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Never back down: The culture of poverty and the culture of journalism

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Ta-Nehisi Coates recently published a fascinating column on the “culture of poverty,” in particular focusing on the idea that behavior that is rational and adaptive in some settings is not so appropriate in others:

The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll . . . The way to guide him through this transition is not to insult his native language. . . .

For black men like us, the feeling of having something to lose, beyond honor and face, is foreign. We grew up in communities—New York, Baltimore, Chicago—where the Code of the Streets was the first code we learned. Respect and reputation are everything there. These values are often denigrated by people who have never been punched in the face. But when you live around violence there is no opting out. A reputation for meeting violence with violence is a shield. That protection increases when you are part of a crew with that same mind-set. This is obviously not a public health solution, but within its context, the Code is logical. Outside of its context, the Code is ridiculous. . . .

Coates slammed journalist Jonathan Chait for associating “the Code” with “irresponsible” and “immoral” behavior. Chait supported the idea that “children raised in concentrated poverty need to be taught middle class norms.” In contrast, Coates wrote:

No, they need to be taught that all norms are not transferable into all worlds. In my case, physical assertiveness might save you on the street but not beyond it. At the same time, other values are transferrable and highly useful. . . . People who take a strict binary view of culture (“culture of privilege = awesome; culture of poverty = fail”) are afflicted by the provincialism of privilege and thus vastly underestimate the dynamism of the greater world. . . . It’s very nice to talk about “middle-class values” when that describes your small, limited world. But when your grandmother lives in one hood and your coworkers live another, you generally need something more than “middle-class values.” You need to be bilingual. . . . There is nothing particularly black about this.

This resonated with me, not based on my own life (when I got into fights as a kid growing up in the suburbs, the violence level was low, and for me the don’t-fight-back-just-ignore-them strategy ultimately worked), but based on my observations of scientific and journalistic practice during the last few years.

Most recently we discussed David Brooks’s annoying habit of never revisiting his mistakes, and earlier we’ve been talking about all those researchers in social psychology who just bounce from one statistically significant p-value to the next, sometimes including an interaction, sometimes not, but consistently coming up with huge estimates of effect size and not making any serious attempt to learn from criticism or to admit error. We’ve seen the never-change-course graph from the Commissar for Traffic, the scientists who wouldn’t share their chicken data, and, of course, the lamest, grudgingest, non-retraction retraction ever.

As we’ve discussed, sometimes there’s a clear and direct motivation not to back down. If, for example, you’ve been caught red-handed in multiple instances of plagiarism, and you’ve already said you didn’t do it, you’ve kinda painted yourself into a corner, and maybe you just have to follow Chris Rock’s advice and deny it, no matter what. And sometimes I suspect that the perpetrators really want the false information out there because it serves a political purpose. In other cases, admitting error could ultimately yield long-term benefits but it does have short-term costs. For example, if the people making those traffic graphs were to apologize for their continued poor predictions (or, if Paul Samuelson had included a section in his legendary textbook discussing how he’d consistently overstated Soviet economic capabilities), in either case this would’ve resulted in a better product but at the cost of a hit to their reputations. And maybe in both cases they didn’t want to yield an inch to their political enemies. In still other cases, we can assume that the people who made the mistakes still haven’t realized their errors (Daryl Bem etc). Finally, sometimes there is a positive benefit to not admitting a mistake because such an admission could send the whole edifice crashing down (for example, that series of papers on parental characteristics and sex ratios, that we’ve discussed from time to time).

More interesting, though, are the cases where it would be no problem to admit error, where the admission would, I’d think, just humanize you. If David Brooks would admit he got fooled by some fishy statistics, or Anderson and Ones would admit they made a mistake in data processing, I’d think that would make them look better, not worse. They’d look more open-minded.

But, given that so many people don’t act in the open way that I would like, I’ll have to think that there’s something more going on. And I that made me wonder about the whole “culture of poverty” thing. Are there quarters of journalism and scientific research where you need to act tough and never back down? If David Brooks were to admit an error, would he look like a wimp and not get respect from other newspaper columnists?

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Thinking about this further, I think that the value that’s internalized and projected, by journalists and researchers alike, is not toughness but rather is omniscience. The never-back-down principle fits with the idea that, if you ever admit you made a mistake, your general position of infallibility becomes untenable.

Just to be clear: I don’t think that newspaper columnists and professors actually think they’re infallible. They know they make mistakes. But at this point we can move to the concept of acculturation, as discussed by Coates and Chait. The idea is that Brooks grew up (professionally speaking) in an environment where there was a norm and a positive benefit to acting as if his pronouncements were always correct or Anderson and Ones grew up (professionally speaking) in an environment where there was a norm and a positive benefit to acting as if they could never make a mistake in their measurements. And then they internalize these norms, they act angrily and defensively when people point out mistakes they’ve happened to make.

As Coates wrote in a different context, we perhaps need to recognize that it might not be so effective to simply try to instill “middle-class values” in columnists and scientists. To the extent that they continue to live in a world in which it is expected they will never make mistakes, it will be hard for them to give up their traditional folkways.

30 Comments

  1. Rahul says:

    Killing many birdies with one stone? :)

  2. Erin Jonaitis says:

    N.B. it’s spelled Ta-Nehisi.

    I wonder what role tenure plays in this dynamic. Employment-wise, you enjoy a rather protected position compared to someone whose employment is really at-will. Granted, there are many academics who have tenure and still don’t like to admit when they’re wrong, so it’s not like it explains everything. But it’d be weird to me if the precariousness of one’s employment bore no relationship to one’s instinctive reaction to being wrong. Your worst-case scenario is professional shaming; another person’s might be that plus food stamps.

    • Andrew says:

      Erin:

      1. Typo fixed; thanks.

      2. Yes, but I don’t think Brooks, Anderson, or Ones are gonna go on food stamps. I really do suspect the issue here is that they’ve internalized gangsta values that are inappropriate in their current job settings.

      • Erin Jonaitis says:

        Well, OK, no, probably David Brooks has other options if his employer decides he makes too many mistakes and boots him. But A) I think his worst-case scenario still doesn’t look as benign as yours probably does and B) this feels like trying to understand horses by looking at zebras, to mangle a metaphor. Cover-ups are something pretty much everyone has the opportunity to do at some point, and if you focus on people with both high visibility and great fallback plans, you are probably going to miss or misunderstand some things.

        Thinking about A) made me realize there must be some relevant data out there, vis a vis journalistic career nightmares. Here is one not-randomly-selected datapoint.

    • ricketson says:

      Pre-tenure academia is a culture of “devil takes the hindmost”. The second you slip from your perch you are finished. Of course even the successful researchers made some mistakes during their climb, but many of us know that we’re just one setback away from academic oblivion (being ignored, not getting funding, and potentially being under/unemployed).

      So either you are at the top, or you are at the bottom. There is no middle-class in academia.

  3. Slugger says:

    The people mentioned in the article are not journalists in the sense of reporters working to put out factual descriptions of what happened but opinion producers whose opinion is that the world is mostly right and that the reasons that some are up and some are down reflects personal merit. They can not admit mistakes because it would mean that there are chinks in the armor of their worldview. A scientist can change her mind based on new data because that is how science works. A pundit must maintain the inevitability and infallibity of their ideological position (true for a wide spectrum of views). The defenders of the current world can not admit that a different path is even possible.
    Was the Mafia a rational response to the circumstances of Italian immigrants of 1905? Could Meyer Lansky have chosen to be a professor of statistics? Is a white kid in prison safer if he joins a neoNazi gang?
    If one thinks about such qquestions, one can come to the conclusion that sometimes we should undertake the hard work of reshaping our society.
    The Godfather is my favorite movie. I love the opening words,” I believe in America.”

