I’m very much a “liberal” when it comes to political thought. I also like to think myself level headed enough to analyze all types of information and, when something runs counter to my ideas/ideals, I hope to be intellectually honest enough to accept cold hard facts versus my own personal notions. Because of this, I can listen to conservative talking heads and find something interesting in what they say…even if I may ultimately disagree with much of it.
Getting to the topic at hand, I generally enjoy David Brooks when he’s on TV. Again, I may not agree with all (or even most) of his opinions, but he usually presents his material clearly and not without a good bit of wit and humor.
However, after reading David Zwieg’s article, The Facts vs. David Brooks, I’m finding it hard to justify whatever interest I had in listening to him in the first place. You can read the article here:
The Facts vs. David Brooks
The upshot of the article is that in recent times Mr. Brooks has been quoted using a Gallup poll to make a point about today’s generation and their need to be “important” versus “humble”. Mr. Brooks’ thesis first came to Mr. Zweig’s attention via a lecture delivered at 2001’s Aspen Ideas Festival, where Mr. Brooks stated…
“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.”
In Mr. Brooks’ book The Road to Character, Mr. Zweig notes that Mr. Brooks wrote the following, which roughly follows what he stated in the lecture:
“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.”
Ah, but note that the second study’s year changed from 2005 to 2006. I know this is a very small change, but as you read Mr. Zweig’s article, you find this is but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For Mr. Zweig searches for the supposed Gallup study (big shocker: there is none) and eventually finds the actual study Mr. Brooks most likely quoted. In the process he realizes that almost everything Mr. Brooks quoted about it is wrong.
To begin, the original statistics from the article Mr. Brooks most likely was talking about, Mr. Zweig finds, were not made in 1950 but in 1948 and 1954 with the subsequent data coming from 1989. The questions in the study were asked to 14-16 year olds, not high school seniors. Finally, the 1989 boys responded 80% to the question while the girls were at 77%.
I can understand if you think these differences aren’t all that and you may think Mr. Zweig is being a tad picky toward Mr. Brooks.
But consider this: Why are Mr. Brooks’ incorrect quotes so important to his thesis that today’s culture is not humble enough?
Because as incorrectly presented by him, Mr. Brooks is leading his audience down a nice easy path of his own making. By following the logic of his incorrect statement, we are 1) meant to be impressed that we’re dealing with a prestigious poll by Gallup (hey, they wouldn’t lie, right?!) and 2) by thinking the years of the supposed poll are correct (ie a 1950 youth versus a 2005-6 youth) I get the feeling Mr. Brooks wants us to make the leap to say “Of course!. Today’s generation is waaaaay too narcissistic! They’re only interested in themselves and their cellphones and their selfies and…”
…and the problem is that given the actual year of the subsequent poll, 1989, we cannot say this. From a technological standpoint, the 1989 generation, when the internet was but a newborn on its baby steps (and smartphones were only a theory), is as relevant to today’s smartphone generation as it is to that of the 1950’s.
And suddenly we realize that Mr. Brooks’ “little” errors maybe weren’t so very little after all. Why mention Gallup unless you’re trying to bring some prestige to your quote? Why get the years so very wrong unless you are trying to point a finger at today’s generation?
Kudos to Mr. Zweig for investigating something others -even I- might have just take for granted.