I was thinking more about David Brooks’s anti-data column from yesterday, and I realized what is really bothering me.
Brooks expresses skepticism about numbers, about the limitations of raw data, about the importance of human thinking. Fine, I agree with all of this, to some extent.
But then Brooks turns around uses numbers and unquestioningly and uncritically (OK, not completely uncritically; see P.S. below). In anotorious recent case, Brooks wrote, in the context of college admissions:
You’re going to want to argue with Unz’s article all the way along, especially for its narrow, math-test-driven view of merit. But it’s potentially ground-shifting. Unz’s other big point is that Jews are vastly overrepresented at elite universities and that Jewish achievement has collapsed. In the 1970s, for example, 40 percent of top scorers in the Math Olympiad had Jewish names. Now 2.5 percent do.
But these numbers are incorrect, as I learned from a professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison who has published a relevant article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society on mathematics performance by gender and ethnicity on national and international mathematics competitions. Mertz found, based on her direct interviews with these students, that over 12% (her best guess is something like 16%, I think) of recent Math Olympiad participants were Jewish (and she believes the estimate of 40% for earlier years is too high). It turns out that the numbers Brooks was reported had been constructed from some sloppy counting.
My beef here, though, is not with Ron Unz, who did the sloppy counting. Unz is a political activist and it is natural for him to interpret the data in ways that are favorable to his case. Data analysis can be tricky, and even when people are trying to do their best, it’s easy to make mistakes and to get trapped by one’s own analysis (see, for example, Daryl Bem). It’s hard to get too angry at a political activist for finding what he’s looking for.
And my beef is not with David Brooks for including some faulty numbers in his column. There’s no way he has time to check every claim in everything he reads. There’s no perfect quality control, and the New York Times does not have the research to fact-check every one of their op-ed columns.
No, my beef is with David Brooks for not correcting his numbers. Janet Mertz contacted him and the Times to report that his published numbers were in error, and I also contacted Brooks (both directly and through an intermediary). But no correction has appeared.
The funny thing is, yesterday’s column would’ve been the perfect place for Brooks to make his correction. He could’ve just added a paragraph such as the following…