David Zweig at Salon gets some clicks with a breathless expose of the lying David Brooks:
The facts vs. David Brooks: Startling inaccuracies raise questions about his latest book
Factual discrepancies in the NYT columnist's new book raise some alarming questions about his research & methods
Spoiler alert - we can all exhale, this is not that alarming. Still...
For at least the past four years David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, TV pundit, bestselling author and lecture-circuit thought leader, has been publicly talking and writing about humility. Central to his thesis is the idea that humility has waned among Americans in recent years, and he wants us to harken to an earlier, better time.
One of the key talking points (if not the key talking point) cited by Brooks in lectures, interviews, and in the opening chapter of his current bestseller, “The Road to Character,” is a particular set of statistics — one so resonant that in the wake of the book’s release this spring, it has been seized upon by a seemingly endless number of reviewers and talking heads. There’s just one problem: Nearly every detail in this passage – which Brooks has repeated relentlessly, and which the media has echoed, also relentlessly — is wrong.
David Zweig was exploring similar humilty-related themes when he came across this factoid from a David Brooks talk a few years back:
In 1950 the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors “Are you a very important person?” And in 1950, 12 percent of high school seniors said yes. They asked the same question again in 2006; this time it wasn’t 12 percent, it was 80 percent.
But diligent fact-checking could not confirm that detail, so Zweig did not use it himself. But Brooks did, in 2015!
The passage from “The Road to Character” reads:
“In 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.”
And oddly, a thematically similar point had been made in Brook's own 2011 "The Social Animal":
The passage from “The Social Animal” reads:
“In 1950 a personality test asked teenagers if they considered themselves an important person. Twelve percent said yes. By the late 1980s, 80 percent said yes.”
So Brooks forgot his own book and his own factcheckers don't re-reread his own stuff. Color me disappointed, but hardly horrified. But if Zweig is right I am under-reacting:
Somehow, between the publication of “The Social Animal” in 2011 and the publication of “The Road to Character” in 2015, a study that originally occurred, by Brooks’ telling, in “the late 1980s” became one that occurred nearly 20 years later. (Amazingly, to the New York Times reviewer, the late 1980s and 2005 are only “slightly different dates.” And how was any difference in dates for the same citation, no matter how “slight,” not problematic to the Times reviewer?)
What began as a simple fact-check of a Gallup poll was devolving into a morass.
Zweig contacts Brooksies people, eventually is offered a research paper by Newsom, Archer et al as a citation, and contacts the authors. The gist - Brooks wasn't so wrong in The Social Animal" but was deeply wrong in "The Road To Perdition Character":
The thing I keep wondering is how did Brooks get nearly every detail of this passage wrong? He said Gallup did the polls, when they were actually done by academics. He merged a data set from 1948 and 1954 into 1950. He said the second data set was from 2005, when it was from 1989 (to me, the most damning and damaging inaccuracy). He said it was high school seniors, when it was ninth graders. And he said 80 percent answered true, when that was only so for boys. Can one accidentally get this many details wrong?
So the question is, if it wasn’t an accident, why would Brooks deliberately falsify nearly every detail in a passage of his book, let alone one that is a cornerstone of the book’s P.R. campaign?
Why would Brooks deliberately falsify this whole factoid? Is that really the obvious next question? I would ruminate on the fraility of human memory before I assumed Brooks to be lying.
Speaking of which, and filed under "everything new is old again", here is an aggrieved blogger from 2011:
Back in March David Brooks titled one of his New York Times columns “The Modesty Manifesto.” In it, he argued that over the course of a few generations American culture has shifted from an emphasis on self-effacement to one on self-enlargement — in short, that Americans now hold themselves, as individuals, in much higher regard than they once did.
You see this freight train coming, don't you?
However, one item from his column that Mr. Brooks keeps repeating on the lecture and interview circuits is more sinister. He cites polling data showing that in the 1950s 12% of American high school seniors said they were “a very important person” and that by the 1990s a whopping 80% believed that they were. Leaving aside the fact that Brooks keeps changing the date for that 80% figure (sometimes he says it’s from polling done in the 1990s, sometimes from 2005), Brooks is refusing to look under the surface of this seemingly alarming number.
Hmm. So even back in 2011 Brooks was muddling his dates on the stump, if not in print. The Modesty Manifesto column from 2011 says this:
In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as “I am easy to like” than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.
