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?
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.