    • Dan Vergano says:

      I would second this note. Conflating all reporters with David Brooks is about as reasonable as lumping all scientists in with Dr. Hwang. Or Italians with Don Corleone.

      There is a lot of dissatisfaction with journalism as a method, both within and without the profession. It seems inadequate to meeting the information needs of the 21st Century to many observers. But this is a market failure for a public good that grousing about shyster pundits won’t fix.

      As much as there is a culture transmitted in j-school, it is: correct your inevitable errors, learn from them, and move on. Some skip the first steps, sadly, both inside and outside the news business. Real reporters correct errors, just like real scientists retract their mistakes. Both professions are far from perfect in this.

      • Andrew says:

        Dan:

        Good points. The case of Brooks irks me not because I think all reporters or even all pundits are similar to him, but because he makes such a big deal about being interested in social science, and he also talks about humility and how we should not be too sure of ourselves. And then, when serious factual errors are pointed out in his articles, instead of going and correcting them, he just ignores them. And I have a horrible feeling that he thinks that his critics are too sure of themselves, not humble enough, etc. By questioning the factual claims of David Brooks, the Sasha Issenbergs and Andrew Gelmans of the world are, in the words of Brooks, “pedantic,” “totally unethical,” “so intemperate that it drains credibility.” This really annoys me because it’s like Brooks has built a wall around himself, with everything twisted around so when others ask him to correct his mistakes, his view is that they’re not humble enough. I guess that’s the point of the whole humility thing, huh? But, at the same time, I sense that from his own perspective, Brooks is a humble seeker of truth who tries to avoid the shrill extremes. He’s just closed himself off and I fear he has another few decades ahead, never questioning himself but sure that he’s the most open-minded guy around. After all, he put a positive spin on anti-Semitism in his NYT column—what could be more open-minded than that! And, a few years before that, he made common cause with rural Pennsylvanians—another bit of open-mindedness. He probably feels that these stories are too good to be ruined by aligning them with mere facts.

        • Dan Vergano says:

          Whatever is going on in his head, Brooks seems a particularly unfortunate example because he clearly is exploiting science (and journalism) as a means to enhance his authority without exhibiting much interest in its obligations. The wall built around him that you describe is bigger than Brooks however, its bricks are provided by the real cynics editing his stuff, publishers and advertisers who see him as a franchise. Knock him down and another franchisee waits to spring into his niche. That is the nature of too much op-ed writing, sadly…

  4. zbicyclist says:

    The culture of punditry is to make a convincing prediction (in the medium that is paying you) and then ignore whatever the actual results are. Successful media pundits don’t seem to be accurate so much as entertaining (am I thinking of an early chapter in Nate Silver’s book, or Kaiser Fung’s?).

    If there are errors that need to be corrected, put them on the bottom of page 2 in the Saturday edition — it’s only with the indexing of the internet that it’s realistic to connect the correction with the original piece.

    So, for journalists who grow up in the Google age, is there going to be more of a culture of omitting mistakes, because there’s almost certain to be an electronic record of the mistake somewhere?

  5. Rahul says:

    All of Andrew’s examples seem one of these types: (1) A & B genuinely disagree e.g. Daryl Bem, Brooks (2) I know I’m in the wrong but it hurts my interests to admit it. e.g. plagiarism, factual mistakes (3) I might know I’m in the wrong on some point but I think it’s too small an error to warrant the kind of response Andrew desires. e.g. Brooks again.

    • Andrew says:

      Rahul:

      1a. Daryl Bem may genuinely disagree with mainstream psychologists regarding the plausibility of ESP but that’s not what I’m criticizing him for. My problem is that Bem does bad statistics, most notably in reporting p-values that don’t take into account what he would’ve done had the data been different (which of course is central to the definition of a p-value). This is a common error so I’m not saying he did it on purpose—but he has benefited from his mistakes, having received tons of publicity based on the results being published in a top journal which I doubt ever would’ve happened had he not claimed statistical significance.

