March 8, 2011

David Brooks announces the end of the Age of Sailer

For me, reading my reader David Brooks in the New York Times in recent years has been a rather odd experience. When promoting his upcoming book, Brooks writes as if I were the David Broder/ David Gergen/ David Brooks of the 21st Century, the recognized voice of conventional wisdom, and that he is the intellectual rebel.

For example, in his latest column "The New Humanism," Brooks expounds:
Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. ..

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: ... We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. ... Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. ... You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. 

Personally, I don't see why I shouldn't be the voice of conventional wisdom. I'm a reasonable man, I'm pretty good at understanding why other people feel the way they do, I like to put myself in other people's shoes in order to grasp the incentives they face, I have decent pattern recognition skills, and so forth.

For example, I can see lots of good reasons why Brooks has adopted this shtick of his. Granted, it's objectively wacky for him to imply that every time you turn on your TV, there's Obama or Oprah or Brooks talking about correlations between IQ and social outcomes. But, emotionally, that's what pays. If Brooks is going to become the New Malcolm Gladwell (which I'm highly in favor of, since he would be a big improvement over the Old Malcolm Gladwell), he needs to position himself as being The New Thing. The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans.

Moreover, reacting to me sharpens Brooks's game considerably. If he just talked back to, say, Frank Rich, he'd be almost as boring as Frank Rich.


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to Malcolm, anyway? I haven't heard from him since the igon value scandal. Is he still one beer away from full retard?

dearieme said...

"The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans."

That's adding to your Icon Value, Steve.

RKU said...

Another possibility is that Brooks has concluded that Amy Chua's daughters are just too strong competitors when "emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills"...

josh said...

"The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans."

An early quote of the year candidate.

Anonymous said...

Sure, he's always wrong, but at least he's a good prose stylist.

"...a richer and deeper view is coming back into view."

Anonymous said...

That just means you've won.

Now over the next 40 years we'll to see the consequences of your victory.

Anonymous said...

By which I mean: you have persuaded the intellectual class. Many of them don't like it. But you have persuaded them.

Pat Shuff said...

Book Review: The Social Animal -

Christopher F. Chabris reviews David Brooks's The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.

In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble.

But he doesn't tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.

This is a chronic problem in "The Social Animal." The literature in the social and medical sciences is full of results and claims that either don't replicate or haven't been tested by anyone other than the original researchers.

Mr. Brooks's tendency to attend only to information that supports his argument—the infamous confirmation bias—crops up often in "The Social Animal." An extended example is the chapter about the value of old-fashioned intelligence in the modern world.

If this story is meant to illustrate a broader point, it must be that "cognitive intelligence" and "emotional intelligence" have an inverse relationship: The brilliant are more likely than the average to be socially awkward. But this is nothing but the stereotype that forms the premise of "The Big Bang Theory" and other pop-culture narratives. In reality, tests of emotional intelligence correlate positively with IQ tests.

But Mr. Brooks makes an even bigger claim: Not only is intelligence not connected to social skill; it's not connected to much of anything. "Once you get past some pretty obvious correlations (smart people make better mathematicians), there is a very loose relationship between IQ and life outcomes." This conclusion misstates the science. To reach it Mr. Brooks has to commit a variety of statistical errors and tiptoe through a minefield of contradictory evidence.

To dismiss IQ testing as invalid because it can't pick out the minuscule minority that will attain world-wide fame is to confuse a positive correlation with a perfect one. Only oracles have perfect records of prophecy, and surely no one desires a world in which IQ tests are that good.

Next Mr. Brooks cites a study that found "no correlation between accumulating large wealth and high IQ." But in fact, IQ (measured in high school) was almost the best predictor of wealth (measured in early middle age) in this study's own data set. Its author did show that if you consider only people matched in education, income and other variables, then intelligence is unrelated to wealth. But this is hardly a surprise, since education and income themselves both correlate with IQ. In other words, if you look only at, say, high earners with graduate degrees, you will see that the smartest ones are no richer than the dumbest ones, but you will have learned nothing about the true relationship between intelligence and success.

In fact, studies that do measure both intelligence and economic outcomes find positive relationships. When you consider that IQ can be measured well in half an hour, these effects are surprisingly large: A random person with above-average intelligence has about a two-thirds chance of being above average in income, compared with a one-third chance for a random person of below-average intelligence.

