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.