Thursday, July 8, 2010

The problem with David Brooks columns

Jonathan Chait, with support from David Brooks himself (who calls every one of his columns a "failure"), explains why his columns are often weak.

Brooks admits that he should be writing 3,000-word essays, not 800-word op-eds. He's better at exploring an issue by sorting people into different cultural groups ("this type of person believes this, while this other type believes that") than at making a directly persuasive argument ("here's what I believe, and here's why it's right").

This resonates with something I said in the comments section of my post on Brooks's deeply flawed column on morality as instinctive rather than rational:

I think a lot of it has to do with Brooks's temperament and profession. He's an open-minded intellectual who gets easily excited about writing columns that announce revolutions in the way society thinks about such-and-such an issue. (Luckily for him, these revolutions seem to come along at a steady pace of about twice a week.)

So he probably read about some empirical findings on morality, reason, and emotions. He realized that there's a tension between them and some of the most famous moral theories -- most obviously Kant and utilitarianism. And this got him excited about writing a column announcing that the new empirical studies signify the end of moral philosophy as we know it.

But then he thought more carefully about things and realized that it's not so simple. You still need to apply reason and consistent principles; sometimes our instinctive reactions can be misguided; and so on.

But he was still excited about getting a column out of his idea. So he figured he could disseminate the basic idea (prominently placed at the top of the piece) but still be intellectually honest by including the nuanced qualifications (buried deep in the piece). Hence this strangely incoherent column.
The whole state of affairs actually benefits the New York Times and Brooks, as Chait explains. Everyone may be completely aware of the consistent defect, but no one is both willing and able to change it.

That's the mainstream media for you. If a blogger's content had the same shortcomings, the problem would be solved automatically: people just wouldn't read that blog.