The research that Mr. Brooks minimizes or ignores does not, of course, prove that intelligence is the only relevant trait for success. A host of "noncognitive" skills, many of which Mr. Brooks explains well, are undoubtedly important. But there is no need to tear down intelligence in order to build up the rest.

It's ironic that Mr. Brooks neglects the abundant evidence for a key source of differences among people—their genes—which influence their personalities, decisions and achievements.

Chicago said...

The public wants to be told that they are all undiscovered geniuses, diamonds in the rough. That's where the notion of emotional intelligence comes in, as a consolation prize assuring average people that they too have great things to offer. Not so good at that there book learning? Don't worry, one's sensitivity in social situations brings them up to par with the eggheads. Like Lake Wobegon, everyone is above average.

Shawn said...

I always find these posts interesting. They are probably right.

Kylie said...

What a horribly feminine and liberal article. Apparently Brooks is accusing us of TWW: Thinking While White.

From the article: "...emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason."

Our emotions are the basis of reason? Try telling that to someone struggling with a phobia. But never mind, I see where he's going with this. I've said it before, these people are not going to stop, they'll have to be stopped.

Anonymous said...

"The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans."

I saw David Brooks on Charlie Rose last night, and got the impression that some of the new ideas that he is discovering with brain scans represent ideas old enough to predate the modern ideology of blank slate liberalism. As such, they might represent an attempt to find a way back to sanity.

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, Sailer could be entirely right about Brook's deceptions or delusions.
On the other hand, maybe Brooks is betraying a fact of life among his peers. Maybe, in the world of the successful boboisie(or whatever)--liberal and conservative--, what people REALLY TALK ABOUT 24/7 is IQ, IQ, and IQ.
Though the NY Times and NPR crowd may publicly scoff at IQ scores and racial differences and the like, maybe amongst themselves, the conversation is mostly about 'I went to this fancy school', 'My kid is an honor student', 'my daughter got THIS SAT score', 'my son's going to Harvard Law School', etc. I doubt if they ever talk about the rich EMOTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS between themselves and the janitors/cleaning ladies working at their offices. Imagine a Harvard educated liberal Jewish woman seeking to form a deep, rich, and meaningful romantic relationship with a Mexican-American janitor who dropped out of highschool. I mean who cares about IQ? Rich successful intelligent Jews are just dying to get to know the 'common man', which is why Obama, their favorite, is your... er, typical black guy.

Anonymous said...

Steve I wouldn't sweat it. They will probably still leave your face up on Mt. Rushmore, right next to President Roissy. A testament to the Sailer Era.

Svigor said...

The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans.

Yeah that was pretty good.

Mr. Anon said...

I heard this ass-clown on NPR the other evening, where he is a regular contibutor ("contributor" in the same sense that ring-worm contributes to a painful itch). What a sniveling little weasel this guy is. As if our problem as a nation was our overfondness for cold, hard, sober quantitative analysis, and that this actually guided our decisions.

I wonder if Brooks, this Republican Party cabana boy, knows that he is full of s**t, or if he has really deluded himself that he is an original thinker.

Anonymous said...

"The public doesn't want new ideas, they just want to be told that their old ideas are new ideas that have been discovered by brain scans."


none of the above said...

Steve's wonderful quote there is true generally. Choose any field of hard or social science, and you can find any number of popularizers who have decided to dig just deep enough to find reassuring answers from science. Our social class is on top because we *deserve* to be on top. Our nation is mighty and brave and righteous, and always will be. Our church has the true doctrine. Our laws are the right ones. Our customs are in perfect alignment with nature. Etc.

This is overwhelmingly bullshit, exploiting the bug in the human mind that makes us far more tolerant of fuzzy, full-of-holes arguments on our own side of any issue than on the other side. Real insights into fundamental questions that have plagued humans forever often tend to be disturbing, or raise more questions than they answer, or piss lots of people off. Think about evolution and astronomy and physiology--all stuff that raised hugely disturbing questions and got people fired and threatened and sometimes killed for offensively challenging existing beliefs. In modern times, think of research on animal and machine intelligence--both raising some questions about what makes us uniquely valuable. Or the twin studies that suggest that within middle-class norms, variations in parenting styles don't really matter much. Or all the information about the aging brain, and how much we lose as we get older.

There are hopeful things that come out of that research, but a lot of it is unsettling or contradictory to our intuitions. And that's what we should expect--new information unfiltered through the social/political negotiation process, will often be shocking or upsetting. We should be damned suspicious upon hearing that science has proved a bunch of stuff we wanted to hear.