Reality v. Brooks

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David Zweig, "The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book", Salon 6/15/2015 ("Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist's new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods"):

For at least the past four years David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, TV pundit, bestselling author and lecture-circuit thought leader, has been publicly talking and writing about humility. Central to his thesis is the idea that humility has waned among Americans in recent years, and he wants us to harken to an earlier, better time.  

One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong.

Zweig is not the first person to notice David Brooks' casual relationship with the truth. Here's how I put it in "David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008:

In this case, Mr. Brooks has taken his science from the work of Richard E. Nisbett, as described in his 2003 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why, and in many papers, some of which are cited below. I was familiar with some of this work, which has linguistic aspects, and so I traced Brooks' assertions to their sources. And even I, a hardened Brooks-checker, was surprised to find how careless his account of the research is. The relation between Brooks' column and the facts inspired me to model my discussion after the Radio Yerevan jokes that arose in the Soviet Union as a way to mock the pathetically transparent spin of the Soviet media:

Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn't win it, but rather it was stolen from him.

You can read the details ad nauseam in the cited post, but I'll reproduce one example:

Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn't a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn't Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn't a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn't mention the "focal fish" more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

More stories of my adventures in the land of Brooksian factoids can be found at these links:

"David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006
"David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006
"David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008
"An inquiry concerning the principles of morals", 4/7/2009
"The butterfly and the elephant", 11/28/2009
"'Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit'", 3/3/2013
"David 'Semi True' Brooks", 3/20/2013
"Ngram morality", 5/22/2013

We could call his approach to story-telling the "fish story dynamic", and others documented Brooks' mastery of  the form before I did — thus Sasha Issenberg, "Boo-Boos in Paradise", Philadelphia Magazine 5/15/2006:

Brooks, an agile and engaging writer […] [brings] sweeping social movements to life by zeroing in on what Tom Wolfe called “status detail,” those telling symbols […] that immediately fix a person in place, time and class. Through his articles, a best-selling book, and now a twice-a-week column in what is arguably journalism's most prized locale, the New York Times op-ed page, Brooks has become a must-read, charming us into seeing events in the news through his worldview.  

There's just one problem: Many of his generalizations are false.

Here's how I characterized the general situation in one of my posts:

David Brooks has an unparalleled ability to shape an intellectually interesting idea into the rhetorical arc of an 800-word op-ed piece. The trouble is, a central part of his genius is choosing the little factoids that perfectly illustrate his points. No doubt he's happy enough to use a true fact if the right one comes to hand, but whenever I've checked, the details have turned out to be somewhere between mischaracterized and invented.

This approach, unfortunately, seems to be taught in Punditry 101. Or more accurately, there's a high correlation between success as a pundit and skill at coming up with evocative factoids — with apparently no loss of points for fabricating them.

But David Brooks is really a special case, I think, if only because his factoids are so gratuitously mutable. I recommend reading the whole of David  Zweig's Salon piece, which is centered around what apparently began (as Zweig eventually learned from Brooks' Random House publicist) with a 2003 paper (Newsom et al., "Changes in adolescent response patterns on the MMPI/MMPI-A across four decades," Journal of personality assessment 81, no. 1) that compared personality-test results from 9th graders in 1948 and 1954 with data from 14-16-year-olds in 1989. In lectures, columns, and in various editions of his latest book, Brooks presents this as a Gallup survey of high-school seniors in 1950 vs. (in various venues) "the late 1980s", 1998, 2003, 2005, or 2006. And of course, the response percentages that Brooks quotes are not the same as those given in the apparent source. And the authors of the paper disagree with Brooks' interpretation of their results.

Zweig is flabbergasted:

The thing I keep wondering is how did Brooks get nearly every detail of this passage wrong? […] [I]f it wasn’t an accident, why would Brooks deliberately falsify nearly every detail in a passage of his book, let alone one that is a cornerstone of the book’s P.R. campaign?

The obvious answer is the fish-story dynamic:

As his publicist suggested, he may be right about the general trend. So why did he feel the need to gild the lily? Why couldn’t he have referenced the paper using the correct statistics? Perhaps it is a sign of his skill as a communicator, and his weakness, to know how to make a passage particularly seductive. On “Morning Joe,” as one of the hosts recited the erroneous passage, another host waved a cellphone, signaling, “See? This is the problem with today’s youth!” Saying 1989 for the latter date wouldn’t quite work for that bit.

