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February 14, 2011
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I don't relish piling on, but David Brooks's column today, ?The New Humanism,? timed to coincide with the release of his new book The Social Animal, is intellectual cotton candy. ?Over the course of my career,? he begins, ?I've covered a number of policy failures.? Not exactly: he has covered and commented on a number of policy failures and not infrequently has been one of the most-enthusiastic supporters of the failed policies in question. Brooks later says we should avoid ?an overly simplistic view of human nature.? How about avoiding an overly simplistic view of policy? Not long ago, Brooks wrote a column called ?The Harlem Miracle? in which he twice stated that Promise Academy ?eliminated the black-white achievement gap? (it didn't). ?We may have found a remedy for the achievement gap,? he gushed. Simplistic.
His new hobby horse is brain science, which?by telling us that reason and emotion are not separate but symbiotic; that the unconscious mind is most of the mind; that we are, at base, ?social animals???will have a giant effect on the culture? and will ?change how we see ourselves.? ?Who knows,? he writes, ?it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.? And how might those policy makers sharpen their vision? Brooks gave an example yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered: ?The reality of education is that people learn from people they love. But if you mention the word love at a congressional hearing, they look at you like you're Oprah.??What is he talking about?
Furthermore, anyone who knows anything about science knows that Brooks's commentary is hackneyed and that he either intentionally or unknowingly misrepresents the research he relays. A Wall Street Journal review of The Social Animal noted that in trying to push his broad thesis (as the reviewer described it: ?that we overvalue cognition, analytical reasoning and autonomous will as the motors of success and undervalue emotion, intuition and social influence?) Brooks ?too often misreads or distorts the science, and sometimes he just gets it wrong.? The reviewer continues:
In the process of celebrating intuitive over rational thinking, Mr. Brooks lets his own unconscious biases get him into trouble. He describes in some detail, for example, clever experiments by Dutch psychologists who found that consumers make better purchasing decisions if they mull the relevant information unconsciously while their minds are occupied with other tasks?as opposed to making a quick decision or consciously analyzing the options and then deciding. But he doesn't tell the reader about the one big problem with studies like this: Other researchers have been unable to reproduce their results.
This is a chronic problem in The Social Animal. The literature in the social and medical sciences is full of results and claims that either don't replicate or haven't been tested by anyone other than the original researchers. The first study on a topic is rarely the last word.
A review in Salon is far less forgiving:
I don't know whom this book is really written for. It's definitely not going to satisfy any scientists, or even any informed people who want to know more about how the brain works?there's no technical meat on the bones of this farce. It's certainly not going to satisfy anyone hoping for literary quality, or beauty and poetry, or even a good story.
Brooks is peddling airy, wispy, faux-scholarly sugar on a stick. It can be appealing, but it's not good for you.
?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow ?