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Your Use Of Data For Any Purpose But Validating David Brooks’s Lazy Intuitions Infuriates David Brooks

[ 60 ] February 21, 2013 |

Andrew Gelman gets it exactly right about David Brooks’s attempt to lash back at being thoroughly humiliated by Nate Silver without responding directly. Anybody who reads sportswriting has seen Brooks’s argument a million times. In its purest form, it can be found in blog posts by blogger Murray Chass. You spend five paragraphs railing against geeks in their basements with their sliderules and VIC-20s and why don’t they watch the damn game rather than doing their math homework, and then the rest of your blog post online column arguing that Pitcher A should win the Cy Young award over the much better Pitcher B not because you think Pitcher A is better but because Pitcher A has a higher total in a nearly useless statistical category you remember in a fond haze of nostalgia from your days as a child when a win was a win and you’d get five bees for a quarter and Warren Harding brought some real integrity to the White House, dammit.


Comments (60)

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  1. Aidan says:

    An actual quote from Michael Kinsley’s latest:

    There are studies suggesting that the minimum wage doesn’t really destroy jobs. These get hauled out whenever an increase in the minimum wage is contemplated. They are hard to believe. In fact, I don’t believe them. The conclusion is just too counterintuitive and too convenient.

    • “Fuckin’ statistics, how do they work?”

    • Bill Murray says:

      Is it really counter-intuitive to say giving people who spend all their money some more money that they will spend will hurt the economy.

      It seems more counter-intuitive to “think” that “rational” business people will fire everybody making less than the new minimum wage, because their new compensation would be greater than their value to the company

    • spencer says:

      Relying on intuition instead of data for an inherently quantitative question is the definition of idiocy. And possibly laziness.

    • David W. says:

      Christ, what an asshole.

    • pete says:

      Bu-bu-bu … not just an asshole but a contrarian asshole — practically the inventor of the contrarian shtick — being contrarian by — wait for it — refusing to accept the contrarian position on the grounds that it’s contrarian. This is not just jumping the metaphorical, it’s swan-diving straight down the plughole.

    • Aaron says:

      When I managed a bakery/deli, way back in the day, the minimum wage would occasionally go up. I would try to adjust the wages such that the longer-term employees got a bit more of a raise than the statutory increase. But I never, ever considered reducing my staff – I didn’t have any fat to cut. (Well, speaking literally we did have fat to cut, being as we served corned beef, pastrami and the like, but we needed those employees to do the cutting. ;-) )

      What businesses and industries are we talking about that have loads of minimum wage workers but can get by with appreciably fewer workers? Do they exist somewhere other than in Mr. Kinsley’s imagination?

      • Sev says:

        Indeed, and I think your point along with what Bill Murray says above is why raising min wage has never cost jobs. Of course the business owner is annoyed at having to pay more, not thinking about the extra business s/he may be getting from overall increased level of income in the area. Then again, there is undoubtedly a particular intangible pleasure in watching people scurry around to do your bidding while you pay them peanuts.

    • I heard the cost is just passed along to the consumer, that it’s a minimal amount, and is in general easily absorbed by economy.

      I think that’s how it works, Michael.

      • Mister Harvest says:

        There you go with your “facts” and “reality” and “comprehensive set of studies.”

        If the employers could have gotten by without those employees, they would have, regardless of what the minimum wage is. Kinsley’s oh-so-amazing “intuition” requires that McDonald’s franchisees are keeping people around just out of the kindness of their hearts, but as soon as the minimum wage goes up, they’re out the door because the business can run fine without them. That’s a pretty stupid “intuition.”

        • Bill Murray says:

          but it us par for the neo-classical economics course

        • Djur says:

          A lot of journalists have taken just enough economics to have seen those nice straight demand curves, but didn’t pay enough attention to the concept of ‘elasticity’.

          Which I learned about in high school economics, so it’s hardly high-level stuff.

          Demand for labor is fairly inelastic. Nobody can seriously argue otherwise. Literally the only argument is whether it’s pretty inelastic or really inelastic, and the degree to which that elasticity varies between industries. And simple logic indicates that demand for minimum-wage labor is particularly inelastic — wherever it’s been easy to consolidate, outsource, or automate, that’s already happened. If you think Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employ a single person in excess of their needs… if you think both of those companies wouldn’t go out of their way and spend extra money now to cut their labor force by even 1% over the next 10 years… you’re not living in the real world.