And Zweig's conclusion about David Brooks seems valid to me:

The question I keep wondering, and what I think perhaps is most relevant with Brooks, is why? Why would someone with this level of prestige and influence be so woefully sloppy in his reportage — or worse? Imagine yourself for a moment as an Op-Ed writer for the most influential newspaper in the world; you get paid huge sums of money for a string of bestselling books, you entertain and enlighten live crowds at your lectures, you get paid to spout your opinions on TV. I don’t know what it would do to my head if I had the level of influence that Brooks has as a writer and cultural commentator. Perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested, maybe Brooks is just glib.  

Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t even matter whether the passage was fudged on purpose or not. Perhaps to be so careless shows the same degree of culpability, and condescension toward the reader, that willful manipulation does.

Another way to put this, I think, is that David Brooks is not a liar, but (in the technical sense) a bullshitter.

It tells you something about our culture, I think, that Brooks' style has not been in any way affected by documentation of his carelessness and outright fabrications. Bullshit sells.



  1. Ken Miner said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 11:17 pm

    Members of my family, no doubt under severe delusions as to my worth, have sometimes asked me why I never wrote a book.

    This is why.

  2. David J. Littleboy said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    I think Brooks gets away with his blithe disregard for actual facts because he's fulfilling a need: he's telling the nice white rich folks that it's OK to be nice white rich folks and that the things they think are important are things that would make less nice/less white/less rich folks better (better off, even) if said less nice/less white/less rich folks lived by those very nice ideas/ideals nice white rich folks live by. Because nice rich white folks do believe in family (even if lots of them, including Brooks, get divorced), religion at least as a moral thing, the great Western books/thinkers.

    But, bother. Since I'm going to have to forgive Hilary for not opposing the Iraq war, I suppose I'm going to have to be less vociferous in ranting about Brooks' noxious hubris in thinking that we could make things better for the Iraqis by fighting a war there. (The ineffable depth of his hutzpah in teaching a course on humility is truly breathtaking, of course. Sheesh.)

  3. Anson said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 6:21 am

    This reminds me of an incident when I was a freshman engineering student taking my first college English class. As an exercise we had to write a paragraph about "the best restaurant I ever ate at." One that the professor read to the class began something like, " I don't remember the name of the best restaurant I ever ate at, but it was in New Orleans…" She stopped and said to the class that the writer had just blown his whole message, because if he couldn't remember the name of the restaurant how good could it be, really? Then she gave us the advice that still shocks me today. "In this class, if you don't remember a fact or don't have a ready example, make it up! I won't go to New Orleans to check the restaurant!"

    So here was a college professor advising her students to lie in their papers. Granted, she was more interested in the quality and style of the writing than in accuracy, but still.

    David Brooks' playing fast and loose with the stats makes me wonder if he had similar advice when he was younger, or if it just comes naturally to him.

    Note: Above quotes are from memory and may not be totally accurate. But they're close.

  4. Bloix said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 9:18 am

    He did it again today.

  5. cs said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    Thanks for helping me clear something up: When I read the Salon piece yesterday, I immediately thought about that Radio Yerevan joke, but I couldn't remember exactly how the joke went or where I had seen it before. It turns out that I had seen it here, and also in reference to David Brooks.

  6. K Chang said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 10:48 am

    To quote Ernest Hemingway:

    "To invent out of knowledge means to produce inventions that are true. Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him. It also should have a manual drill and a crank handle in case the machine breaks down."

  7. K Chang said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 10:52 am

    @Anson, could your professor be reinterpreting Mark Twain's quote?

    ""Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can't think of anything better." — Mark Twain

    [(myl) Mark Twain also wrote "I am grown old, and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it."]

  8. Thomas Rees said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 1:42 pm

    Today he quotes his offsider Fareed Zakaria who has this:

    We forget now, but only three decades ago, Mexico was one of the world’s most anti-American countries. Its politics were a heady mix of resentment, envy and anger directed against its rich neighbor. Its governing party had a left-wing revolutionary attitude, unalterably opposed to Washington and its foreign policy.

    We forget now because it ain’t so. President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado was a neoliberal with a Harvard degree. He failed to sign on to Reagan’s misbegotten Central American policy, but otherwise was all that could be desired.

    Do they just make this stuff up? They sure do.

  9. Anson said,

    June 16, 2015 @ 3:32 pm

    @K Chang, ff the prof was channeling Twain she hid it well.

    She really was more interested in how we wrote than in the content, which I suppose is appropriate for a freshman English class at an engineering college (people say us engineers don't right so good).

    But I wonder if the message sometimes gets muddled and students come away with the idea that it's OK to make it up outside of class as well.

    {(myl) Unfortunately, I don't think that this kind of BS has to be taught — it comes naturally to many people.]

