Wednesday, May 4, 2011

David Brooks' "The Social Animal"

I enjoyed this book, just as I enjoyed David Brooks' earlier book Bobos in Paradise. But now that I know him better, I struggled with this book more than with the earlier book. I find Brooks' conservatism bothers me. In this book he attacks liberals and libertarians and put forth a kind of conservative agenda that just doesn't ring true for me. The problem is that David Brooks has lived his life among the top 10% of society so this book, which claims to have a main character, Erica, up from the bottom of society who gets ahead in the best traditions of Horatio Alger.

The book follows a man and woman from childhood, through marriage, to death to provide the platform for Brooks to present his social views and what he considers to be the best of "brain research". I have no complaint about the style of using fictional characters to make social observation. He does that well. I enjoyed the storyline. But I just don't buy his "science" and I don't care for his social views.

He holds that modern America has gone off the rails for over 50 years by pushing "freedom" and not looking to "social obligation and social relationships". I'm sympathetic, but ultimately don't buy the argument. I'm more than happy to read criticisms of libertarianism, the dominant right wing ideology of Brooks entire adult life and to which he signed up loyally until sometime late in George Bush's presidency. I came of age in the 60s generation so I'm still quite sympathetic to the ideals of freedom and self actualization that came out of the 1960s.

I understand Brooks' unhappiness with the seedier side of 1960s idealism turned sour. He sees it as "statism" and an attack on the institutions of family, church, and state have created dysfunctional families. I would disagree and say that while state paternalism was dysfunctional (the misguided urban renewal that destroyed communities with sterile Bauhaus functionalist cold concrete high rise "housing" like Chicago's Cabrini-Green). But I view Brooks' romanticization of kind of throwback Kinder, Küche, Kirche. Brooks endows relationships and institutions of the past with more glory than they deserve. He has a Father Knows Best view of perfectly harmonious families before the dissolution of marriage once divorce became easier. Similarly he has a sepia-toned view of institutions which for most of the poor were in fact callous institutions that offered no real help to the dispossessed and down-trodden. He seems to think that people can simply will themselves into a better world in a wonderfully "upwardly mobile" America. The truth is that after 40 years of rampant right wing politics, the US has less social mobility than Europe.

Here are a few snippets to give a flavour of the book. First his attack on rationalist reductionist science in favour a gauzy everything-is-connected-and-complicated view of the world:
Rationalism gained enormous prestige during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it does contain certain limitations and biases. This mode of thought is reductionist; it breaks problems into discrete parts and is blind to emergent systems. This mode, as Guy Claxon observes in his book The Wayward Mind, values explanation over observation. More time is spent solving the problem than taking in the scene. It is purposeful rather than playful. It values the sort of knowledge that can be put into words and numbers over the sort of knowledge that cannot. It seeks rules and principles that can be applied across contexts, and undervalues the importance of specific contexts.

Moreover, the rationalist method was founded upon a series of assumptions. It assumes that social scientists can look at society objectively from the outside, purged of passions and unconscious biases.

It assumes that reasoning can be fully or at least mostly under conscious control.

It assumes that reason is more powerful than and separable from emotion and appetite.

It assumes that perception is a clear lens, giving the viewer a straightforward and reliable view of the world.

It assumes that human action conforms to laws that are akin to the laws of physics, if we can only understand what they are. A company, a nation, a universe -- these are all great machines, operated through immutable patterns of cause and effect. Natural sciences are the model that the behavioral sciences should replicate.

Eventually, rationalism produced its own form of extremism. The scientific revolution led to scientism.
This of course is a completely distorted view. Science isn't "rationalism". Science does build on reason, but it is a community effort that achieves objectivity by relying on the refinement of replicable experiments and a critical community who collaborate to refine thought and experiment into theory that guides further thought and experiment. There is no need to bring in passion, emotion, appetite, etc. Those don't and won't help you build a useful scientific theory.

Even Brooks' rhapsody about emergent systems is misguided because the scientific method is perfectly able to explore and theorize about emergent behaviour. You don't need to get swept up in a romantic anti-rationalist fever to appreciate complexity. Traditional science has been busy for half a century developing theories of complexity and chaotic system, and of emergent phenomena without Brooks telling them how misguided they are in ignoring the unconscious and emotions.

Brooks is right in his attack on the social scientists who have tried too hard to develop a "hard" science. His attack on economics are perfectly correct:
This scientism has expressed itself most powerfully, over the last fifty years years, in the field of economics. Economics did not start out as a purely rationalist enterprise. Adam Smith believed that human beings are driven by moral sentiments and their desire to seek and be worthy of the admiration of others. Thorstein Veblen, Joseph Schumpeter, and Friedrich Hayek expressed themselves through words not formulas. They stressed that economic activity was conducted amidst pervasive uncertainty. Actions are guided by imagination as well as reason. People can experience discontinuous paradigm shifts, suddenly seeing the same situation in radically different ways. John Maynard Keynes argued that economics is a moral science and reality could not be captured in universal laws calculable by mathematics. Economics, he wrote, "deals with introspection and with values... it deals with motives, expectations, psychological uncertainties. One had to be constantly on guard against treating the material as constant and homogeneous."

But over the course of the twentieth century, the rationalist spirit came to dominate economics. Physicists and other hard scientists were achieving great things, and social scientists sought to match their rigor and prestige. The influential economist Irving Fisher wrote his doctoral dissertation under the supervision of a physicist, and later helped build a machine with levers and pumps to illustrate how an economy works. Paul Samuelson applied the mathematical principles of thermodynamics to economics. On the finance side, Emanuel Derman was a physicist who became a financier and played a central role in developing the models for derivatives.