        • Mayson Lancaster says:

          Back in the ’80s, Forbes quoted an academic study which looked at McD’s franchises and found that those who paid somewhat more than minimum wage were more profitable than those which only paid minimum wage. Allowed for socioeconomics/demographics of the locations, too. Seems you get better employees, and less turnover.

    • calling all toasters says:

      Whereas there is nothing convenient about simply denying evidence without bothering to make an argument. “It’s hard work!” — GW Bush.

    • laura says:

      If low-wage labor markets are basically monopsonistic, then minimum wages shouldn’t have much or any effect except in the very long run (and maybe not even then). That’s pretty basic stuff you get in second year economics courses.

      It’s an open/empirical question what effect minimum wage hikes have on employment, but it’s not that theoretically implausible (like Kinsley says) that they’d have very small effects.

  2. david mizner says:

    Check out this reasoning:

    Big data has trouble with big problems…For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

    When right-wingers ignore all the data proving them wrong, it’s the data’s fault!

    • david mizner says:

      Whoops I blew the blockquote — the last sentence is mine.

    • JKTHs says:

      It also rings of “both sides do it” even though the data almost entirely supported the Keynesians etc.

    • CD says:

      Plus Brooks clearly has no clue about either macroeconomics or data. The macro arguments about stimulus require relatively little data; they just require an ability to think rigorously about it. “Big data” ( generally means data sets so large, and/or of such high dimensionality, that it’s hard to see what’s in them. That’s not the problem with macroeconomic data.

      It’s this casual throwing around of terms like “huge” that’s infuriating — laziness approaching Richard Cohen levels.

      • Djur says:

        I always have to code-switch when people outside the IT/CS fields use ‘big data’. Inside the tech world, it’s a term of art mostly describing a particular type of problem — ‘big data’ is what you’re dealing with when you’re dealing with such big datasets that you need specialized technology designed for storing and analyzing huge amounts of stuff. Most programmers work with relatively small datasets which can be easily stored on a single consumer-class device and queried in at most a couple of seconds; ‘big data’ is when neither of those are true. So it literally just does mean “a whole shit-ton of data”.

        In the wider context, ‘big data’ seems to mean something more analogous to ‘big oil’, or like what people used to call the ‘information economy’ — businesses based on the storage and analysis of large amounts of data, like Google.

  3. Decrease Mather says:

    A: The most important statistic for a lead-off hitter is stolen bases.

    B: Actually, it’s On Base %.

    A: Nerd!

  4. David Brooks’ head is stuffed with straw.

  5. Tom says:

    So I wore an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time…

  6. Bob says:

    But Warren Harding DID bring real integrity to the White House, damnit!

  7. Joel Patterson says:

    Off on a tangent, but reaction to Brooks’ “data” column sparked some good posts by Kevin Drum and Bob Somerby.

  8. whetstone says:

    I tend to think Gelman doesn’t go far enough:

    Big data has trouble with big problems…. [L]et’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

    Yes, the reason “not a single major player” has changed his or her mind is the clearly the data’s fault. What we need is more ideology.

  9. Bill Murray says:

    Big data has trouble with big problems…. [L]et’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

    Ignoring Republican obstructionism, are we limited to the “best” economic stimulus? or could we use a variety of stimulus methods like we always, rather than argue about what’s best

  10. While you’re defending geeks, it might be a good time to ask somebody to fix the broken script on your site.

  11. Jim says:

    So what’s this guy’s major beef with Star Trek, anyway?

  12. DrDick says:

    David Brooks, dumbing down our political and social discourse since 1996. Muddying the waters and confusing the issues is what he gets paid for. That and dining at the Applebee’s salad bar.

  13. mds says:

    Q: What do you call a grossly overrated pompous ass who repeatedly spouts obfuscatory bullshit for a living, presumes to be an expert on whatever he turns his mind to without any actual grasp of the subject, and gets all huffy and defensive when called on his ignorance and/or mendacity?

    A: Humble.

  14. mark f says:

    Murray Chass, this past Sunday:

    “Did you ever see [Jack Morris] pitch, or do you base your view on numbers?” I asked. “A number did not pitch a shutout in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. Morris did.”

    The e-mailer said he had seen him pitch, and he saw that game. “So?” he added. “Don Larsen’s not in the HOF.”

    Is that the best the anti-Morris forces can do? Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and he’s not in the Hall of Fame?

    Let’s see. Morris had a career record 254-186, Larsen 81-91. Morris pitched 175 complete games and 3,824 innings, Larsen 44 and 1,548. Morris struck out 2,478, Larsen 847.

    Stick around for Morris’s lament about how newfangled stats like “e.r.a.” have messed up the game!

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