in Ithaca, NY (no. 3 on this list)… which, interestingly, has been often referred to locally as “Boulder East” by those familiar with the city in Colorado.

    I think it’s clear where my next stop should be!

  31. Reed

    The New Age woo isn’t the half of it. Boulder County’s atrocious immunization rates — 60.4% compared to 83.4% for the rest of the state — is an argument that it’s one of the dumbest counties. Details at

  32. Quiet_Desperation

    31 responses and no reference to Mork & Mindy or The Stand yet.

    I’m disappointed in you all!!!!!

    Not even a JonBenét Ramsey quip.

    ObSheesh: Sheesh!

  33. Ian

    I haven’t had the pleasure of living in Boulder, but I have friends there, and
    it sounds like a nice place. I’ve lived in Ithaca, though I’d never heard the
    “Boulder East” nickname before.

    Of course, for small towns I seriously doubt anywhere in the US tops
    Los Alamos, NM (which is a city and a county) or perhaps Livermore, CA
    for the number of Ph.D.s per capita. :) But those are company towns
    (LA is, anyway) so they might not count in surveys like this.

    And all things considered I’d rather live in a more heterogeneous community
    than a company town. It’s nice to have, you know, book stores.

  34. sean hogge

    All “quackery” has been outlawed before. It’s why Galileo was forced to publicly admit his own “flirtation with heresy,” as well as serve a prison sentence (albeit removed to Tuscany).

  35. ccpetersen

    Well, homeopathy covers a huge range of products and goods. It’s hard to shove the whole homeopathic baby out with the bathwater. Certainly there are some really “whack products” that should be sold with a warning that they are quackery… but, also lumped in there are herbal teas and things that have been in use for a long time for a certain number of ailments and upon which some legitimate medicines ARE based. It’s this vaguery that the quacks take advantage of. And there are plenty of them in Boulder, California, and (oddly enough) New Mexico.

    I remember once getting a flyer under my dorm room door at CU about buying “matched male and female quartz crystals” that, when you put them together in one velvet bag, gave out “vibrations” that would help you study for exams.

    Talk about WOO.

    Then, one of the Colorado Daily’s cartoonists caught wind of these and came up with a cartoon about “mated male and female quartz suppositories’ to be placed you-know-where to help students get the most out of their studying… it was funny as hell, yet darned if some “practitioner” didn’t write in and protest the insult to his “practice.”

  36. CR

    Actually, Quiet_Desperation, the Ramseys got mentioned back in post #5.

    As for Mork & Mindy… well, I for one had successfully forgotten about that series after all these years. Now it’s back in my head. Thanks.

  37. Jeffersonian

    “Heh, ya’ll aren’t smart enough to live where it doesn’t snow”

    Snow’s the rarity, not the norm. There have been recent winters where there was none. We’re in the snow-shadow, on the east slope of the Rockies. The snow falls on the west (upslope) side, which is why the big ski areas are on that side, in the other mountain ranges.

    I moved to Boulder in ’92 for the rock climbing, thinking it was some sort of liberal freedom stronghold. Wrong. Ultra-conservative left. Love it though. Phil, trade one of your books for dinner at the Walnut?

    Nothing pisses off Boulder residents more than mentioning Mork or Jon Benet. You live in Manhattan? How bout I blab about 9-11 for an hour as if nothing else has ever happened there in the last couple centuries?

  38. Charles

    Boulder’s a great place, no doubt about it. I wonder if the New Age and anti-science hokum seem to settle on cities with universities — in the same list is Durham NC (Duke) and Raleigh NC (NC State) and probably should have Chapel Hill NC (UNC) as well — all very well educated and high-tech cities that are less than 20 miles from one another. It doesn’t hurt that major tech companies are in between them all in Research Triangle Park, which becomes one of the five largest towns in NC but is something like the 107th at night. Anyways, the same crystal and herb hucksters along with the alternative biology folks also seem to call the area home. Far as I am concerned they may as well be dealing tarot cards.

  39. cc petersen

    “Nothing pisses off Boulder residents more than mentioning Mork or Jon Benet. You live in Manhattan? How bout I blab about 9-11 for an hour as if nothing else has ever happened there in the last couple centuries?”

    Absolutely! Back when I was still living in Boulder, and I’d travel somewhere else, you could just about win bets as to WHEN (not if) somebody would say, “Boulder? Wow… you ever see Mork?”

    I love that “ultraconservative left” designation… it fits perfectly!

    My dad (who was raised in Boulder, too) always describes it as “Hippies with “Baby on Board” signs in their cars.”

    It is, however, a great place. Even though I make a great living as a writer, etc., I still find it would be quite expensive to move back into Boulder .. and I say this as a resident of Frost Heaves, MA, where the COL is quite high, too.

    Still… I miss the Colorado winters and the air quality and the quality of light… and the mountains… and the university…

  40. ABR

    I liked the Norlin Library at UC Boulder. Maybe it doesn’t have the biggest and best science section around, but it’s quirky. It was a nice place to spend an afternoon away from the lab.

