Wednesday, March 30, 2011

David Brooks on the Edge

I admire David Brooks, the editorial columnist for the New York Times, and I often agree with his positions even though he is a “conservative” and I am a “liberal”. What I like most about him is his intellectual integrity: He gets the facts right and his positions are built upon solid logical progression. But he really blew it this week.

In his article, “Tools for Thinking”,  he attempts to summarize the results of a symposium that explored scientific notions which could improve human thinking. First up is John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, who dismisses those who lament the devolution of the English language brought about by technology. McWhorter points out that there is nothing inherit about email that prevents someone from writing in the literary style of the nineteenth century if he or she wanted to. He states that it was the lessening formality of language in the sixties that accounts for the change. That’s nonsense. Nobody is bewailing the loss of the flowery literary style of the nineteenth century, at least not in emails; what we miss is the informal (but comprehensible) style of the last decade which has given way to LOL-speak. (See my article, “The Loss of Language”.)

He also states that the QWERTY keyboard was invented to slow typists down so that the keys of mechanical typewriters wouldn’t jam. Everything I’ve read says that the design was meant to do exactly the opposite – speed up typing by arranging the keys according to the most prevalent letter combinations in the English language. Brooks should know this and should not have passed along incorrect assertions.

He then quotes Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University who says, “When you focus on education you neglect the myriad of other factors that determine income.” True, but when you focus on income you neglect the myriad of other benefits of education.

To be fair, Brooks does us a favor by introducing some of the ideas that emerged from the Edge symposium. Supervenience, the Fundamental Attribution Error, Emergent Systems, and the like are fascinating concepts, none of which I had ever heard of before. Understanding why we think the way we do is always a useful pursuit. But Brooks above all is a political commentator, and when he suggests that political polarization, rising health care costs and bad marriages can be understood if we just see them as emergent systems, I suggest that he not write his columns so close to the deadline.