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Debunking the List: Philly As Most Depressed City is Laughable

Dr. John Grohol looks like a nice enough guy. He is the CEO and founder of psychology website Psych Central. Has a pretty good resume. His sweet smile at the bottom of an article he penned last week, however, belies his callous disregard for accuracy, context and presentation.

The story's headline reads: "The Most Depressing Places to Live in the U.S." Philadelphia is No. 1 on the list, although not because of NIH or CDC figures. The sole factor Grohol used as the amount of times related search terms, like "depression test" and  "depression symptoms" were entered, tracked by Google Trends.

Grohol's tagline says he is interested in the intersection of technology and human behavior. He may have wanted to check in at the intersection of accuracy and reality.

(Barely) to his credit, Grohol acknowledges "This is not a scientific study!" in succession below the meat of the story. But if it's not a scientific study, there is no way of determining any correlation between search terms and the clinical mental status of a city's residents. So how can Grohol write that headline naming Philly the most depressed city? And that Pennsylvania is the most depressed state?

That's where Grohol's error lies, employing such misleading descriptions, like the rankings headline above this list: "Most Depressing U.S. Cities in 2011." Had he simply scribbled Most Depression-Related Searches According to City, or something like that, accuracy would have led the way to immediate context.

And like AV Club already pointed out, the search terms were chosen at random (and not disclosed).

The problem is a "little fun with Google Trends," as Grohol puts it, will go a long way in projecting negative stereotypes and misleading search results.

Most likely, as an astute commenter named Mike pointed out, the trends have something to do with the fact that Pennsylvania is home to five of the top 50 undergrad clinical psychology programs in the country, including Penn and Temple. We also have a boatload of doctors here -- one of every six docs in the U.S. is educated in Philadelphia. They search for things. (The neckbone connected to the headbone.)

Admittedly, we highlight similarly unscientific lists and rankings that shine a positive light on Philly, but typically there is little harm in these (think "best cities for culture") and their roots in reality are more palpable than mere keystrokes.

If Grohol wanted to be really useful, he'd help us try and understand how a guy can get beaten to death trying to hail a cab in a crowded, upscale neighborhood.

That's really depressing, fella. And so far this year, it's a trend. No need for Google to confirm that.

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite and not usually this cranky. He is not depressed. Send feedback here.
We also debunked this list.

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