  41. Re:
    All “quackery” has been outlawed before.

    This is why I am generally against BANNING things like homeopathy. If homeopathy is exposed, it will die a natural death. Banning it will only force it underground. Better to have it in the open where we can see it, and deal with it.

  42. Stan/Tx

    Dear BA,

    Boulder is one of many nice places in Colorado. Now that you live there you might consider running for local office. Politics aside, the ones in office right now do not seem to understand the concept of local government.

    “Boulder’s elected leaders are expected to decide next week whether to draft and vote on a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.” RockyMountainNews.


  43. Shane

    Is there a boulder in Boulder? Same with Little Rock and how could they tell?

  44. Jeff Fite

    It was nice of you to take credit for the intellectual cajones that Boulder is apparently swingin’, BA.

    Reminds me of my father-in-law, who is Danish. His favorite joke (stolen verbatim from Victor Borge) goes thus:

    “When I left Denmark for the U.S., the average I.Q. went up…in BOTH countries!”

  45. “When I left Denmark for the U.S., the average I.Q. went up…in BOTH countries!”

    You win the thread!

  46. Nigel Depledge

    Sergeant Zim said:
    “Seeing that list made me wonder, which cities are on the OTHER end of the list?”

    I can’t resist this one: Washington, DC. 😉

    Of course. That’s a no-brainer (terrible pun intended).


  47. Nigel Depledge

    Shane siad:
    “Is there a boulder in Boulder? Same with Little Rock and how could they tell?”

    I guess there must be a boulder in Boulder, otherwise it would be a silly name for a place.

    Little Rock presents a quandary – either it was named for a little rock (which sounds silly) or it was so named because there is so little rock in the area. Never having been there, I cannot say which is more likely.

    Still, people in glass houses…

    The UK has four rivers called “River Avon” – “avon” being a pre-Roman British word for “river”.

    I used to drive through the entire length of Pennsylvania on my way to and from work each day – Pennsylvania being a small village on the A46 near the city of Bath.

  48. Celtic_Evolution

    Not for nothin… but to answer the question about Little Rock. It got its name from a small rock formation on the Arkansas river that was used as a navigation marker for early river-goers.

  49. Evolving Squid writes:

    [[Is it really criminal to separate stupid people from their money?]]

    You’re a wonderful human being, Squid. Why don’t you go down to a local MH/MR facility and con some Down’s Syndrome kids out of their petty cash allowance?

  50. Squid goes on explaining his beliefs about ethics:

    [[At the most fundamental level, I have no problem with people who are willfully ignorant being ripped off. I’m not sure that pharmacists should be doing that ripping off, but that willfully ignorant people get ripped off isn’t a problem for me.]]

    Do you by any chance sell balloon mortgages? What if the person you’re laughing at has a family that depends on his or her income? Does that matter?

    You’re saying “theft is okay if the victim is someone I hold in contempt.”

    Is this an example of how atheists are just as moral as Christians? A point I think you’ve upheld in the past?

  51. ccpetersen


    Please go back and read more carefully what you quoted Squid as saying… and I point out:

    “… with people who are WIlLFULLY ignorant….”

    What part of that didn’t you understand? Many of the folks who are being screwed by the mortgage crisis are NOT willfully ignorant of the issues… they are caught in a squeeze not of their own making.

    Also, I see nothing fair or uplifting in YOUR ad hominem against mentally ill or retarded people by equating THEM as “willfully ignorant.”

    Wilfully ignorant means that the person chooses to make an ignorant choice because he or she is simply too lazy to learn. I believe people who make unfounded assumptions about atheists and mentally retarded people and people who are having mortgage problems and then use those assumptions to launch misplaced rejoinders based on a willful misreading of someone’s post would better qualify as “willfully ignorant.”

  52. Also, Barton, extrapolating what Squid said to atheists versus the religious is incredibly intellectually dishonest. It’s all too easy to trot out hundreds (thousands) of examples of dishonest preachers, but that does not make all religion bankrupt. However, since in America it’s a common belief that atheists are immoral, bringing up a few who are decent, honest, good folks disproves that myth.

    Imbalanced, but too bad.

  53. Sorry, I just didn’t like the assumption that it was okay to rip people off if they were contemptible people. Theft is still theft.

  54. Nigel Depledge

    Barton Paul Levenson said:
    “Theft is still theft.”

    Well, so it is. And, if Evolving Squid were advocating breaking into willfuly ignorant people’s homes or mugging them on the street, I would condemn him/her for it. However, all (s)he is saying is that (s)he has no problem with the wilfully ignorant choosing to spend their money on something that doesn’t work. And which, by the way, is entirely legal in all of the US states (disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, and I have assumed that selling this stuff [basically, various forms of woo] is legal).

    However, I disagree with E-Squid. Because it is legal to rip people off in this way (i.e. sell them a service that doesn’t work), it makes it a very easy way to make money. Because it is an easy buck, it becomes an attractive line of business, which means it will continue to flourish until either (a) practitioners are required to prove efficacy, or (b) the public gets wise.

    I think the food and cosmetics industries feed the public enough misinformation without whole industries being founded on nonsense too.


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