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Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks, and the “Street Code” of Journalism

In my latest Daily Beast column, I decide to be charitable to the factually-challenged NYT columnist:

From our perspective, Brooks’s refusal to admit error makes him look like a buffoon. But maybe we’re just judging him based on the norms of another culture. . . .

From our perspective, Brooks spreading anti-Semitic false statistics in the pages of The New York Times is actually much worse than Eric Garner selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island.

But that’s just our perspective. Maybe our judgmental attitude toward sloppy journalism is as clueless as Brooks’s attitude toward street crime. We don’t know.

As the saying goes, read the whole thing. I have sympathy for the attitude of regular blog readers who skip any post whenever the words “David Brooks” appear. But I think this particular column of mine is relevant to larger issues of people being unwilling to own their errors.

Here are my previous Daily Beast columns:

What’s So Fun About Fake Data?

Don’t Mistake Genetics For Fate

The Truth About Post-Ferguson Gun Deaths

There Are Infinite Types of Drunk People

Could Google Rig the 2016 Election? Don’t Believe the Hype.

And here are the columns by my collaborator, Kaiser Fung:

Why Consumers Should Care About Apple’s War on Big Data

Banks Want Robots to Do Their Hiring

How the Media #Fails Basic Math

Debunking the Great ‘Selfies Are More Deadly Than Shark Attacks’ Myth

The two of us share the column and take joint responsibility; most of the time we send the column back and forth so that we’re both contributing at some level each time.

25 Comments

  1. Mitch says:

    “I decide to be charitable…Brooks’s refusal to admit error makes him look like a buffoon”: That’s not charitable, that’s honesty.

  2. cheese_d says:

    I’m feeling a bit out of touch here.

    I thought the daily beast is… basically a tabloid?

    Also, I followed some of the links, and AG said: “As I wrote in the blog, I don’t really mind Brooks making broad claims; I just don’t think he should be basing them on bad numbers. Or, more to the point in this case, I think he should correct the numbers when the mistakes are pointed out to him.” Agreed… it seems like a very low bar for journalism.

    But are these really “anti-Semitic false statistics”? My take was Brooks was suggesting a level of achievement in line with the underlying population % (using bogus numbers) in a competition I had never heard of (alarm bells for garden of forking paths case 4 goes off in the back of my head — though the bells are muted by the fact that the numbers are fake).

    I guess the problem is that what counts for political discourse and ‘analysis’ has a pretty low standard.

    From what I’ve read, Brooks, Coates and that daily beast article all have large doses of affect heuristic.

    • Andrew says:

      Cheese:

      Brooks quoted wrong statistics. When the error was pointed out to him, Brooks ducked and weaved and refused to run a correction. The question is, why not? I suggest that the street code of journalism is part of the story.

      And, yes, the Daily Beast is a bit of a tabloid. I post my writings where I can. I’ve also published in Slate, the American Scientist, and the Journal of the American Statistical Association.

      The Beast invited me to write a column for them, and I said sure, why not. The Beast is a tabloid and the New York Times is not; yet, when I make errors I correct them, and when Brooks makes errors he does not. Make of that what you will.

      • Andrew says:

        P.S. As noted above, I’m interested in the general issue of people refusing to issue corrections, even when they’re obviously wrong and even if the mistake is perfectly understandable (in Brooks’s case, taking a published number that appeared to a casual eye to be well documented). As to the anti-Semitic thing . . . the whole story of Ron Unz and his erroneous numbers reminds me a bit of the case of David Irving, another pugnacious outsider whom various insiders seem to take some perverse pride in championing.

  3. Mark Palko says:

    I’m not sure that “sloppy” really captures what’s going on here. From the tab at Red Lobster to the demographics of anti-vaxxers, the overwhelming majority of Brooks’ mistakes are in support of his arguments. Many are essential. It’s almost as if there were a deliberate pattern of deception here.

