“If you are primarily motivated to make money, you . . . certainly don’t want to let people know how confused you are by something, or how shallow your knowledge is in certain areas. You want to project an image of mastery and omniscience.”

A reader writes in:

This op-ed made me think of one your recent posts. Money quote:

If you are primarily motivated to make money, you just need to get as much information as you need to do your job. You don’t have time for deep dives into abstract matters. You certainly don’t want to let people know how confused you are by something, or how shallow your knowledge is in certain areas. You want to project an image of mastery and omniscience.

The op-ed is by New York Times columnist David Brooks, and I assume my correspondent was pointing to this recent post. But she could’ve been referring to this post from last year, where I discussed Brooks’s statement that “technical knowledge—‘the statistical knowledge you need to understand what market researchers do, the biological knowledge you need to grasp the basics of what nurses do’—can be “memorized by rote.” Or she could have been pointing to this article from last year, where Jay Livingston upbraids Brooks for simplistically telling just one side of a story.

This is not a Gotcha moment

It would be easy to use this as an opportunity to laugh at Brooks, to take him down a peg: Brooks has a track record of refusing to correct his errors and choosing not to revisit his past mistakes, and here he is, talking about people who “want to project an image of mastery and omniscience.” It’s almost as if Brooks is describing himself here.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Rather, I doubt that Brooks sees the connection at all. I’m guessing that Brooks sees himself as a curious, questioning person, someone who does not follow orthodoxies of left and right but rather evaluates things on their own merits. And in many ways I think this is correct: Brooks really does seem like someone who’s seeking the truth and is not looking for easy answers.

On the other hand, it’s also true that Brooks repeatedly makes mistakes and then does not correct them, even after they’ve been pointed out to him repeatedly (one of the most notorious examples is the case of the Jewish students in the Ivy League discussed here, but probably the most famous is the $20 meal at Red Lobster.

Resolving the puzzle

Brooks puts it well in his recent column:

Most of us have at one time or another felt ourselves in the grip of the explanatory drive. You’re confronted by some puzzle, confusion or mystery. Your inability to come up with an answer gnaws at you. You’re up at night, turning the problem over in your mind. Then, suddenly: clarity. The pieces click into place. There’s a jolt of pure satisfaction.

In this case, the puzzle is: How can Brooks, on one hand, see himself as a dogma-free open-minded seeker of truth, and on the other hand repeatedly avoid returning to the mistakes he’s published? On one hand, he slams people who don’t admit how confused they are, or how shallow their knowledge is in certain areas. On the other hand, he seems so unwilling to admit the areas where he is confused.

My resolution of the paradox has two parts: politics and culture.
First, politics. Brooks is a conservative Republican in an industry (newspaper writing) that is dominated by liberal Democrats. So it’s natural for him to interpret criticism as being ideological or political. When Brooks mainstreams some false statistics on college admissions, and someone calls him on it, or when he gets sloppy in an article about red and blue America, and someone calls him on it, it’s natural for him to simply dismiss the criticism as being “intemperate” and to avoid looking at the substance of the issue. The same thing happens to Paul Krugman, I’m sure. Once you’re in the arena, it’s hard to evaluate criticism on its own grounds.

Second, culture. As various commenters discussed in my recent blog on the topic, there do seem to be incentives for journalists and columnists to act omniscient. I suspect that Brooks is so embedded within this world that he doesn’t even realize how odd it is for him to write about people who “project an image of mastery and omniscience.”


So, again, my point is not to criticize Brooks but rather to point out the cage he is living in. I don’t envy the man. To be in a situation in which even the most factual criticism is taken as political, and in which admitting error is something done only in extreme circumstances and not as a matter of course—that just seems sad. I’m sure he gets paid a lot of money but I don’t think that’s why he’s doing it. I think he’s just trapped in a cage and doesn’t even realize it. He’s internalized the values of his profession. The academic equivalent would be those tenured professors who just keep plodding along for decades, never reflecting if there is any point to what they are doing.

