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.  


kehf said...

I was just thinking about the fact that most of the posts my friends write on facebook are more well written, clearer and to the point than what passes for written news these days. The lack of editors and the loss of limits enforced by having only so many column inches in a physical paper seems to have damaged news and editorial writers ability to 'write tight' (as one of my college professors used to stamp on our papers).

Grandmère Mimi said...

kehf, many times I have thought the same. I don't know if Brooks' thoughts make sense in his head, and he just can't write with clarity, or if his thinking is muddled and it shows when he writes. "Write tight" is excellent advice, along with advice I received from a friend who teaches English: Whenever possible, do not use pronouns. With her words in mind, I found that my writing tightened up when I used nouns more often. I think your professor would approve.

Tobias Haller said...

Those who actually know something about data would simply say that data are facts, always objective by definition. Information, on the other hand, is always subjective, since it is what happens to data once one receives it.

(Star Trek long ago [TNG w Patrick Stewart] explored this with the twin brothers Data and Lore. The did a better job of it than Our Mr. Brooks.)

Sharon Dymond said...

Seems like a gig at the so-called "liberal" NY Times is tenured. Look at Maureen Dowd, Gail Collins, Judith Miller. Aargh!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Thanks for the translation, Tobias. I knew I should have watched more of Star Trek. Why do I keep trying to understand this man?

Grandmère Mimi said...

Judith Miller is gone from the NYT. From Wikipedia:

Miller retired from her job at the New York Times in November 2005. Later she was a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. She is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. On December 29, 2010, numerous media outlets reported that she had signed on as a contributing writer to the conservative magazine Newsmax.

Methinks Miller "retired" with a little push.

sharecropper said...

I read this without getting scrambled eggs because I translated it into words I understand automatically. Hard data, soft data. Facts, feelings. Division of this type is intrinsically opposed to my sense of the wholeness of everything. Brooks' writing reminds me of David Tracy (Univ of Chicago theologian) who creates words, joining Greek, Latin, Hebrew bases, to make his meaning muddy - oops, clear. Bless his heart.

Grandmère Mimi said...

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.

Who makes that kind of leap?

sharecropper, thank you. Understanding statistics does not come easy to me. It seems to me that in his writing Brooks quite often makes such leaps that have no real connection one to the other. His writing is mush. I find that when people talk or write as Brooks does, they are often not saying what they really want to say, which might be - I'm guessing - "Take responsibility for your life, and stop depending on the government."

sharecropper said...

I think he really meant that you end up with an amoral society. Unless, of course, he is using "demoralized society" to mean a society from which morality has been removed. And, I doubt that he believes personal responsibility and morality are based on causation. I don't see causation as being a part of personal responsibility unless he means that actions have consequences/reactions.

If you say that the gun shot someone, then the gun is responsible, not the person. Empirically, the gun moved the projectile which hit the person. Narratively, the person pulled the trigger which caused the gun to move the bullet.

It is gobbledegook. And, I don't think he could make the leap from his writing to your conclusion. He is too much involved in the empirical to get to your narrative. ;-)

And, yes. Too many of us write without organizing our thoughts and making sure they can be understood by others.

Grandmère Mimi said...

I don't think he could make the leap from his writing to your conclusion. He is too much involved in the empirical to get to your narrative.

LOL. If I understand you correctly, and I believe I do, you are correct. :-) But really, who knows what the hell Brooks means?