David Brooks wishes George W. Bush could run for a third term, also says he’s not allowed to talk about what he just talked about

by Andrew Gelman on January 13, 2012 · 21 comments

in Methodology,Political Science and Journalism

OK, not really. But NYT columnist Brooks does write:

In sum, great presidents are often aristocrats and experienced political insiders. They experience great setbacks. They feel the presence of God’s hand on their every move.

That describes George W. Bush pretty well, I think. This is not to say that Brooks’s ideas here are wrong, but it might help to acknowledge that just a few years ago we had a president with all these qualities.

Brooks also writes, “we’re not allowed to talk about these things openly these days.” I don’t know what he means, since he just talked about them! His sentence seems like one of those logical paradoxes along the lines of, “This sentence does not mention an elephant.”

Just to be clear: my point here is not to pick on Brooks, it’s more to demonstrate the gap between the quals and the quants. Statisticians such as myself see sweeping statements and immediately think, “Yeah? Really? Why do you say that?”, while journalists such as David Brooks or Samantha Power seem to think deterministically and don’t seem to let data get in the way of their ideas.

Paradoxically, it is the quants who can be more accepting of uncertainty, while the quals are always ready to think that some simple formula can explain the world.

P.S. Brooks also describes Ronald Reagan as a “serenely successful movie star.” Huh? I think he’s thinking of Robert Redford. Reagan had a fine career in movies and TV, but “serenely successful star” is a bit of an overstatement. I think what happened is that Brooks was applying his argument to various special cases but then he suddenly realized that Reagan was not an aristocrat, not an experienced political insider (yes, he’d been governor of California, but still I’d call him much more of an outsider than an insider, at least compared to Nixon and Ford, let alone Lyndon Johnson), nor did Reagan have a “great failure,” nor was he religious. In fact, Reagan scores a zero on Brooks’s list, so Brooks needed to give him a retrospective boost and he came up with the “serenely successful” bit. I think Brooks would do better to just acknowledge that Reagan is an exception to his story rather than try to awkwardly cram him into one of his categories.

P.P.S. Let me clarify that I’m not saying that it’s better to be a “quant” than a “qual.” My problem is when people present an argument that is fundamentally quantitative—-that can be checked in a quantitative way, for example by tallying up scores for past presidents—but then don’t do so. I have a similar problem in reverse when “quants” engage in sloppy qualitative reasoning. We call that “story time.”

My post is not about good guys and bad guys, it’s about people using an inappropriate mode of analysis to answer a particular question.

P.P.P.S. More here. I hope this helps.

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