Beef with data

by Andrew Gelman on February 19, 2013 · 11 comments

in Media,Methodology

beefwithdata

Louis Mittel writes:

Do you know why David Brooks has such a beef with data?

My reply:

I have no idea, but I’m happy that we’re now considered the establishment that he has to rebel against!

{ 11 comments }

Colin Danby February 19, 2013 at 10:47 pm

It’s like Lucy with the football. Brooks does a pretty good imitation of someone with insight, and then you reach the end of the column and realize you’ve been fooled again.

Sebastian February 19, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Charly Brown is, what, 7 years old? I’d hope that by the age of 25 or so one doesn’t fall for Lucy or Brooksie anymore.

Christiaan Hofman February 21, 2013 at 9:15 am

Well, that’s what Brooks always tries to do. So when you get yourself drawn into that, then either you have never read Brooks, or you want to be fooled, or you’re a fool. The safe thing to do is just assume Brooks is trying to fool you. You may reconsider after finished reading, but chances are very slim you need to.

Alessandro February 20, 2013 at 12:32 am

Krugman’s words on the minimum wage debate are quite illuminating, considering the argument that “data struggles with the social”: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/18/opinion/krugman-raise-that-wage.html?smid=fb-nytimes&_r=0

Michele C February 20, 2013 at 9:34 am

What this reinforced to me is that the largest group of newspaper readers must be 55 and older and they still find computers scary.

Also, I can pretty quickly tell him that there is no square root of 437, but that’s not actually relevant.

Sebastian February 20, 2013 at 1:53 pm

of course there is a square root of 437. It’s about 20.9 (which really isn’t hard to interpolate in your head more quickly than I could type it into a calculator).
Every positive real number has a square root that’s another positive real number.

Michele C February 20, 2013 at 3:50 pm

I knew that I should have written “perfect” and “integer” on this blog.

I also agree with you on both counts.

adano February 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I don’t know. I’m a quantitative analysis kind of guy who uses a lot of data. But Brooks seems to be making some fair points here. He’s correct that massive datasets can’t definitively solve every problem. The point is almost trite, in fact.

Andrew Gelman February 20, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Adano:

Indeed, his points are fair. I’m just happy to see “data” as being a hegemonic entity that people such as Brooks feel the need to push against. I like the idea of data analysis being the default. Instead of having to justify the use of data, the burden is on the other side: you have to give a good explanation for why your decision is not data-based.

JFB February 21, 2013 at 4:42 am

Brooks is writing about Joe Scarborough. Who’s been ranting ever since he had Paul Krugman on his TV show.

Scarborough is just certain that the slashing the government budget deficit right now is all we should focus on, and that nothing else matters, and that not doing so is stealing from our grandchildren. He bases this on intuition, gut feeling, in turn based on how “everyone” is saying this, and he never hears anything to the contrary.

This is a wonderful demonstration of how data is actually quite useful at times and how intuition and gut feeling can lead you astray just as easily as relying only on data can.

You always have to read to the end of a David Brooks column to see what he’s really getting at. It’s A) Banal observation B) Whiplash-inducing twist “concluding” from banal observation that some right-wing talking point is valid.

The ratio is usually A taking about 90 percent of the column, and B the remainder.

Paul Krugman responded to Brooks by the way, far more politely than I would have.

Alessandro February 21, 2013 at 10:20 am

Yes, that was my point with the link I posted above (though that’s not the answer you were referring to). The idea that minimum wage is detrimental to the creation of new jobs, an assumption long held by most economists, including Krugman himself, is being challenged by empirical research using “big data”. In other words, data can push us to think out of the box and reassess our hypotheses.

Brooks seems to hold an oversimplified view of quantititative social science, in which researchers blindly accept their findings without being concerned with measurement error, sample bias, theory, etc. This is clear on the “swap the amazing machine in your skull for the crude machine on your desk” line.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: