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.