David Brooks: If you are reading this, I feel for you. You’re better than this! I’m being completely sincere here. You can apply your principles of humility and conservatism to your own writing and your own career. I’d urge you to start by running a column apologizing to Sasha Issenberg. Then you could retract the false numbers that you ran in that column a couple years ago, etc. Really, everybody makes mistakes. I find it helpful to go back and consider my own mistakes, and I think you can too. When you’re locked in a cage, the biggest challenge isn’t how to find the key, it’s realizing the cage is there at all.

42 thoughts on ““If you are primarily motivated to make money, you . . . certainly don’t want to let people know how confused you are by something, or how shallow your knowledge is in certain areas. You want to project an image of mastery and omniscience.”

  1. I was in NH for a while. Thought about 2 things. First, it’s very easy to extrapolate from nearly anywhere in NH (or Maine, etc.) that all the problems you see on TV are because of those people in the cities. That’s a cage. As NBCNews showed this past week, heroin has become the big scourge of small town white America … and that’s mirrored in dozens of other examples, like the white counties in Appalachia that vote for the GOP but have the highest percentages of people using government assistance. Second, I remember a Boston Fed paper that analyzed social spending in NE. The gist is that NH spends less … but that’s significantly because of the state’s demographics with policy having a much smaller impact. It’s very difficult for people to understand that if you age the population, increase the number of children and raise the number of immigrants, you’d be spending within a few points of MA. They think it’s because of policy choices.

    But then you deal all the time with issues of people arguing about small differences as though the world depends on them. One of my favorite blogs is Econbrowser, mostly because the comments on Menzie Chin’s posts devolve so often into a war of data versus idiocy. It’s easy to pass off comments on a news article as dopey but the repeated inability of people to shift their positions despite repeated applications of evidence are proof of something deep: that we can’t shift our views easily and that we want to believe small effects are actually huge. Menzie posts about WI’s relatively poor performance despite those “open for business” tax changes, anti-union legislation, etc. In response, he gets absurd made up “facts” and weird economic arguments – that often accuse him of misunderstanding basic economics – and such ridiculousness as the argument last week that the end of WWII “proves” less government is good because private GDP grew rapidly as the economy shifted away from war production and rationing eased. In the end, the point becomes Sisyphean: they believe this must be the magic key to prosperity, that the other choices are instead the poison apple and that the failure to show meaningful positive differences is … well, the data must be wrong, you’re an idiot, it would only be worse, etc., etc.

  2. The op-ed also irritated/amused me because it struck me as a great example of oversimplification. (“There are two kinds of people in this world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”) I have to imagine context determines behavior to some extent — at least it ought to! Consider: how do you feel when a bright student comes to your office hour to ask wandering questions purely for curiosity? What about if she does the same thing during class the day before the midterm? I can believe that people may exhibit some trait-type difference in this drive, but not acknowledging the role of state-type differences in explaining our behavior just feels lazy.

    I also think that some of the logical connections in his argument are really weak. For instance he implies that this sort of curiosity is inherently moral. This is nonsense. Sometimes very curious people do very naughty things. Other times they do things that are morally ambiguous. And I wasn’t at all sure how he made the leap from “curious people are great” to “government regulation will not save the world.” I’m not saying he’s wrong, but it felt very out-of-left-field to me, like it only seemed to follow in his mind because he already believes that anyway.

    • Erin,

      Yes, also the thing at the very end of the column about how the good guys actually end up making more money, that was kinda weird also. I don’t really think the column made much sense at all. But what was most interesting to me was the bit about not admitting confusion and ignorance.

    • Can you elaborate your comment about context? I’m not sure what part of his op-ed you mean.

      Also, sure curiosity may not *always* be moral. But aren’t you using an exception? In general, if you had to choose between less or more curious wouldn’t you almost always choose “more”?

      • Regarding context: I mean that his thesis seems to be “some people are always driven primarily by curiosity and the rest of us are always driven primarily by money.” If he has any sense he would object to my characterizing his position this way, his true beliefs must be more nuanced, but I didn’t see any nuance in the piece. I think you can substitute any concrete, short-term goal for money and it would make his position more plausible, but still mostly wrong. There are doubtless some people who care exclusively about one thing or the other, but I strongly suspect most of us are a mix.

