It’s nice that David Brooks tries to approach things scientifically

but it’d be even better if he didn’t suck at it.

His latest NY Times column uses trends in the use of various words over time, measured from Google’s NGram data set, as evidence that certain social changes have occurred. Here’s his first main point:

The first element in this story is rising individualism. A study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.

That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded.

Similarly, Brooks claims, trends in the use of various words indicate the “demoralization” and “governmentalization” of society: apparently we don’t talk about morals and values anymore, and we  talk more about government.

Coincidentally, these are three of Brooks’s favorite social ills to wring his hands over.

And of course that’s the problem. There are tons of things you could choose to measure, and it’s very easy to convince yourself that you’re seeing evidence for those things you already thought were true. I don’t see any way to turn this sort of playing around into a controlled study, so I don’t see any reason to take this seriously.

Brooks, to his credit, acknowledges this problem. Here’s the last paragraph of his piece:

Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.

The first half of this paragraph, it seems to me, could be summarized as “Never mind all the stuff above.”  Then the second half, citing precisely no evidence, says “But it’s all true anyway.”

Here’s a little illustration of the confirmation-bias problem. For each of Brooks’s three points, I can easily show you similar data that suggest the opposite. In some cases, these are Brooks’s own word choices, for which I can’t reproduce the trends he claims exist. For others, they’re different words with similar valences that show trends opposite to those he claims.

Point 1: we’re more individualized and less community-oriented.

Here are two of the words Brooks claims illustrate this:

See how these have plummeted?

Also, you’d think that along with this trend toward indiviualism we’d be less family-oriented:

Point 2: We don’t talk about morality.

But apparently we do talk about ethics.

Point 3: Government is taking over.

I’m not actually claiming that any of Brooks’s claimed trends is false, just that this is a more than usually silly way of thinking about them. Words come in and out of fashion. Maybe the fact that we talk about morals less and ethics more is telling us something about ourselves as a society, but maybe it’s just linguistic drift.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!