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No, there is no epidemic of loneliness. (Or, Dog Bites Man: David Brooks runs another column based on fake stats)

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Remember David Brooks? The NYT columnist, NPR darling, and former reporter who couldn’t correctly report the price of a meal at Red Lobster? The guy who got it wrong about where billionaires come from and who thought it was fun to use one of his columns to make fun of a urologist (ha ha! Get it?) who had the misfortune to have the New York Times announce his daughter’s wedding announcement to (“exactly the sort of son-in-law that pediatric urologists dream about” — yeah, nice one, Dave! You sound like a real man of the people here)? The dude who thinks that staying out of jail is a conservative value? Who got conned into mainstreaming some erroneous calculations on high school achievement and college admissions and then never corrected himself? Etc? Etc?

And who never backs down. (The closest to admission of error was a characterization of his Red Lobster statement as a joke (as one reporter put it, a “comedic riff“), which I guess could describe his entire career.)

Well, it turns out he published some more fake stats in his column.

I know, I know, it’s no surprise. Still perhaps worth talking about, as an example of our degraded news media environment.

The story comes from sociologist David Weakliem, via sociologist Jay Livingston and sociologist Claude Fischer. (It’s been a busy week here for sociology.)

Here’s Weakliem:

A couple of days ago, David Brooks had a column in which he wrote “In the 1980s, 20 percent of Americans said they were often lonely. Now it’s 40 percent.” . . . The source of the 40% figure seems to be a survey of people aged 45 and over sponsored by the AARP in 2010. However, the report of that survey didn’t say anything about changes in loneliness.

So then Weakliem looks up loneliness directly:

There is a question that has been asked in a number of surveys asking people if they had felt “very lonely or remote from other people” in the past few weeks. The percent saying they had:

Nov 1963 28%
June 1965 26%
Jan 1981 17%
May 1990 19%
Sept 2001 26%
Dec 2001 24%

That doesn’t look like any kind of trend. The numbers in the 1981 and 1990 are lower, but they were in surveys taken by Gallup, and the others were by NORC, so that may be a factor. Unfortunately, the question hasn’t been asked since 2001.

Anything else?

I [Weakliem] searched Google scholar for papers about trends in loneliness, and found one from 2014 entitled “Declining Loneliness Over Time: Evidence From American Colleges and High Schools”. It was based on surveys at various colleges and universities and on the Monitoring the Future Survey, a representative survey of high school students that has been conducted since the 1970. It mentioned that other literature claimed that loneliness had increased, but I checked the sources they cited and they didn’t provide any evidence—they just said it had, or cited research that wasn’t really relevant.

Weakliem summarizes:

It’s remarkable that online editions of newspapers and magazines haven’t developed reasonable conventions about when to include links to a source. I checked five or six articles, all in well-regarded publications, which included the claim that levels of loneliness had doubled. Only one provided a link: that was to the AARP survey report, which didn’t support the claim.

Perhaps one reason they don’t link is because, with the link, you could check the claim. Brooks supplies no link, hence he can claim just about anything he wants. The non-linking thing also seems to be a general issue with journalism: everything has to be a “scoop,” so newspapers and magazines rarely point to earlier reporting on a topic. Newspaper A breaks a story, then when newspaper B follows up, it’s typical for them to never mention that the topic was first covered in newspaper A.

To return to the question of the supposed loneliness epidemic, here’s Claude Fisher, who’s been writing about these misconceptions for at least six years:

Yes, loneliness is a social problem, but no, there is no “epidemic of loneliness.” . . .

First, distinctions are needed. At least three different topics get conflated in the media these days: feeling lonely, being socially isolated, and using new social media. They are not the same things. It is well known in the research, for example, that socially isolated people are likelier to report feeling lonely than others do—but not much likelier. So, this post just addresses feelings of loneliness; other posts have addressed isolation and others the effects of the internet.

Weakliem found some long-term National Opinion Research Center data . . . I [Fischer] reported similar fragments of data about loneliness in my book . . . with the same conclusion: No sign of a trend.

But, wait! There’s more: A 2015 study found that in college samples and more importantly, among high school students in the several decades-long Monitoring the Future project, there was a slight decline in reports of loneliness from the 1980s to 2010. Flat would be a close enough summary.

It’s funny—Brooks is on record saying that technical knowledge is like the recipes in a cookbook and can be learned by rote.

The guy lacks the most basic technical knowledge—the ability to read a publication—or a menu!—and accurately report the numbers he sees. I guess he and his New York Times editors excuse him on this on the grounds that nobody ever gave him the cookbook.

Too bad Brooks can’t afford a research assistant who could google his more ridiculous claims. I guess the Times doesn’t pay him enough for that.

It’s funny that the newspaper can’t just run a correction note every time one of its columnists reports something demonstrably false.

When it comes to NYT corrections, my favorite remains this one:

An earlier version of this column misstated the location of a statue in Washington that depicts a rambunctious horse being reined in by a muscular man. The sculpture, Michael Lantz’s ‘Man Controlling Trade’ (1942), is outside the Federal Trade Commission, not the Department of Labor.

