Salon tackles one of the smart guys: David Brooks has long been cast as one of the press corps’ bright guys.
He writes two columns per week for the New York Times, a famous newspaper whose political work is constantly taken for smart.
Beyond that, Brooks participates in the weekly political roundups on two of our brightest discussion programs—NPR’s All Things Considered and the PBS NewsHour.
Plainly, the establishment press sees David Brooks as one of the press corps’ smart guys. That’s why David Zweig’s recent report for Salon is so instructive.
For reasons he explains in his piece, Zweig decided to fact-check one of the central claims in Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character. This is the passage in question, as originally published:
BROOKS (2015, page 6): 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.Those kids today! Surely, we all can see the general drift of Brooks’ claim. Those Kids Today in The Me Generation no longer have any humility! The way their parents and grandparents did!
Unfortunately, Zweig had seen Brooks making the same general claim in the past, while citing a significantly different second date. In his 2011 book, The Social Animal, Brooks’ claim took this form:
BROOKS (2011, page 181): In 1950 a personality test asked teenagers if they considered themselves an important person. Twelve percent said yes. By the late 1980s, 80 percent said yes.In that version of the story, These Kids Today had gone to the dogs “by the late 1980s.” Other facts also seemed different.
Zweig decided to fact-check the claim from Brooks’ current book. Making a long story short:
1) The Gallup Organization had nothing to do with these data.As Zweig notes, every error in the new book tends to enhance the shock value of Brooks’ central point. Making matters worse, Zweig reports a deeply significant complaint from the researchers who compiled the 1989 data:
2) The second set of data were collected in 1989, not in 2005.
3) The two sets of data came from difference sources, not from any one polling organization.
4) The data involved high school freshmen, not seniors.
ZWEIG (6/15/15): In addition to his factual errors, it’s worth noting that Newsom and Archer challenge Brooks’ interpretation of their paper. Newsom explained to me that “I am an important person” was one question in a subset of questions related to “Ego inflation.” Interestingly, though this one question had a huge jump, ostensibly supporting the case of less humility over time, in fact, the overall subset that this question was a part of—Ego Inflation—had a relatively small increase from the first data set to the second. It’s generally not sound to spotlight one question in isolation, especially if it contrasts with the findings of the overall study or subset.This suggests a possibility: Brooks may have cherry-picked a single question which indicated a decline in the humility of Those Kids Today, even though a group of related questions suggested a substantially different result.
David Brooks is supposed to be one of the smart ones. We’re discussing an important early passage in a ballyhooed new book. It isn’t a mistaken offhand comment.
How the heck did David Brooks make so many accidental mistakes? Why did all his mistakes tilt the scales in a certain direction?
People! We’ve been talking about this sort of thing for almost twenty years now. As we’ve often noted, facts play almost no role in our discourse. It’s narrative all the way down!
Assuming the accuracy of Zweig’s account, the cherry-picking of the one question is the most serious bit of misdirection here. Throwing Gallup into the mix makes the whole thing sound especially authoritative. Adjusting the date from 1989 to 2005 makes it seem like this is a recent crisis concerning These Kids Today.
This is what the smart ones do, when they’re writing major books! We’re only surprised that Zweig seems surprised by this apparent conduct.
People! Our own descriptions of these kinds of gong-shows date, let’s say, to the Lincoln Bedroom pseudo-scandal (1996). At that time, the Washington Post and the New York Times toyed with the basic numbers in several ways to make You Know Who look corrupt.
Again and again and again and again, the New York Times does horrible work, but it’s mistakenly taken for smart. Brooks is supposed to be one of the smartest in the whole bunch!
Do all the journalists toy with their facts? Zweig’s piece is well worth reading. Predictably, it seems to have occasioned zero reaction.