      1b. David Brooks made actual mistakes, I don’t see a “genuine disagreement” in the fact that he misreported things, Sasha Issenberg corrected him, and then Brooks responded ungraciously.

      2. To me, one interesting aspect of the discussion of “the Code” is the idea that certain behavior can be sensible for a person in one setting but then not make sense when carried over into a different part of their life, and the difficulties that people have in managing these contradictions.

      3. I can’t see how it makes sense to say that Brooks’s statements were important enough to publish in the first place but then not important enough to correct once people pointed out they were wrong. We’re not talking about an error in the third digit of some number, we’re talking about errors that completely destroy the arguments that Brooks is trying to make. I mean, sure, if you don’t care about numbers at all, you can go all Herb Caen or Peggy Noonan and just give your feelings. But if you’re going to claim to be factual, that’s another story. Then the numbers do matter.

      • Seth Spain says:

        In re: 1a. I recently rode the bus from NYC back upstate. I didn’t realize, at first, but Bem was seated across the aisle, in the row behind me. Eventually, I realized this and heard him talking about the ESP studies with his seat mate. Based on his comments about the analyses and statistics that were being done, I inferred that he really is a true believer. Again, I reiterate, this is my impression on an overheard conversation.

      • Rahul says:

        Re #1: What you refer to as Bem’s “bad statistics”, I suspect happens routinely in studies, but with results not as spectacular as Bem’s gets rarely scrutinized & caught.

        Hence, on net, I think Daryl Bem did science more good than bad. His ESP results are irrelevant but he focused attention on statistical blind spots & weaknesses in peer review. Not intentionally, perhaps, but nevertheless.

        In the light of this larger good I could care less if he apologized for those specific crappy conclusions or not. What matters more to me is his larger impact.

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          As I wrote above, “we can assume that the people who made the mistakes still haven’t realized their errors (Daryl Bem etc).” I wouldn’t think it would make sense for him to apologize. If he ever does get to the point of realizing what went wrong in his analyses, I think a simple “D’oh” rather than an “I’m sorry” would be most appropriate.

          • Rahul says:

            OK, but what puzzles me is why you seem more upset by Bem’s not going “D’oh” rather than happy that through this whole saga the system probably came out healthier & more self aware.

            Once in a while some pesky teenager will fake a boarding pass, sneak through security, circumvent several controls & get himself on a plane. Next day it makes primetime news. Now, should I be more pissed at the brat for doing wrong or happy that we exposed chinks in our armor.

            • Andrew says:

              Rahul:

              I’m not upset by Bem’s not going “D’oh.” For him to do this would require a leap of understanding on his part which (a) would be difficult in any case, and (b) would seem to him to run contrary to his incentives. I’m more upset by Brooks, Anderson, and Ones because they have to know that they made mistakes and they just can’t seem to deal with it. In science—especially in statistics—we make mistakes all the time, and we learn from them. When a journalist or a scientist refuses to learn from his or her mistakes, this seems sad to me.

      • Rahul says:

        Re. #2 the biggest problem is this: Say, you’ve committed plagiarism & gotten caught for it. At this stage what incentive does the system offer someone to fess up & not deny? Are the results any better? I’d almost say the media hounds those who admit more than those why deny.

        It’s like being sentenced to 150 years in jail. It’s now hard to get you to behave in prison, because no matter what you do, how much more can they extend your sentence?

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          For the plagiarists, sure, they probably have more to lose than to gain by admitting what they’ve done.

          But for Anderson and Ones, or for Brooks, I think an open admission of error would look just fine, they can just say that they made mistakes and didn’t fact-check properly—we all make mistakes, there’s no crime in that. I think that admitting rather than denying their mistakes would make these people look a lot better than how they look right now.

  6. Philip says:

    Nice exploration of the idea in a broader context.