With important items like this to run, you can see how the newspaper would have no space to correct mangled statistics.

Who Cares?

Fischer summarizes:

A layperson might ask, What difference—besides diss’ing social scientists—does it make if these interesting articles about loneliness growing are off a bit? First, they are off a lot. But more important, they are a critical distraction. Chatter about feelings (of mainly affluent folks) distracts us from the many real crises of our time—say, widened inequality, children growing up in criminally and chemically dangerous neighborhoods, the dissolution of job security for middle Americans, drug addiction, housing shortages (where the jobs are), a medical system mess, hyper-partisanship, and so on. That’s what makes the loneliness scare not just annoying but also another drag on serious problem-solving.

I’d just say “dissing,” not “diss’ing,” but otherwise I completely agree. Fake social science crap in the NYT, NPR, Ted, etc., sucks away attention from real issues. In the case of Brooks, this distraction may be intentional: “loneliness” is a kind of soft problem, not directly addressed by taxation. More generally, though, I suspect that it’s simple ignorance. Working with numbers is hard. And that’s ok—not everyone has to be a sociologist or a statistician! And reporters make mistakes; that’s inevitable. But if you are a reporter and you do promulgate an error, you should be working extra hard to correct it. Your mess, you clean it up.

P.S. I suppose it would be better for my future media relations if I were to go easy on Brooks: after all, he writes for the Times (where I sometimes write), he has lots of powerful friends, etc. But . . . grrrrrr . . . it really annoys me when people garble the numbers. We’re not talking about David Sedaris here, who’s a humorist and is understood to be joking, exaggerating, and flat-out making things up in order to tell a story. Brooks is purporting to report on social science. When his numbers are completely wrong—as in this case and many others—it completely destroys his point. And it’s insulting to the many researchers who’ve bothered to study the topic more seriously. So, no, I’m not gonna go easy on the guy just to avoid burning bridges in the media.

Again: all of Brooks’s published errors may well have been honest mistakes. Not correcting any of these errors, though? That’s on him.

And the whole thing is so sad—it just makes me want to cry—in that it would be so easy for him to run corrections for his errors. But, like White House social media director Dan Scavino, he just doesn’t go in for that sort of thing.

26 Comments

  1. Well they are just his opinions. Any of us could have challenged him earlier. Very few acknowledge that they erred.

    I think that the drive for content makes any of us prone to making mistakes along the way. I just made the connection that David Brooks and Mark Shields were featured together on PBS hour.

  2. Dale Lehman says:

    Brooks may have picked up this story: https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/. I know I read a critique of the study recently, but can’t remember where. The questions and measurements look suspicious, but there is at least “data” of some sort.

    • Andrew says:

      “Worse for health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” huh?

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        Arguing the impact is of the same magnitude of smoking is just the go to today in clinical research for claiming importance!

        “The reported reduction in hospital admissions is comparable to the effect of comprehensive smoke-free legislation on the incidence of acute coronary events reported in a recent meta-analysis (0.90, 95% confidence interval 0.86 to 0.94).” Improving cardiovascular health at population level: 39 community cluster randomised trial of Cardiovascular Health Awareness Program (CHAP) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3034422/

        I did work with some of the authors before this, but obtained permission from my director to stop.

  3. Anonymous says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6f4m6Ku2jyk

    “Ray Charles – Lonely Avenue”

    Now my room has got two windows
    But the sunshine never comes through
    You know it’s always dark and dreary
    Since I broke off, baby with you

    I live on a lonely avenue
    My little girl wouldn’t say I do
    Well, I feel so sad and blue
    And it’s all because of you

    I could cry, I could cry, I could cry
    I could die, I could die, I could die
    Because I live on a lonely avenue
    Lonely avenue

    Now my covers they feel like lead
    And my pillow it feels like stone
    Well, I’ve tossed and turned so every night
    I’m not used to being alone

    I live on a lonely avenue
    My little girl wouldn’t say I do
    Well, I feel so sad and blue
    And it’s all because of you

    I could cry, I could cry, I could cry
    I could die, I could die, I could die
    Because I live on a lonely avenue
    Lonely avenue

    Lonely avenue
    Lonely avenue

    Now I’ve been so sad and lonesome
    Since you’ve left this town
    You know if I could beg or borrow the money
    Child, I would be a highway bound

    I live on a lonely avenue
    My little girl wouldn’t say I do
    Well, I feel so sad and blue
    You know its all because of you

    I could cry, I could cry, I could cry
    I could die, I could die, I could die
    I live on a lonely avenue
    Lonely avenue

  4. Philip Cohen says:

    My favorite Brooks false statement:

    “Women in their 20s outearn men in their 20s.”

    Wrong. https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/fact-checking-david-brooks-citing-hanna-rosin-edition/

    They never correct that either.

