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.


Cal January 13, 2012 at 11:48 pm

Another option would be for David Brooks to admit that Ronald Reagan was an awful president, and has simply been mythologized after the fact. But then, if he did that, he might also be forced to admit that George W. Bush was an even worse president.

Andrew Gelman January 13, 2012 at 11:58 pm


It’s hard to make an objective judgment of what makes a good president. If Brooks sat down and made a list of which presidents he considers great or near-great, and which had his desired characteristics (aristocrat, insider, setbacks, intensely religious), I think he’d learn something. That would be, to my mind, thinking like a quant. Noticing that Reagan is a 0-out-of-4 on his list and Bush is a 4-out-of-4, it might lead him to just characterize them as exceptions or it might make him re-think his rules.

Total January 13, 2012 at 11:57 pm

“don’t seem to let data get in the way of their ideas”

Given how garbage a lot of data is, that seems to be quite a good idea a lot of the time. David Brooks, of course, is a bad example to prove that proposition, but I wouldn’t be so all-fired in love with data.

DavidN January 14, 2012 at 6:17 am

Total: ‘Give how garbage a lot of data is, that seems to be quite a good idea a lot of the time’. Would ask you to back that up with data but conveniently stating something is sufficient for it to be true.

Total January 14, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Oo, sarcasm.

Shall we start with using the Iraqi body count (not the Lancet article, the official government count) and trying to do a quantitative analysis with that?

LFC January 15, 2012 at 9:55 am

When you say the official government count, what do you mean? The US and others in its coalition declined to keep track of civilian casualties, afaik. Did the Iraqi govt itself produce figures?

Greg Weeks January 14, 2012 at 9:49 am

Yikes. You argue against sweeping statements and then make the sweeping statement that journalists exemplify all qualitative analysis. You’re not demonstrating differences between qualitative vs. quantitative work–you’re demonstrating social science vs. journalism.

Andrew Gelman January 14, 2012 at 9:55 am


No, there is such a thing as quantitative journalism. Consider Felix Salmon, for example. He does not aim for social science in his reporting, but he does apply quantitative reasoning.

Delafield January 14, 2012 at 10:14 am

” No, there is such a thing as quantitative journalism.”


Yes, it’s certainly hard to find in the dominant American media, but it does exist in theory & practice.

“Journalism” is merely truth/fact-telling.

It is necessarily quantitative, whether the journalist is reporting the local city temperature, the winning sports team last evening, or the causes of World War I. Facts are truthful & ultimately quantitative.

However, the obvious and vast problem is that most alleged journalism is merely opinion & speculation… presented as fact.

Total January 14, 2012 at 2:31 pm

“Facts are truthful & ultimately quantitative”

Heh. Really? It seems to me that facts are often highly contested and in the eye of the beholder.

Erin January 14, 2012 at 10:34 am

I don’t understand how Brooks typifies the quals. That’s as offensive as the lousy methodology of Brooks’s piece.

Andrew Gelman January 14, 2012 at 10:51 am


I think it would be a great help to the thinking of David Brooks, Samantha Power, etc., if they were to evaluate their assertions as quantitative claims.

Quants have issues too; see P.P.S. above.

Roman Jacobsen January 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

I think it takes a “qual” to point out that Mr. Gelman used no data whatsoever to make a most sweeping and untrue generalization — that quals are more unaccepting of uncertainty than quants. “Yeah? Really? Why do you say that?” Where is the data to prove it? I’ll leave the easy ad hominems aside, though you richly deserve ridicule for hypocrisy and smug self-assurance, and simply say that data lies just as well, or better, than qualitative statements. We all know it, from Mark Twain to Ed Learner (“Let’s Take the ‘Con’ Out of Econometrics,” American Economic Review, 73: 1). It is routine practice to tweak a regression until you get the answer you were looking for. The difference between an honest statistician and a dishonest one is that the former can admit this to himself.

As a rhetorician, Mr. Gelman hedges his bets a bit, saying that quants “can be” more tolerant of uncertainty. But as a polemicist, he can’t help making the fatal logical error of saying “quals are *always* ready to think that some simple formula can explain the world.” Right after he had the testicular fortitude to critique Brooks’s logic! Logically speaking, if I can find one qual who isn’t ready to think in simple formulas, Mr. Gelman’s argument falls apart. You do the math.