    • Andrew says:

      Mark:

      Sure, but he’s gotta realize that making stuff up hurts his credibility, right? Or maybe not. I continue to have some respect for Brooks as a summarizer of the zeitgeist (or whatever you call it), but after the Red Lobster incident I agree that there’s no reason to believe any number he supplies. He just doesn’t seem to care if his numbers are true or false. Perhaps that’s the key to his refusal to retract the false number from Unz. If Brooks won’t even retract the Red Lobster number which he personally and falsely supplied, why should he care that he’s repeating someone else’s error?

      And of course Brooks’s career success supplies continuing feedback for him to keep doing what he does.

      That all said, I think the “street code” thing really is part of the story.

      • Chris G says:

        > Sure, but he’s gotta realize that making stuff up hurts his credibility, right? Or maybe not.

        Towards that end, let’s make a list of all the instances where making stuff up hurt his reputation or cost him money or otherwise had some adverse effect on his life. Don’t have a piece of paper and pencil handy? No worries, you won’t need them.

      • Mark Palko says:

        Andrew,

        I know I’ve been beating the “confirmation artist” drum for a while now, but I think this is closer to Keynes’ line about failing conventionally. Brooks does what he is expected to do. He fills the old Safire niche better than Safire ever did and expertly plays to the biases and preconceptions of the journalistic establishment (at least the parts of the establishment that matter). To coin a phrase you’ve used before, he comforts the comfortable.

        I’ve argued for a while now that the establishment press has a serious problem with class and regional prejudices. As long as Brooks’ “errors” serve to confirm those prejudices, there will be no real consequences.

    • Chris G says:

      > … the overwhelming majority of Brooks’ mistakes are in support of his arguments.

      Purely a coincidence I’m sure. Hey, wait, can we get a p-value for that?

  4. Clyde Schechter says:

    I would put a somewhat different spin on Andrew’s thesis that “street ethics” apply to Brooks’ situation (or at least Brooks perceives that they do).

    Brooks would not survive at the Times if he did not sustain a dedicated readership. I think he views himself as catering to that audience. He knows their preferences by now. His audience is not interested in penetrating fact-based analysis and cautious conclusions. His audience has certain precepts it believes in, and enjoys articles that affirm those beliefs, written in a style that sounds erudite, even though it be fundamentally inaccurate. Andrew (and I and most followers of this blog) are simply not in Brooks’ target audience. Brooks doesn’t care, and has no reason to care what we think; he’d be just as happy, nay, happier, if we didn’t bother to read his column.

    Asking Brooks to make his columns more factually accurate, and own up to errors of fact makes no more sense than asking Andrew to use vivid imagery, rhyme, and alliteration in his posts on this blog. It’s not what the readers come for; indeed, it’s entirely beside the point.

  5. roy says:

    Obvious Question – from the column:

    “We’d be interested to hear what Coates has to say”

    So has Coates said anything?

  6. Tal says:

    Andrew, I think you’re reading too much into this. I doubt Brooks is as calculating about this as you make it sound. It’s more likely that he doesn’t write corrections for the same reason most other people don’t like to admit mistakes: it’s painful, and threatens one’s view of one’s self. I suspect that every time he’s accused of error, he quickly manages to convince himself that his detractors are just being petty, or that his mistake was a very minor one that doesn’t change anything and isn’t worth troubling people over. The human mind is very, very good at this sort of thing.

    I don’t really see this a matter of culture. I mean, sure, pundits like Brooks don’t get rewarded for admitting they made mistakes, but then, very few people in *any* line of work do. If you were going to pick any group of people who should be good at admitting their mistakes, it would be scientists, and yet even in science, public admissions of error are very rare. Fundamentally, admitting you were wrong in public is difficult for almost anyone. In this case, I think you’re just an outlier, and not an average representative of a different culture. If you look around you, I’m not sure you’ll find that many other people in your position (i.e., scientists/statisticians writing for the general public) who are willing to do an about face when the need arises.

