Thursday, October 23, 2014

David Brooks, con(firmation) artist

[picking up where we left off here]

David Brooks has one of the most desirable jobs in journalism; it is also one of the most difficult. He has to present a mainstream conservative perspective in a way that appeals to his center-left target audience (which includes but is somewhat larger than the target audience of the New York Times). His job is greatly complicated by shifts in the Republican Party and the conservative movement. On a growing number of issues there is less and less common ground to focus on.

Fortunately for Brooks, there is a (hopefully unwritten) loophole in the professional standards of the NYT and many other publications which allows writers to break all sorts of rules -- up to and including the one against making things up -- as long as these lapses serve to reinforce the readers' (or at least the editors' and publishers') preconceptions.

The target audience for the NYT is mainly in the top half (possibly top quartile) in terms of wealth and education. They may not be Randian but they still tend to look at the bottom quartile with an attitude that is by turns suspicious and patronizing. Check out how Brooks plays to those prejudices in this recent column (via Charles Pierce).
In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.
This is brilliantly Brooksian. The first paragraph is accurate and well-grounded. The second is where things start getting subtle. The transition from fact to inference is so smooth and the conclusions he draws are so reasonable that few readers will realize how skillfully they've been set up.

Note the patronizing, more-to-be-pitied-than-censured tone. In his detached, scholarly, Middlemarch-quoting way, Brooks sympathizes with those in the lower class. He understands how conditions have made them angry, resentful and suspicious and how those emotions have made them gullible and prone to hysteria.

Having framed the question in such reasonable terms and having masterfully played on the prejudices of his readers, Brooks feels free to start making things up. Pretty much all the statements in the third paragraph are lies of varying degree, but Brooks knows they are lies most of his readers were predisposed to believe.

Working backwards (which allows us to save the best for last), let's start Ebola. Brooks is basically talking about the sort of thing we've been hearing from this guy (to get the full effect, go back and read the second paragraph).

How about the broader anti-science question? Brooks credits it to the great unwashed sharing misinformation but he offers no data to back it up, but if we look at the most obvious example (denial  of global warming), there is an alternative explanation that does have considerable evidence to support it.  George Will also figures prominently in this one.

And finally, how about the resentful and suspicious lower classes driving the anti-vaccination movement?

Not so much:
Exemption rates vary greatly by area and school. Los Angeles Unified kindergartens, for example, had an overall exemption rate of just 1.6%, although there are several in the district where more than 8% of students have belief exemptions. At Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, the overall exemption rate was 14.8% and at Capistrano Unified in south Orange County, it was 9.5%. At nearby Santa Ana Unified only 0.2% of kindergartners had exemptions on file.

In Los Angeles County, the rise in personal belief exemptions is most prominent in wealthy coastal and mountain communities, The Times analysis shows. The more than 150 schools with exemption rates of 8% or higher for at least one vaccine were located in census tracts where the incomes averaged $94,500 — nearly 60% higher than the county median.

Brooks has been doing this sort of thing for a long time now, long enough for the NYT to know what's going on..

1 comment:

  1. To continue, I think the 2nd is more a case of religious conflict with science and that not only crosses economic class lines but many of the people in charge are blunt climate change deniers. And the 3rd I've seen spread as much in the upper income classes as below.

    BTW, I've noticed that if I hit "Publish" and not Preview, the comment disappears and can't be recovered.