While valuable tools for understanding economic behavior, mathematical models were also like lenses that filtered out certain aspects of human nature. They depended on the notion that people are basically regular and predictable. They assume, as George A. Akerlof and Robert Shiller have written, "that variations in individual feelings, impressions and passions do not matter in the aggregate and their economic events are driven by inscrutable technical factors or erratic government actions."

Within a very short time economists were emphasizing monetary motivations to the exclusion of others. Homo Economicus was separated from Homo Sociologus, Homo Psychologicus, Homo Ethicus, and Homo Romanticus. You ended up with a stick figure of human nature.
I wouldn't put it the way Brooks has. Economics ran off the rails because it fell in love with mathematics and modeling. There is nothing wrong with these tools, but when you allow them to seduce you into assumptions and simplification which fundamentally change your subject of study -- from "man" to "homo economicus" -- then you have problems. But this isn't caused by "scientism". This is simply a community of researchers who fell in love with a theory and its simplifications and got stuck in a rut. Physics and chemistry similarly had periods where they made similar misguided assumptions and strayed into wrong-headed theories.

You can use mathematics and model things that are at heart unpredictable. That is precisely the situation with quantum physics! That people have emotions and are unpredictable doesn't mean economics is impossible. It just means that simplistic homo economicus style theories are inadequate. Brooks gets it all wrong when he claims that "mathematical models filter out aspects of human nature". The math doesn't do that. Math is simply a tool. It is the theorist using the math that does that. Brooks has profoundly misunderstood the nature of science, math, modeling, and theory building.

Finally, here is a taste of his thesis that "freedom" of the 1960s hippies and the 1980s libertarians ran America off the rails because it overlooks relationships and institutions:
...the cognitive revolution had the potential to upend these individualistic political philosophies, and the policy approaches that grew from them. The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships. The health of a society is determined by the health of these relationships, not by the extent to which it maximizes individual choice.

Therefore, freedom should not be the ultimate end of politics. The ultimate focus of political activity is the character of the society. Political, religious, and social institutions influence the unconscious choice architecture undergirding behavior. They can either create settings that nurture virtuous choices or they can create settings that undermine them. While the rationalist era put the utility-maximizing individual at the center of political thought, the next era... would put the health of social networks at the center of thought. One era was economo-centric. The next would be socio-centric.
I would say that Brooks is guilty of the sin of all great system builders: he oversimplifies. It is not "freedom" versus "relationships". It is both. You need a certain conservatism in society, a respect for relationship, but you also need to give people freedom to realize their potential and the ability to politically organize and overthrow oppressive institutions and outdated hierarchies.

Brooks is too conservative. His lauding "the focus of political activity is the character of the society" sounds too fascistic for my taste. I admire institutions, but they are not the goal. Times change so institutions and relationships must change. He fails to appreciate the balance that is needed between individual, family, and institutions. This is a complex dance that is ever-changing through history. We no longer live under patriarchal families. We no longer have institutionalized aristocracies. Things change.

On the whole, the book is enjoyable and does make you think. But it is too easy to simply fall into Brooks' trap and accept his argument uncritically. You need to question every page. He has insights worth digesting, but don't let Brooks become a spider who quickly rolls you up in the webbing he spins to trap you into his viewpoint.


thomas said...


Thank you for this review. I caught part of a a talk by Brooks on TV recently and wanted to hear more, but when asked by the boys, who is this? I responded with his name and that I didn't tend to agree with or like him much. But, I found his talk very captivating and wanted to hear more and was left with the desire to read the book. When I get time, I still want to read his book, and your review here helps a lot. The book would cause a lot of discussion and thought, and I think that would be the value in reading it or any of Brooks' writing.

RYviewpoint said...

Thomas: Yes, it is always valuable to read all points of view. You never know when you might be persuaded to change your viewpoint! The only time I refuse to read something I don't agree with is if it is poorly written, poorly thought out, or is obnoxious in its content.

I've always liked David Brooks even when I don't agree with him. Life is more nuanced than our simplifications allow us to hold in our head, so it is always good to get feedback from viewpoints that differ to help us realize that our views need to be more complex that we may like.

The only problem with reading/listening to other viewpoints comes when they have a silver tongue or a charismatic personality that gets you on a subconscious level and sweeps you away. The one reason why I respect a conservative viewpoint is that when you embed people in institutions, the rigidity of the institution can keep people from being swept up by some demagogue. At least that is the theory.

In practice, even conservatives get swept away by silver-tongued foxes. I worked with a woman from southern Germany, Bavaria, who bowled me over once by telling me that Hitler "wasn't so bad". She liked his economic policies but didn't like the wars he launched. Her family was conservative Catholic. You would have thought that the Catholic church would have provided the institutional rigidity to protect people from the seductions of Hitler. But it didn't. The Catholic church quietly partnered with Hitler.

So I'm torn in many directions. We need to take responsibility for our lives, but nobody has time to be informed about everything. We can't listen to "all" viewpoints then decide. But at the same time we need to be open to new viewpoints. In short, as in most of life, there is no "ultimate" answer. We thread the needle of life as best we can.

Enjoy the Brooks book. I enjoyed it. It is a little odd because he runs through two people's lives but rather than be historically correct he uses the present at all stages. So when he talks of their youth, he treats them like the iPod youth of today. When he has them as young adults getting married, he treats them as the thirtysomethings of today partying and waiting to get married at 30. Etc. In other words, he doesn't go back to the 1940s/50s for details of their childhood, or the 1960s/70s for their young adulthood. He is making social commentary on today's society so they live their 80+ years "running in place" today. It is a little odd, but it makes the "story" more relevant.