Posted tagged ‘Consequences’

One From the Road: Why Can’t David Brooks Behave When I’m On Vacation edition

August 20, 2008

So, I’m blissfully bagging (photographically) three of the Big Five up in KwaZulu Natal, and then equally blissfully chilling in perhaps the best location in the surreal beauty of Camps Bay, almost entirely free of the Intertubes, when I finally make landfall (runway fall has the wrong sound to it) in Johannesburg. There, I innocently sign on to my sister-in-law’s wireless, (just checking my email. Honest. And the Red Sox scores. And every single poll I’d missed, and….) and got smacked by this by-now-old-news story of David Brooks trying wax deep on his newish theme of the neuroscience of politics and culture . (Thanks, sort of, to James Fallows for leading me into this swamp).

The dog-bites-man headline, of course, is that Brooks essentially made up the critical facts of the research he cited. In a column trying to draw cognitive distinctions between the thought and perception of presumed collectivist Chinese and those stalwart individualist Americans, he got just about everything salient wrong. The study he cited did not claim to attempt a random sample, interviewing instead a captive audience of college students; the test image was not of an aquarium, but an underwater scene, the distinctions in results between the two populations were not as claimed – and none of these material errors was the big enchilada:

In a column purporting to probe crucial distinctions between Chinese and American psyches, Brooks cited a study whose Asian population was…wait for it…

…Japanese.

Now, if you want the full, devastating take down on Brooks and a very smart and just about as devastating critique on the body of research Brooks was alleging he had probed deeply enough to opine about, read this, by Penn’s and the Language Log’s Mark Liberman. I got nothing to add about the substance of Brook’s substancelessness beyond Liberman’s take down.

But what I do want to raise is the question of consequences. Brooks really screwed up here by the standards of his profession. He got several specific facts wrong, and those errors undermine the entire article. What is the appropriate response of his readers and, more important, his employers, those who provide him with one of the most significant bully pulpits in contemporary journalism.

First, please note that the observation that Brooks is an opinion-writer, not a news reporter does not buy him much mitigation. The old cliche – everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts – applies here. His interpretation of the science he cited is his own; that I think it is wrongheaded, stupid, shallow, and betrays a lack of understanding of exactly the kinds of difficulties in the research that Liberman documents is of no consequence. People are allowed to be dumb, and other people can decide whether it’s Brooks or his critics who should don the dunce cap.

But the actual specific details of what he suggests is a growing scientific consensus are a different story. Those are actual events and results in the world. Mischaracterizing them to make a half baked (or even, in different and more careful hands, a fully baked) generalization is, in journalism, a kind of fraud, a pernicious betrayal (and disdain for) the trust of your readers.

That’s why in journalism in general and in the science journalism that I and my colleagues try to teach to our grad students, it gets repeated again and again that the first job is to get the facts right.

In science journalism, at least as I learned it and try, never quite perfectly, to practice and teach it, you need to take the next step. Just transcribing accurately what someone has told you or what you have read in a book, a paper or a press release ain’t enough. Actual understanding, and informed judgment matter too. If you are going to apply your own, non-expert interpretation to a result, you need to earn it – and you do so by mastering the background to that research first.

As I said above, others have done a much better job than I could demonstrating that Brooks failed this standard on every level.

So back to the question of what should happen to someone who so baldly screws up. A junior reporter, someone not so branded and “to bit too fail” as David Brooks would, if they demonstrated as much a disregard for facts as Brooks does here would be in serious trouble; if this were a third or fourth instance (and I invite folks to go back through blog reactions, including my own, to earlier Brooks fiascos) they would stand a good chance of being fired.

Now that’s not going to happen. If it mattered that much to the Times, then William Kristol, he of four published corrections since he started at the Grey Lady– would be out of a job. Dut the fact that Brooks made stuff up, in essence, to tell the story he already knew he was going to write (OK – so I’m inferring here, but this is a blog, and I get to) should matter to someone who might still cling to the idea that they worked for the “newspaper of record.”

Here’s what I would do. I wouldn’t fire Brook. That would just create another faux martyr for the bad guys. I would suspend him – say through November 8. I’d even suspend him with pay – and here I’m assuming that under his contract with the Times he’s constrained in what else he can do. And then I’d substitute for him on the next-to-last page of the dead tree edition with an intellectually honest, determined conservative. Get someone in their who can actually fight that corner. See what that feels like.

Just thinkin’ on the road, you know. Now its off to hear Pops Muhammad – much more fun than wallowing in the follies of the Lords of Journalism.