        Here is an example. I am part of a study group for a class I think is pretty tough. Two of us in the group are enrolled and the other person is auditing the class. The one who is auditing is definitely displaying wider curiosity about the material, trying to link it to other classes he’s taking. That’s a good thing, no doubt, but my study time is limited and I feel a stronger drive to focus on the things I will actually be tested on. If I were auditing I would be right there with my study buddy, saying “yes! This does seem like the right time to refresh on how to do derivatives using matrix notation!” because I think his way ultimately results in deeper learning. But as it is I have to focus on the short-term goal because his way is also longer and the midterm is in three days.

        Regarding morality: I *like* curiosity, I think it is often attractive, but I think it is amoral (not immoral: just morally neutral). From my perspective, morality is primarily about our relationship to others, and curiosity is about our own internal satisfaction. It isn’t hard to think of examples where someone’s drive to know a thing might not benefit society at all. In particular, if you are the sort of extreme obsessive Brooks seems to be describing, where curiosity always trumps other goals, I don’t see how to square this with caring deeply about how what you uncover affects other people. “Change the world for the better” might as well be substituted in for money in that story — it is a concrete goal that those who are really, truly driven only by curiosity will probably eschew. (I suspect the according of prestige to researchers on the more theoretical end of STEM may be instructive here — in some such environments, I’m told, “applied” is a dirty word.)

        • I mostly agree with you. Brooks’ thesis here seems a bit tenuous. And his specific example of Brad Katsuyama is even more incongruous. Yes moral is a bad word to describe curiosity, perhaps something like “often has a positive social externality” is more apt?

          I’ll try positing a different version: “Often advances in a sector are brought about by people who, for whatever reason, were curious beyond what their normal line of duty demanded. Since by typical metrics of utility such curiosity might often be irrational (e.g. because no monetary reward results), a good system must figure out ways to incentivize such behavior to some extent. Or at least, to not penalize it too badly. “

          Let’s see if this is less contentious?

  3. I’m out of the loop on this. Why should Brooks apologize to Sasha Issenberg? I understand that Issenberg wrote a sort of takedown piece on Brooks; did he respond to it unkindly?

    • Jerad:

      From Issenberg’s article:

      As I [Issenberg] made my journey, it became increasingly hard to believe that Brooks ever left his home. “On my journeys to Franklin County, I set a goal: I was going to spend $20 on a restaurant meal. But although I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu — steak au jus, ‘slippery beef pot pie,’ or whatever — I always failed. I began asking people to direct me to the most-expensive places in town. They would send me to Red Lobster or Applebee’s,” he wrote. “I’d scan the menu and realize that I’d been beaten once again. I went through great vats of chipped beef and ‘seafood delight’ trying to drop $20. I waded through enough surf-and-turfs and enough creamed corn to last a lifetime. I could not do it.”

      Taking Brooks’s cue, I lunched at the Chambersburg Red Lobster and quickly realized that he could not have waded through much surf-and-turf at all. The “Steak and Lobster” combination with grilled center-cut New York strip is the most expensive thing on the menu. It costs $28.75. “Most of our checks are over $20,” said Becka, my waitress. “There are a lot of ways to spend over $20.”

      Issenberg then asked Brooks about this:

      I called Brooks to see if I was misreading his work. I told him about my trip to Franklin County, and the ease with which I was able to spend $20 on a meal. He laughed. “I didn’t see it when I was there, but it’s true, you can get a nice meal at the Mercersburg Inn,” he said. I said it was just as easy at Red Lobster. “That was partially to make a point that if Red Lobster is your upper end … ” he replied, his voice trailing away. “That was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I did have several mini-dinners there, and I never topped $20.”

      I went through some of the other instances where he made declarations that appeared insupportable. He accused me of being “too pedantic,” of “taking all of this too literally,” of “taking a joke and distorting it.” “That’s totally unethical,” he said.

      Huh? What’s unethical about pointing out that a reporter (Brooks) wrote something false? Brooks might know which numbers he reports are real and which are jokes, but his readers aren’t clued in to this distinction. Issenberg found mistakes in Brooks’s writing. Instead of thanking Issenberg for pointing these out, Brooks lashed out and called the criticisms “unethical.” That’s not cool.