    • Andrew says:

      Philip:

      Do people in sociology feel any regret about this:

      The Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues goes to New York Times columnist and PBS Newshour commentator David Brooks. As the nominating letter for Brooks stated, “Few commentators in the public sphere, from anywhere on the political spectrum, have done as much as David Brooks to promote public understanding of and appreciation for the social sciences in general and sociology in particular in recent years.” . . . For these accomplishments and others detailed in his nominating letter, David Brooks is the recipient of the 2011 Reporting of Social Issues Award.”

      I love it that one of the reasons given for Brooks’s award is that he “described or otherwise promoted the work of scholars,” and another reason is that he “criticized economists.”

      I guess we now know the priorities of the award committee!

  5. Paul says:

    The NYT op-ed section does more than anything else to erode my belief in American meritocracy. I just don’t click anymore.

    Seriously – I’m a fairly avid internet argument reader, and I have never read any of the columns you mentioned and I never plan to.

  6. This characterization of David Brooks’s work as embodying a variety of Radio Yerevan joke is timeless. http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=478

  7. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    What if the paper put the source of stats used at the end of the ‘column’ or article.

    At least then we could verify ourselves if the writer has made correct use of the stats.

    Happens down under as well

  8. Lee Rudolph says:

    Too bad Brooks can’t afford a research assistant

    Well, he used to have one, but he married her. Knowing that might inform one’s ideas about whether or not he can afford another one…

  9. Dwayne Woods says:

    Not sure is a journalist. A commentator. Also, Krugman always provides links and so do some others. So don’t tar ever one with Brooks BS

  10. Jonathan says:

    I’m trying to think of a practical way to encourage NYT. Problem is they don’t want, as far as I know, to replace Brooks. He’s respected, which says a lot about the sloppy thinking of other people, and he’s one of their occasionally conservative voices, which makes me think the editors probably have another level of reason for not caring: they disagree with him, with his views more often than they do with their more liberal columnists, but they need to include him so they’re not embarrassed by him, but instead can see his errors as justifications for the way they think about him. This means there could be an incentive to let him make errors. Sometimes, I hate when I pursue a thread to a logical conclusion. Your only option would be to send him corrections and give him suggestions like, hey David, if you read my stuff you’ll see that I’ve been critical of you and I finally realized, silly me, that I should offer help instead of yelling at you. You aren’t trained in reading numbers and seeing whether they make real sense, but I am. I should have recognized that, mea culpa – which then makes him feel you’ve apologized for complaining about his errors. An olive branch with a twist. I’m saying you offer to give him a thumbs up or down on any statistical or numerical idea he’s got in his column idea hopper. An email or phone call from him, a message, and you or a grad student can get back to him. Who knows, maybe this will give his ideas an additional inspiration. J

    • Andrew says:

      Jonathan:

      I’ve been in contact with Brooks a few times over the years. At first it was completely polite and respectful. After he published the incorrect numbers about high school achievement and college admissions, I politely pointed out the error and he said he’d look into correcting it. He never did, and then he started to get more rigid. At some point it seemed pointless to me to work so hard to spare his feelings, given that he didn’t seem to care that he’d promoted erroneous statistics that were associated with a hate agenda. Also I looked around and saw that he had a long string of errors. At some point I have to consider this a deliberate policy on his part, not just an unrelated series of uncorrected mistakes.

      I do know other people at the Times and I’ve contacted them several times about errors in op-ed columns by Brooks and others, but they seem unwilling or unable to issue corrections. I don’t know what it takes for them to issue a correction. A mere factual error isn’t enough. As I’ve written before, given that Brooks has a regular column, the easiest way to do it would be for him to report the correction himself in a later column—that’s what I would do!—but for some reason he refuses to do so. Perhaps something about Humility, I don’t know. Anyway, the whole thing makes me sad, it’s like these people fear that their world will come crashing down around them, if they were ever to admit even a simple factual error.

  11. BBIS says:

    Gilbert & Sullivan may have already covered this sufficiently accurately with the line – “Merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

  12. D Kane says:

    > Too bad Brooks can’t afford a research assistant who could google his more ridiculous claims.

    From 2017: “New York Times columnist David Brooks weds his former researcher Anne Snyder.” Source: https://wapo.st/2Ky3Bkq

    His current research assistant is James Hitchcock: https://twitter.com/JamesHitchcock

    Can’t tell if you knew all that and were just making a subtle joke . . .

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Ah, but Andrew didn’t say afford a research assistant — he said, “afford a research assistant who could google his more ridiculous claims,” so perhaps Ms. Snyder Brooks and Mr. Hitchcock are not willing or not able to google Brooks’s more ridiculous claims.

  13. Mark Kim says:

    Brooks is most likely misleading deliberately, yes, but I don’t think it’s quite fair to take problems of opinion pieces as problems of journalism at large. For example, here is a Columbia Journalism Review article suggesting that NYT columns are more or less exempt from fact-checking. In contrast, science desks at respectable media outlets tend to have rigorous fact-checking processes and will issue corrections for factual errors.

    One might argue that opinion pieces on sociology should be considered science journalism and thus be subjected to the same standards, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.

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