Hmm, right that time! And in July 2010, in the course of berating the narcissistic Mel Gibson, Brooks offers the same cite for the same factoid:
In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.
So why is Salon author Zweig contacting professors Newsom and Archer? Because they are the citation offered by Twenge (e.g., in this Journal of Personality 76:4, August 2008 paper, "Egos Inflating Over Time: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory", p. 878). Rather than blaming Brooks for moving a 1948 survey into the 1950s and muddling boys with girls, one might take it up with Twenge. (And FWIW, Twenge reverses the 80% / 77% boy-girl breakdown provided by Zweig, and if I had a copy of the Newsom paper I would gleefully adjudicate that dispute. And do, see UPDATE.)
Still, one wonders how Gallup got involved and why the second study keeps getting moved into 2005. Let me compound the mystery - here is a blogger from 2007 describing "Fame Junkies", published in 2007 by former factchecker, New Republic and NPR writer Jake Halpern:
"American teenagers are the most narcissistic people in the world."
That conclusion comes from a study published in Jake Halpern's new bookFame Junkies, The Hidden Truths behind Americas Favorite Addiction.
Last night I went to see him do a reading at a local bookstore. He talked about how in the 1950's 12% of American teens answered yes to the question "Are you an important person?" In 2006, that number jumped to over 80%.
Well, that is one fanboy heard from, but did Halpern really say that? I wasn't there, but in the book (Look Inside p. 35 - that page is not presented, but searches on "important person" confirm the factoid's presence) he cites the 2006 "Generation Me" by Twenge, and in the press release he offers this:
Are teenagers in America really more self-important than they were in the past?
There is certainly information to support this notion. This piece of data is my favorite. It comes from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. This personality test has been given to teenagers since the early 1950s. If you compare the results from teenagers who took the test in the early 1950s to results from teenagers who took it in the late 1980s, it's quite interesting. One of the most striking differences between these two groups was the way they responded to item 58, which reads: "I am an important person." In the early 1950s, only 12 percent of teenagers endorsed that statement; by the late 1980s, that number had jumped to roughly 80 percent.
This is everybody's favorite factoid! If I had to guess, I would wager that Halpern mentioned a 2006 book citing a study from the 1950s and late 80s, and the blogger dropped the 80s figure. I would further wager that Our Guy Brooks remembers the 2006 book and is making the same mistake on the dates.
So how did Gallup get in the mix? Beats me. On August 31 2011 on C-SPAN, Brooks cited Gallup, contra his then-recent book. In 2010, at a talk in Asheville, Gallup was in the story, and the second survey was "last year":
“It occurred to me that this is a shift in our culture,” he said. “In 1950, a Gallup poll asked teenagers ‘Are you an important person?’ and 12% said yes. Last year, 80% said yes. That’s a shift in culture."
But why Gallup? Another unsolved mystery. There is a Gallup Youth Survey which was founded in 1977, and in a head as packed with factoids as Mr. Brooks, some cross-wiring may have occurred (yet again, more information equals less knowledge).
I would opine that Brooks is obviously confused, his factcheckers are either overworked or underpaid, and Zweig is a bit too excited about his "gotcha". As Mark Twain might have said, "It isn't what we don't know that gives us trouble, it's what we know that ain't so."
UPDATE: Don't seek and ye shall find - in the course of looking for something else I stumbled upon the full Newsom paper, which has something for everyone:
In the 1950s, this item, placed on the ego inflation (Ma4) subscale, was endorsed as true by only about 12% of the Hathaway and Monachesi (1963) sample. In contrast, this item was endorsed as true by 77% (girls) to 80% (boys) of contemporary adolescents. The dramatic shift in endorsement frequency probably reflects a fundamental shift in the connotation of this item, that is, in the Hathaway era this item was likely interpreted by adolescents as related to self-aggrandizement, whereas it is seen as reflective of positive aspects of self-esteem by modern adolescents.
So 1948 is culturally repackaged into 'the 1950s' here and down the line, But for some reason, Prof. Twenge reversed the boy/girl split.
And of course, when a 2003 paper cites 1989 data to describe "contemporary adolescents", I suppose some confusion is possible. That said, the authors are crystal clear, several pages earlier, that the "contemporary" data is from the late 1980s:
The contemporary adolescent sample is comprised of the 805 boys and 815 girls collected in the late 1980s to create the MMPI–A adolescent norms.