      Here’s another one, from 2011. David Brooks wrote the following, in a column called “Living with Mistakes”:

      The historian Leslie Hannah identified the ten largest American companies in 1912. None of those companies ranked in the top 100 companies by 1990.

      I googled “ten largest american companies 1912″ and found, from Leslie Hannah, that two of the top ten from 1912 (Exxon and GE) are still in the top ten today. That’s 2 in the top 10, not 0 in the top 100. No big deal, perhaps, but if you’re going to write columns about learning from mistakes, it would be a good idea to learn from your mistakes, and to thank (not lash out at) the people who go to the trouble of pointing out these mistakes to you.

  4. Brooks is a neoconservative (neocon), not a traditional American political conservative.

    As such, he fits in very well with the liberal-Democrat culture of the NY Times. Neocons are basically 1970’s splinter-group leftists who strongly favor big-government, very aggressive foreign policy, and much of the liberal agenda.

    Neocons are often preferred by liberals to “portray” the conservative voice in the media… in television talk shows, newspaper columnists, magazines, think tanks, and advisory positions in Republican Administrations. Even Fox News prominently features neocon William Kristol. Liberals are comfortable with neocons.

    Brooks is not a conservative, but his impersonation serves the NY Times purposes of seeming to feature a “conservative” columnist. Perhaps Brooks is conflicted by this theatrical role he must play.

  5. I think Andrew’s singling out Brooks unfairly. Are there other columnists, conservative or liberal, who are more regularly admitting errors? Who?

    I think it’s just in the nature of the medium. Newspaper publishers don’t care about errata. Actually neither do academic journal editors looking at how enthusiastic they are about such stuff.

      • So what’s the counter-factual here? Name some other NYT columnists that routinely revisit their mistakes. Or WSJ etc. I say there’s a culture in newspapers of not revisiting mistakes. This isn’t about Brooks.

        • Rahul:

          I agree about it being a general culture of newspapers. This came up in the comments thread of my previous post on the topic. But I still find it difficult to understand, not in general but the particular case of David Brooks, who is interested in human error, humility, etc. I’d think that if anyone could overcome the culture of newspapers in this dimension, it would be Brooks, and that’s why I continue to be disappointed.

      • > I’d think Brooks himself would want to revisit his mistakes.

        With all due respect, what evidence is there to support this hypothesis?

        Having sampled Brooks’ work for a long time now – must be at least 15 years at this point – and the data indicates to me that he’s a weasel who doesn’t have the slightest interest in revisiting his mistakes. You really think all (any?) of the errors Issenberg caught in Bobos were honest mistakes? Brooks is about truthiness not truth. (“Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”) He tells particular kinds of stories to an audience who enjoys them and gets paid handsomely for doing so. Full stop.

        • Chris:

          I’ve seen no external evidence that Books is interested in self-correction. But there is internal evidence in the sense that he often writes about the scientific process, and about himself, and about the importance of admitting error and uncertainty. He taught a course on humility. So at some level I think he’d be interested in revisiting his mistakes, even if, indeed, I’ve never seen him to so in any specific example.

        • > He taught a course on humility.

          [guffaw] That was quite possibly the most ironic act in human history.

          I can believe that Brooks is a decent private person but I’ve come to conclude that as a public person his nominal interest in the scientific process, humility, the importance of admitting error, etc is a shtick. The data tells me he’s not an intellectual out in pursuit of truth who adapts his views based on what he discovers about the world. He is an actor (a method actor?) who gets paid a s******d of money for playing the role he does.

          (Not that I’ve formed a strong opinion of David Brooks, mind you;-)

  6. The most hilarious part of this whole saga is Brooks & Lewis portraying Brad Katsuyama as some sort of noble hero. I think Brad Katsuyama represents conventional traders who sure have a vested interest in this fight. High Freq. Trading (HFT) has been continuously encroaching on traditional trader margins so naturally Brad Katsuyama etc. are pissed off.

