Friday, October 7, 2016

Brooks columns we never finished reading

From Das Kabinett des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
Back in 1985, David Brooks ("Intimacy for the Avoidant") used to have friends, apparently:

Over the past generation there seems to have been a decline in the number of high-quality friendships.
In 1985, most Americans told pollsters that they had about three confidants, people with whom they could share everything. Today, the majority of people say they have about two. 
Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it true that most Americans in 1985 told pollsters that they had about three confidants, whereas they now say they have about two?
Answer: In principle, yes, but first of all most Americans did not speak to the interviewers of NORC at the University of Chicago in the 1985 General Social Survey, only some much smaller group (of 1,473 completed cases) from what was meant to be a representative sample of all Americans; second of all, none of them said they had "about three confidants", because the interviewer asked them to say who, in the past six months, they had "discussed important matters with", so everybody came up with an integer, 0, 1, 2, 3, and so on, and there were no decimals ("about three", or 2.92, was the mean of the responses, and 3 was the modal, or the answer that was most frequently given); and third of all, "today" in this context means 2004, which is when a similar study was done (mean number of confidants 2.08, modal 0) but not 2010, when they got some interestingly different results. 
In 2010, as Claude Fischer reported on his Made in America bookblog in 2012, the NORC interviewers asked both the 1985 and the 2004 versions of the questions (the latter being a lot more intrusive and tedious, we're told), with the result that they got two different kinds of numbers; according to the 1985 version, 5% of 2010 respondents had zero confidants (compared to 8% in 1985); according to the 2004 version, it was 21% (compared to 23% in 2004). In both cases, social isolation in 2010 seemed to be decreasing (thanks, Obama!) but that's not the point.

The point is that the terrifying growth in social isolation from 1985 to 2004 (several orders of magnitude larger than the problem Robert Putnam identified in Bowling Alone, 2001) didn't happen. It is an artifact of some flaw in the survey method in one or both years; for example, as Fischer wrote in a 2013 postscript, after some other noble social scientists had done some work on the problem,
Anthony Paik and Kenneth Sanchagrin provide a fuller analysis of the networks experiment in the American Sociological Review, June 2013 (here). They conclude, as their article is titled, “Social Isolation in America: An Artifact.” They find, drawing on the 2010 experiment and other surveys as well as the 2004 survey, that the high isolation rate in 2004 resulted from interviewer (not respondent) fatigue. A small number of interviewers account for a great number of “isolates,” seemingly because these interviewers choose to avoid the difficult and tiring effort of presenting the network questions. “Our research,” they conclude, “thus suggests that there is no evidence of increasing social isolation among Americans.” They also warn that much of our data on this issue may be tainted by interviewer effects.
(If the respondent came up with fewer than five names, the interviewer was supposed to press them for more, and it looks like those interviewers failed to do the follow-up.)

In other words, once again, Brooks is basing an argument on a categorical interpretation of ambiguous data (which he doesn't even bother to cite or link, who knows where he picked it up from)—in this case as in the opening chapter of The Road to Character really questionable data that has been known to be questionable for years, without apparently realizing it. I could keep reading, I'm sure there's more to mock, but should I bother? The column isn't about anything, except I suppose Brooks's fantasy life. I realize that's always good for a laugh.

Update: Maybe I should have finished reading it after all, since I learn from Comrade Driftglass that Brooks gets into "happy touch points", which sounds pretty, ah, stimulating, if you know what I mean and I'm afraid Brooks doesn't. 

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