I’ll be generous and say data doesn’t collect itself, which is why you need a theory before you start analysis. I could be ungenerous (but still correct) and say that data doesn’t exist in Mr. Gelman’s sense at all — it’s constructed, like a house or a book, or a quality — just like everything else that humans touch. So to make an argument for the superiority of data driven arguments is both untrue and a tautology.

In truth, most quants are actually Scientians — people who have replaced faith in God with faith in scientific method. They are no less irrational or intolerant than Christians; they are just more smug. The best historical example is Jeremy Bentham, who is the spiritual father of our sprawling prison-industrial complex, and the best current example is Steven Pinker, who flies into an irrational rage when one questions his authority. If you like those guys, you are most definitely a data-driven Scientian, who wouldn’t understand a quality if it sat on your face and farted. However, being silly and stupid isn’t a crime. Accusing others of being silly and stupid because they see things you don’t should be.

Andrew Gelman January 14, 2012 at 11:34 am


There are many roads to knowledge. That said, I think that, whether or not David Brooks etc. have faith in God or faith in the scientific method, it would be a good idea to evaluate their claims quantitatively when possible.

Look again at Brooks’s column. He gave four conditions to characterize preparation to be a great president. Ronald Reagan scored 0/4 on these, while George W. Bush scored 4/4. Simply reflecting on this, I think, would’ve grounded him a bit.

Masha January 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Hello Roman.

While we’re on the subject of sweeping generalizations without backing them up, I can understand where your objection to Gelman’s own lack of data comes from (though, in his defense, I don’t think he was just being a rhetorician when he pointed out that both “quals” and “quants” make mistakes; he was just making a balanced point about how both sides could benefit from changing the way they think).

But after making a tirade, four paragraphs long, against Gelman for not backing up his claims with data, you proved that you have even more “testicular fortitude” by stating that, “In truth, most quants are actually Scientians — people who have replaced faith in God with faith in scientific method”.

I’d understand if you had better things to do than conduct a detailed survey or poll, counting how many “quants” actually believe in God, but come on. This isn’t even about data anymore. As a self-proclaimed “qual” have you just never gone out and met a religious mathematician or statistician?

As for “quants” being more smug in general than people who do believe in God, (I’ll refrain from speaking for all “quals” or “quants”) you’re definitely a case and point to the contrary.

Samuel Bagg January 14, 2012 at 11:17 am

“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.”

Is this not a grand, sweeping statement, backed up by no empirical data of any kind? It seems like this may be “one of those logical paradoxes” too.

Andrew Gelman January 14, 2012 at 11:36 am


Good point. I am really criticizing this particular mode of thinking (the implicitly or explicitly quantitative statement that is not carefully evaluated, as in the Brooks and Power examples). I should not be criticizing “quals” or qualitative work in general. My point is that, at times, people don’t apply the simple quantitative thinking—counting, really—that could help a lot.

Sean January 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Holding up David Brooks as a representative of qualitative research makes me wonder whether you’re being disingenuous or just aren’t familiar with actual qualitative work.

How about if one were to disparage quantitative research by pointing to Matthew Yglesias’s blog. He uses charts and numbers, right?

Jay Livingston January 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm

As “succesful” presidencies, Brooks mentions the following: Washington, TR, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Truman, Lincoln, Kennedy, Reagan, Eisenhower. (This includes all but 12 years of the 56 years from 1933-1989.) Is this a generally accepted list? And what are the criteria for a successful presidency? Why is W not successful? He got pretty much what he wanted.

Jed Dougherty January 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm

It does seem to be a pretty random list. Why Kennedy, who only served for 1,000 days before he was shot, and not Jefferson? Louisiana Purchase anyone? Really we should just take the article for what it is: simplistic propaganda for Romney’s presidential campaign. This is why I don’t read the opinion section.

delicate genus January 16, 2012 at 1:35 am

The great presidents debate is in the eyes of the beholder. I think Obama should go on Mt. Rushmore for passing the Affordable Health Care Act. Great presidents, then, fulfill my preferences (and don’t have sex with interns).

To use Brooks logic, Great presidents are always born under the sign of Aquarius –Lincoln, FDR and Washington. Obama is a Leo. Therefore, this pattern is changing a bit, and Leos are often like Aquarians.

These cats who have to write three columns a week just run out of interesting things to say.

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