  7. I dunno. This is less clear to me. Brooks is an op-ed extraordinaire (personal opinions aside). Those things that are ‘opinionated’ in his line of work could be viewed, like any other op type journalist’s material as ‘arational’- that is at least, not terribly subject to ration. And while D Bro may never admit to fault (or at least not copy bother to take the time to do so ), for what he does, should we mandate that of him or otherwise remand him for not acquiescing to this rule? I would think that this is kind of a tough call in his line of work, particularly between the person he may actually be and the person he plays on TV.

    I don’t believe that Livingston was truly fair in his criticism of D Bro’s description of a gourmet grocer in a particularly Chasidic neighborhood. Brooks as I interpreted him was simply noting the discipline by which the frum folk buy their groceries. I don’t believe he was necessarily exhalting their religious virtues. So I don’t think he was required to balance that story with any negative. Of course internally, few Jews (including me) really feel comfy with discussing those items. Like a number of cultures, it is a rather well known phenomenon regarding how we can tend to take even merely distasteful situations caused by someone Jewish rather personally (the usual question, “why did they have to be Jewish?” usually comes up). But I’m straying from the point.

    My thought here is that admissions of inaccuracy or outright falsehood can be contextual. Note, i’m not making this statement on its ethical merits. Humility in my opinion requires us to go through the discovery, admission, and learning process of getting things wrong, if humans as a whole are to evolve in how we think. But I also believe that thinking is dynamic, fluid, and incongruent with former thoughts. And like Andrew implies, nothing says that the thinker can necessarily connect the dots between those incongruencies. Inconsistent displays of those thoughts don’t necessarily connote personal denial, or worse, some nefarious public filtration of the truth (though they may). Rather they may merely point to ambiguity, which is something of which is natural, an of which we must become comfortable. And that means maintaining a healthy skepticism toward pretty much toward all forms of media.

    So in context, should a mea culpa be required of D Bro? Again, I dunno.

    By the way, whadya think of my attempt at a new flashy pseudonym for Brooks?

    • Phillip:

      I think Brooks should apologize for mainstreaming false statistics and for making up some false statistics of his own. But, then again, I’m a statistician. These things are important to me, clearly not so much to Brooks or his editors. Sasha Issenberg and I will raise these issues in our small platforms, and Brooks can ignore us in his large platform.

      P.S. I also think Mark Hauser, Anil Potti, Ed Wegman, etc etc etc should apologize. Greg Easterbrook too. (I really got ticked off when he or his editors corrected the mistakes I’d pointed out without thanking or crediting me.) Also I remain annoyed at those people who didn’t share their data with me 25 years ago and continue to defend their non-sharing behavior. It’s not just about Brooks.

        • Sure, and I shouldn’t respond to blog comments either! I know that. On the other hand, I do think I get something out of these repeated explorations of certain topics. Writing about ethics from many different directions has given me a deeper general understanding of statistics and evidence. Consider, for example, my recent paper with Basbøll on stories, which originally arose out of a common irritation with plagiarists but grew into a new and important (I think) understanding of the role of stories in social science understanding.

          And, at the more pedestrian level, I enjoy working out disagreements in blog comments, not just as a way to avoid doing real work (although of course this is part of it) and not even just as a way to learn to communicate better but also as a way to refine my ideas.

          To get back to my problems with people who won’t admit error: Working with error and uncertainty is central to my conception of statistics (that is, of applied statistics) and has had major impact in my work in political science, toxicology, etc., as well as in my work in theory and methodology. 25 years ago, it was the standard view in Bayesian statistics that models could not and should not be checked, and it was the standard view in statistics in general that using prior information was a form of cheating.

          So I do think that criticism (of self and others) is central to understanding the world, and I don’t think we can afford the luxury of being too proud to ignore our errors or too nice to ignore the errors of others.

        • “Also I remain annoyed at those people who didn’t share their data with me 25 years ago and continue to defend their non-sharing behavior.”

          Wait a minute! You don’t release your own code that your papers are based on! You cannot criticize others for not releasing their data! :)

          I do understand why you don’t release it: as you explained to me, it’s a lot of trouble to assemble the code in a way such that you won’t be embarrassed with others seeing it, I get that, and I appreciate the problem.

