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Saturday, March 27, 2004

On the evidence of experience -  

In reply to a longish piece by Sasha Issenberg in Philadelphia Magazine on the intellectual poverty of New York Times columnist David Brooks Patrick Belton offers his two cents at Oxblog. Patrick knows a lot more than I do about a whole suite of really interesting and important policy issues but in this case it seems obvious that he's fallen off the rails and interestingly its for much the same reasons that Issenberg criticizes Brooks.

Let's start with the Issenberg piece. After dealing with the specifics of many of the details that appear in several Brooks pieces (and showing them to be just incorrect) Issenberg comes to the crux of the matter...

"What I try to do is describe the character of places, and hopefully things will ring true to people," Brooks explained. "In most cases, I think the way I describe it does ring true, and in some places it doesn't ring true. If you were describing a person, you would try to grasp the essential character and in some way capture them in a few words. And if you do it as a joke, there's a pang of recognition."

By holding himself to a rings-true standard, Brooks acknowledges that all he does is present his readers with the familiar and ask them to recognize it.


Of course giving readers the familiar and then asking them to recognize it could equally well be broadly construed as reconstruing readers' prejudice and asking them to recognize it. I could fill this and several other weblogs discussing in great detail why this is bad, but let's just say for now that it is a.) not informative b.) caters to the worst rather than, possibly, the best of my sensibilities and c.) is demeaning with respect to the level of insight and understanding I might bring to reading Brooks' column (possibly the greatest offense, I am insightful damn it).

In his discussion of the same piece (it almost sounds from Patrick's comments like he was reading something other that I saw) Patrick makes the case that...

Brooks isn't necessarily purveying stereotypes to his buying audience when he seizes onto status details, Tom Wolfe-like, to summon up the distinction between a secular, educated, suburban (and gentrifying-urban) liberal America on the one hand and a godly, more traditional America on the other. This is distinction most readers and commentators would, based on their lived and reflected-upon experience of American social reality, place more evidentiary faith in than in particular demographic points of information about the moment's sales of No Ordinary Time on Amazon.com. As, I think, they should.

Nor is this to say that considered lived experience of social reality can't contain prejudices and biases which can and should be battered down by cannonades of evidence - only to say that something like Scottish enlightenment philosopher and epistemologist Thomas Reid's notion of common sense should also guide us in steering a path between the assumptions we live by and points of information which are adduced to challenge and demolish them.


This is deeply, deeply troubling on all sorts of levels. For brevity's sake I'll just pick two.

1. Of course Brooks doesn't necessaryily traffic in stereotypes by the act of latching onto status details (things like whether you buy your household appliances at Home Depot or at Resoration Hardware) to distinguish between social groups. He does, however, traffic in sterotypes, and this is the point Issenberg makes, if the status details are made up/wrong and chosen in such a way as to conform to readers preexisting ideas.

2. In the second paragraph cited above Patrick argues that we, all, should adapt opinions informed by experience as well as by the sort of common sense exemplified by Thomas Reid. I'm at a disadvantage here having read very little of Reid's work but I have spent some time working on how people make decisions (in an attempt to work out good ways to justify environmental protection policies) and working my way through some of the large body of work of folks like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (both psychologists although Kahneman received in the Nobel prize in Economics) on this topic. Criminally simplifying what Kahneman and Tversky showed is that human's ability to generalize from particular episode (and in the process do things like accurately evaluate risk) is just lousy. What this means for Patrick and for how Brooks writes his columns is that the individual experience is a really, really bad way to decide almost anything, whether mediated by common sense or not.

On balance I love Patrick's stuff but here... I can only think he's been addled by one of those famous Oxford fridays of debauchery.

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