    • Andrew says:

      Tal:

      That could be. But then it just pushes the question back. Recall that in his op-ed, Brooks said that he did not consider historical grievances to be a good justification for “some guy’s decision to commit a crime.” Brooks is saying that he wants people to take individual responsibility for their crimes. And when it comes to “data crimes” or statistical misrepresentation, I feel the same way, that it’s not enough to excuse it based on the principle that everybody does it. This is where I feel the “street code” comes in. Not that Brooks is coldly calculating costs and benefits, just that he seems to live in a tough-guy, don’t-back-down culture. Maybe a lot of scientists have such a culture too. The field of statistics perhaps is different in that uncertainty is so central to how we think about the world.

      • Tal says:

        I think that’s fair, but in that case I would have said that we’re *all* living in a street-code culture, because I can’t think of a single domain of life where it’s generally expected that people will publicly own up to their mistakes (though I’m sure there are many individual institutions or companies that succeed in operating like this). I’m totally on board with you in thinking that “everyone does it” isn’t an excuse, and that we should work hard to promote a culture where someone like Brooks is expected to admit it when he’s wrong. I just don’t see a point (for once) in making this about Brooks or journalists in particular; I think the same point holds much more broadly and applies in equal measure to virtually every walk of life.

        • Andrew says:

          Tal:

          Maybe you’re right. Again, I’d be interested to hear what Coates would have to say here, as he seems to be arguing that different groups do have different attitudes about backing down.

          • Martha says:

            There are alternatives (besides Coates’) for “another culture” that might be operating. Two I am aware of are based on the concept of “second guessing” (i.e. criticizing or questioning a decision “after the fact”).

            There’s one that says you should never second guess yourself — just go on, and don’t look back.

            The second (which may coexist with the first) says it’s rude to second-guess someone else. Someone who believes that it’s rude to second-guess someone else might deal with such second-guessing by saying the other person is rude, or by simply not responding (presumably because that would be considered rude), or possibly saying something like “Are you sure you’re not second guessing me?” (which might be to them a courteous way of pointing out that what you said was “inappropriate” and that you should apologize).

            These are “different cultures” for me, definitely not part of my upbringing — I don’t recall even hearing the phrase “second guess” until I was in my forties. But note that they do not involve the concept of “backing down” — they seem to skirt it entirely.

            (But then, the concept of “The American Dream” wasn’t part of my upbringing, either.)

    • jrc says:

      Just because we (myself included) often point to bad examples more than good ones – this from Abhijit Banerjee on food expenditure behavior in poor countries:

      “I must admit that this represents a partial shift away from a more pessimistic view that we took in our 2011 book Poor Economics (Banerjee and Duflo (2011)). The big difference from the fact in that book is we used cross-sectional estimates of the Engel curve to infer the effect of income on food consumption; these elasticity’s have typically been quite a bit lower than the one or more that a number of studies are now finding”

      http://www.nber.org/papers/w21623.pdf

      *shout to David McKenzie for pointing this out: http://blogs.worldbank.org/impactevaluations/

  7. Tom says:

    Well he is a GOP supporter, so that implies a certain denial of facts. Recently it seems however that he is having problems comporting and justifying the more extream fact denials of the GOP into his conformity with his own world.

  8. Roger says:

    The NY Times has a lot of other columnists who also make mistakes. I never see any of them being corrected. Apparently it is some sort of editorial policy. If it corrected the errors of columnists, then every paper would have corrections.

    • Andrew says:

      Roger:

      It is certainly not the policy of the Times to run corrections of columnists’ errors or to force columnists to correct their own errors. That said, there’s nothing stopping Brooks, or any other columnist, from running a correction notice in his own column. And when Brooks lavishes attention and praise on a statistic is false but happens to support his worldview, I think he has a moral obligation to make that correction. The same goes for any other columnist, in my view.

  9. Tova Perlmutter says:

    Has Brooks ever responded to an email of yours? It seems counter to his m.o. and to his (perception of) his interests.

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