Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Here's what I mean when I say David Brooks' columns in the New York Times turn my brain into scrambled eggs.

Brooks discusses "big data" versus "narrative" as predictors of human behavior.
Then there is the distinction between commodity decisions and flourishing decisions. Some decisions are straightforward commodities: what route to work is likely to be fastest. Big data can help. Flourishing decisions are things like who to marry, who to befriend, what career calling to pursue and what college to choose. These decisions involve trying to find people, places and things that harmonize with your subjective self. It’s a mistake to take subjective intuition out of this decision because subjectivity is the whole point. 
Grammar!  Should be "whom to marry, whom to befriend," right?  Brooks' column appears in the "Newspaper of Record."  I assume the newspaper employs editors.  If Brooks does not know that when a pronoun comes before an infinitive, the object form is used, then surely a checker at the paper does.  Or has grammar usage of "who" and "whom" changed when I wasn't paying attention?

The meaning of the paragraph is cloaked in fog.  I believe Brooks sees himself as a wise, unshrill moderate, who can look at both sides of an issue or problem and come up with opinions that everyone agrees are quite reasonable, even when they disagree with him.  From this position, he sees himself as qualified to advise us how to remake our society into his land-of-the-free-and-home-of-the-brave ideal.  Ah, if only he made sense. 

I remain amazed that Brooks appears regularly in such prestigious forums as the NYT , "Informed Sources" on PBS, and the Sunday talk shows.  That's to say nothing of Yale's invitation to to Brooks to teach a course on humility.  And not just because of the grammar lapses.   He may know what he means, but his muddled style of writing makes it difficult for me grasp the points he wishes to convey to readers and listeners.  Is Brooks the best the hirers at prestigious forums can do?
Brooks seems to want everyone to be moral and responsible.  Well, don't we all, each of us with our individual views on what is moral and responsible behavior?  Oh, and he probably wants us to be humble, too, a virtue which he knows well, because he's teaching the course at Yale on humility. 

Moving on; the final paragraph in the column left my brain in so scrambled a state that I can only guess at the root of Brook's worries.
Most of the advocates understand data is a tool, not a worldview. My worries mostly concentrate on the cultural impact of the big data vogue. If you adopt a mind-set that replaces the narrative with the empirical, you have problems thinking about personal responsibility and morality, which are based on causation. You wind up with a demoralized society. But that’s a subject for another day.
My best guess is he means that the use of narrative is superior to big data for the purpose of encouraging moral and responsible behavior, or the culture collapses.   Before he writes on the subject of the state of our society, I hope Brooks looks around outside the upscale suburb, from which he observes the world in his nearly $4 million house, and notes that we are already, in large part, a demoralized society.  Once he's made the discovery, I'll try to remember to read his commentary - that is, if my brain is unscrambled by the time he writes.

H/T to Charles Pierce at Esquire for calling my attention to Brooks' column.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.