  10. Catherine said,

    June 17, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

    I tear my hair out over Brooks's columns on education, but in this case I think David Zweig got it wrong.

    Here's the passage Zweig fact-checked:

    BROOKS: “In 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.”

    ZWEIG writes: "Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong."

    And here is the relevant passage from "Changes in Adolescent Response Patterns on the MMPI/MMPI-A Across Four Decades":

    "Also related to the Ma2 subscale, modern adolescents were more likely [to] respond true to items such as “I am an important person” (Item 58). In the 1950s, this item, placed on the ego inflation (Ma4 ) subscale, was endorsed as true by only about 12% of the Hathaway and Monachesi (1963) sample. In contrast, this item was endorsed as true by 77% (girls) to 80% (boys) of contemporary adolescents. The dramatic shift in endorsement frequency probably reflects a fundamental shift in the connotation of this item, that is, in the Hathaway era this item was likely interpreted by adolescents as related to self-aggrandizement, whereas it is seen as reflective of positive aspects of self-esteem by modern adolescents."

    Brooks misremembered a) the source and b) the presence of the modifier "very."

    The addition of the "very" is an embarrassing mistake, but deleting the 'very' doesn't change his argument. His summary is otherwise correct.

    Brooks's interpretation of what the change in answers means doesn't seem to be shared by the researchers, but it isn't contradicted by them, either. They devote just 1 sentence (quoted above) to hypothesizing what the jump from 12% to 80% means, and they limit themselves to speculating how teens in the two eras understood the question.

    They do not ask what it means that teens today believe "I am an important person" is a positive expression of self-esteem while 1950s teens and the researchers who surveyed them agreed that an answer of "true" to "I am an important person" was a proper measure of "ego inflation."

    This is the question Brooks is concerned with, and he is entitled to his own view of accurately stated survey data.

    Changes in Adolescent Response Patterns on the MMPI/
    MMPI-A Across Four Decades
    Cassandra Rutledge Newsom , Robert P. Archer , Susan Trumbetta & Irving I. Gottesman
    Copyright © 2003, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc
    Published online: 10 Jun 2010.

  11. GH said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 11:33 am

    @ Catherine:

    Did you actually read Zweig's article? As he points out, Brooks also misstates:

    – The date(s) of collection of the original data (1948 and 1954, not 1950)
    – The date of collection of the new data (1989, not 2005); this is rather serious, since it materially changes the finding, with the results pertaining to a completely different generation than he indicates
    – The age/grade level of the children studied
    – The percentage of students who gave this answer in the more recent data (not 80% total)
    It is thus quite accurate to say that hardly any detail of the passage is correct.

  12. Hal Morris said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 3:10 pm

    I wonder what sort of following Brooks has, if any. He seems very ambivalent (more on this later). His real talent may be wit or gentle satire. The story he tells is that at the start of his career he did something satirical on Wm. F. Buckley, and then Buckley called, and complemented the article, and sort of seduced him into joining the conservative cause — at least that's my impressionistic impression of it.

    Apparently for a long time, he's been PBS's favorite "tame conservative" — following David Gergen and Paul Gigot as civil sparring partner for Mark Shields on PBS NewsHour. And maybe his column in the NYTimes is more of the same. It's been a long time since I've read it; I only did pay attention to it for a while in the early Obama days, when he kept expressing bewilderment at the demonizing of Obama by the better team players of the right, asking "Why do they keep calling this very civil moderate Democrat "socialist" (even Marxist), "fascist", "thug", "Muslim", etc., and raising holy hell about his "radical agenda"? (Can you say "dishonesty"? Though at least some distance from the source of this trash, a lot of sincere simple people just bought it.)

    Maybe he's lost, and just feels its his duty to keep coming up with something he can sort of believe that is consistent with right wing talking points, but he knows he's a fake and his heart isn't in it. I suppose that may sound totally wrong if one has been keeping up with him lately.

  13. Joseph Chamberlin said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 4:47 pm

    I listen to Mr. Brooks and have read parts of his latest book. The section on S. Johnson and Montaigne was particularly interested.
    Like most of what I have believed from the church I am confronted with more distortion. Lesson. Most of what I have been told and read is not true or a distortion of truth.
    Think I will start a column titled true lies.

  14. GeorgeW said,

    June 18, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

    Hal Morris: "Maybe he's lost, and just feels its his duty to keep coming up with something he can sort of believe that is consistent with right wing talking points, but he knows he's a fake and his heart isn't in it."

    I think he is torn between his inner sociologist and his lucrative positions at the NYTimes and NewsHour as the house conservative. And, as has pointed out, his inherent need to BS.

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