    My own problem with TNC’s column is that it suggests that violent behaviors in the communities he is talking about are essentially rational reactions to their environment. In my own experience growing up in and around these neighborhoods, that’s not the case: there is a great deal of irrational violence. People are angry and suffering and do not always behave rationally. (‘Makes Me Wanna Holler’ was a great book related to this that came out years ago.) They are no more responsible for the situation that they would be if their behavior were purely rational. But to suggest their behavior is fully adaptive to their environment is based on what I saw, wrong.

    The details of the situation TNC described where, once he’d moved into the ‘middle class world’, he reacted angrily in a verbal debate and threatened someone, itself sounds like irrational bullying vs. rational protecting of rep.

  7. krippendorf says:

    Ironically, perhaps, part of the code of journalism seems to be to either (a) not do your homework about the research relevant to your topic, or (b) not cite the sources of your ideas. My problem with TNC’s article is that he seemingly ignores the roughly 70 years of sociological and anthropological research on subcultures in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. There’s even a well-known “bestseller” by academic standards, “Code of the Street” (Elijah Anderson 1999), that makes the same argument as TNC in his column. Only Anderson has ethnographic data, and an n>1.

    The problem is not just one of failing to give credit where credit is due. By ignoring the research and instead relying on personal observations and reminiscences, TNC opens the door to “well, he’s wrong because I had a different experience” rebuttals. See Phillip’s comment.

    I’m not picking on TNC in particular; he’s no worse, and probably better, than many others in this genre.

  8. numeric says:

    Claim everything, concede nothing, and when all else fails, allege fraud.

  9. jonathan says:

    I have trouble with some of the assertions. Example: having worked in prosecution and defense in a major city, I know that black kids are well aware that they need to act appropriately to the circumstances. I saw many cases where a kid behaved one way at home and in certain social groups – like church – and very differently in another social setting, meaning perhaps a street name and a tougher identity.

    There have been many “socialization” programs aimed at minority urban kids. Fighter pilots, doctors and other role models of that race/ethnicity give talks.

    The issues, to me, are more difficult to address than what a person knows.

    The moment, the place and the experience have a huge pull on a person – as any person in a crowd knows. Transitions are extremely tough and that’s true for white kids in the suburbs as much as black kids in the city. They’re tough for most adults, except we cover up through a variety of learned behaviors and sometimes by limiting our interactions to those we’ve become experienced with. Every person knows teens and young adults can be ridiculously bad when placed in relatively unfamiliar work or social environments. Some of that is unfamiliarity but some is the inability to transition well coupled with a lack of coping mechanisms.

    And all these poor interactions work across all groups.

  10. West says:

    While there is a lot of wonderful stuff to digest in this post, my favorite on the first read through is the big honking photo of Pope Pius IX right in the middle. I knew that Pius was notable for convening a church council but didn’t realize one of the consequential decrees was “Papal Infallibility.”

    Well done sir. A beautifully executed pictorial transition.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Before WWII kids in the poor Jewish neighborhoods of New York were supposedly learning the same “street code” as kids in the poor black neighborhoods are learning now. Same for the Irish and Italians. It was not creating much of an obstacle for their cognitive skills or preventing them from succeeding in “conventional” middle-class world.

  12. […] scientists and journalists share a culture of “never back down” and never admitting error? asks Andrew […]

  13. Anon says:

    Never back down and ignore your opposition are entrenched in political culture. When a scientist’s or journalist’s voice is genuine, it’s usually because it is free of such political culture. Note that criticism is considered to be opposition and that it’s personal.

    Rational discourse and criticism of ideas is all too rare but it has an identifiable, refreshing signature.

  14. Hank Roberts says:

    The lamest, grudgingest, non-retraction retraction ever …

    Read all the way to the bottom of that linked page;
    the editor of that journal deserves further attention.

    It’s never too late to publish a retraction.
    “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.” — C. Northcote Parkinson

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