          But other people may have equally legitimate reasons not to release their data. You may not know what their circumstances are and whether they can take the time to assemble the data for you.

      • While I am slowly becoming more an advocate of ‘pick and choose your battles’ kind of person. I, like you, have difficulty in turning down a challenge when I see one looming. This goes back to the [discussion](http://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2014/04/02/negative/) on part of the essence and nuances of criticism. If I were to dissect another pundit, hmm….let’s say just about ALL of them, and ask them to compensate the public for each citation and recitation of misinformation dispensed from them over the past 15 years alone, and let’s say each admission were worth about ohhhh, $.50 to my bank account, I could retire in the Caymans…or….wherever. I should get 2x points for every crappy cgi session CNN has employed, and 1.5x for the childish tomfoolery from Fox News’ usual suspects (worth less as Jon Stewart’s team is simply quicker to the punch).

        What is the added value of fighting a pundit, whose role begins with the word ‘pun’? Rarely, except perhaps for a few like Krugman (whose background is hardly punditry) would dare to recap or amend.

        To your point, it’s not something I particularly like, as pundits can and DO have effects on wider audiences. They do not think in the same way we do (statistically or otherwise). They mostly brush the world canvas in black and white. That unfortunately makes it far easier for them to win minds (and _naturalmente_ ratings / media subscribers), versus showing the world’s various shades of Grey and other hues. This dichromic disposition of journalism is well blessed with its abandonment of evidence – based means. For its own ends, it doesn’t need them. Opinion and brand are what matter. The rest is irrelevant.

        Corrections and criticism are dismissed in all but what legally binds those media sources (and those lines, such as those involving slander and libel, are purposefully thin).

        Finally, it’s sometimes difficult with some commentators to tell whether they are really thinking with honesty through their work, which would hopefully entail gathering information in a sound manner, or whether they’re just playing a sensationalistic caricature, or merely preaching from a personal pulpit. In any case, the question would in my mind follow, do they not respond to errata because they feel it undermines their status, authority, or brand? Or because the media company imposes this rejection? Or something else?

        This is a maddeningly frustrating problem to be sure, and frankly, I have some rather deep cynicism about it. I think we’ve been in an age of ‘shining lights’ for some time now, which now supercedes journalistic rigor here in the West. I also think that pseudoscience applied to mainstream journalism, as it is elsewhere, is gaining more speed as it responds to particular social and economic needs and gives a false sense of credibility. Both of these are sustaining forces to these problems, and are unlikely to abate anytime soon.

        So what is/are solutions to these issues? Let sleeping dogs lie, keep fighting the fight, or go for a complete coups, knowing that each may be negative sum games?

  8. Andrew,

    I thought (though I mean be over-interpreting) that Brooks was clearly referencing the news / media busines when he wrote:

    “On Wall Street, as in some other areas of the modern economy that I could mention, this attitude leads to a culture of knowingness. People learn to bluff their way through, day to day.”

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  10. Newspapers are dominated by liberal Democrats? Maybe in some alternate universe. Here in this world you are plainly making excuses for Team Stupid, and this does not reflect well upon your own expertise.

      • From Cillizza’s post: “…for the first time ever in the new survey c) more and more reporters are identifying as independents.”

        I can’t find it at the moment but I remember someone pointing out at the time (in response to Cillizza’s post) that a potentially significant fraction of self-reported ‘independents’ were actually embarrassed Republicans, i.e., their beliefs were traditionally Republican but they were embarrassed to be associated with the contemporary GOP. One example given was Sean Hannity or Joe Scarborough – admittedly not print journalists or journalists at all, really, but that doesn’t invalidate the bigger point which was that change in party affiliation doesn’t necessarily indicate in a change in underlying political beliefs. Both parties have moved to the right over the past 3-4 decades – Republicans on everything, Democrats on economic matters. Someone who would have been a Rockefeller Republican in the late ’70s or even in the ’80s would almost certainly be a Democrat or independent now. (Can you imagine Ed Brooke, Lowell Weicker, or Frank Sargent getting elected as Republicans today?)

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