David Brooks and the Social Automaton

David Brooks and the Social Automaton March 13, 2011

After reading my slam on David Brooks’s The Social Animal, Dylan had some objections:

“Other than the fact that it’s terribly, terribly written and completely expository (it makes the Emile, on which it is clearly modeled, look like an actual novel by comparison), what’s so “yikes” about the exact passage you excerpted? Can you really be such a HP&TMoR fan/transhumanist and also think that treating so-called “cognitive biases” as limitations to be overcome is tantamount to “unweaving the rainbow”? I agree that David Brooks’s (I know you’ll be crotchety about that, too, but it’s actually the older convention for non-plural possessives when the word ends with an S) broader conception of happiness and fulfillment seems pretty bankrupt, but I don’t see how this passage illustrates that.”

I want to start by clearing up one serious misconception: I do not object to the possessive of Brooks being Brooks’s, in fact, I vastly prefer it to Brooks’.  Now on to the content.

One of my objections to Brooks is that ‘unweaving the rainbow’ is only ok if you know what you’re doing.  Brooks tends to overstate the science he cites.  The review today at The New York Times disapprovingly references this tendency as follows:

“Brooks seems willing to take seriously any claim by a cognitive scientist, however idiotic: for example, that since people need only 4,000 words for 98 percent of conversations, the reason they have vocabularies of 60,000 words is to impress and sort out potential mates.”

Brooks’s is willing to simplify complex phenomena past what the data and theories will bear.  In my head, I was using the phrase ‘unweaving the rainbow’ to mean discarding what you can’t explain, refusing to acknowledge the whole for fear of revealing the weaknesses of the model.  Now that I’ve gone to look at the origin of the phrase (an accusation by John Keats against Isaac Newton), I can see it’s not a good fit for my critique.  Keats meant to indict Newton and other scientists for spoiling things with any attempt at explanation.  A poor choice of phrase on my part.

My larger objection to Brooks, and the reason I would not put him in the HP&TMoR fan/transhumanist camp, is that he presents a great deal of data and doesn’t want to do much of anything with it.  He goes over priming and other discoveries of evolutionary psychology to make it clear our rational minds have less control over us than we think.  But, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t outline any measures we can take to wrest this power back.

This is a major contrast with the folks at Less Wrong, who turn explanation into tools for engineering.  Brooks seems satisfied with describing some factors underlying the status quo.  It’s interesting to know that holding a warm drink may spur me to have warmer feelings; it’s useful for me to grab a hot chocolate before I go to meet someone I know I habitually treat uncharitably.

As far as I can tell from reviews, Brooks’s characters narrate their psychology to themselves but never try to shape it.  (I’m not planning to buy the book, given the reviews, but I’ll browse through it in the bookstore when I get back to campus and let you know if I’m wrong about this).  The NYT hypothesized that Brooks’s avatars never act because they have no telos:

“Life, morality and politics are not science, but their improvement requires thought — not only thought about the most effective means of shaping people, which is Brooks’s concern, but thought about what our ends should be. Such questions don’t appeal to him, since they cannot be settled by empirical evidence of the kind he feels comfortable with.”

I don’t know if the reviewer’s complaint is accurate about Brooks’s beliefs, but the fact that this book keeps prompting this reaction strengthens my discomfort.  Whether Brooks meant to or not, he seems to have written a sterile, simplistic book on human behavior that continues to turn people off.  Fostering that distaste is a disservice to science, to transhumanism, and to the pursuit of human virtue.

P.S. Interested in thinking some more about problems of being human?  Christian from The Thinking Grounds just posted part 2 of his series on the boundaries of Self and Body.

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  • There are people who think it should be "Brooks'"?Heathens.I might be amenable to only PRONOUNCING the s once.To my knowledge Jesus' name is the only exception.

  • Also: "One of my objections to Brooks is that 'unweaving the rainbow' is only ok if you know what you're doing." Yes. A thousand times yes.A master can choose his disciple, but a book cannot choose its reader!I have read snippets of reviews of this book here and there. So far I can tell it would either horrify or enrage me. Possibly both. And then make me sad (because everything always ends in sadness and mourning).

  • If you're going to be a grammar snob (and I have no problem with that), try to avoid being one in a sentence which commits a comma splice:"I do not object to the possessive of Brooks being Brooks's, in fact, I vastly prefer it to Brooks'."

  • Hoist on my own petard!Out of curiosity, what is the reason that comma splices (and this one in particular) are ungrammatical? I read the wikipedia page, but I can't tell why they're objectionable. Is this a prescriptivist objection like the ban on split infinitives? My mom still dings me for them, but Steven Pinker gave me permission.

  • That is a good question. (Translation: I have no clue.) Incidentally, I am coming around to the opinion that most (not all) grammar is a prescriptivist objection, so maybe my days as a grammar snob are numbered. (I'm not in Steven Pinker territory, though.) Comma splices are annoying because there's so many easy solutions to them, so it's not like you can get out of it by saying that it "sounds better that way." I'm sure a period or a conjunction aren't going to ruin anything for anyone. However, I can't come up with a good reason for it. Sentences aren't as rigourously structured by commas as some folks think, so there shouldn't be a problem… I think I'll check that wikipedia page you linked.

  • OK, that (the wikipedia page) was a terrible explanation. Grr. And I know I'm going to have to mark "comma splice" on half of the papers I'm grading, even though I don't know why I'm doing so.

  • "One of my objections to Brooks is that 'unweaving the rainbow' is only ok if you know what you're doing… This is a major contrast with the folks at Less Wrong, who turn explanation into tools for engineering. Brooks seems satisfied with describing some factors underlying the status quo."Thanks for clarifying; I (as you know) certainly agree with this. I was responding to the particular passage you excerpted, but if the rest of the book is as Gladwell-y in its use of science/social science as the NYT review suggests, I suspect it would horrify me as much as it horrified you.

  • TRANSHUMANISM QUESTION:So, we have established that if, in fact, holding warm beverages makes you nicer, going out of your way to find a warm beverage before interacting with an annoying person is acceptable to you. Seems fairly reasonable, though (I think) clearly in a closer-to-ideal world we wouldn't need such crutches, but we all of us bear far heavier sins than leaning on chocolate from time to time, for whatever reason.What if there was a drug that made you kinder, more charitable, more forgiving? Let's say even that it has some negative side effects– how about all the side effects of amphetamines, drugs commonly prescribed to treat psychology/behavior (as opposed to the way, say, morphine treats the body, or even how antibiotics treat infections– hopefully the distinction I'm making is clear?).From my perspective, it seems obvious that it's wrong to take the drug. I'm wondering if you agree? My "conclusion" is also way more intuitive than logical. It's not as though the drug eradicates free will– it's kind of like soft paternalism, but in your head. Does that meaningfully devalue our moral agency, and does an atheist care if it achieves her ends?

  • Sarah

    Answer to the comma splice question: the problem is that you can't randomly connect two independent sentences without a colon or semicolon. Commas are usually no good because the point of commas is to separate parts of sentences (dependent clauses and phrases), not things that could be whole sentences (independent clauses). Imagine the sentence without the "in fact" and it should be clearer why it's weird.Obviously it's prescriptivist too; but it makes more sense than the split-infinitive ban; I think: because it has to do with giving each kind of punctuation a different structural purpose, complex sentences are more readable that way.Also, that was possibly the worst New Yorker piece I've seen in four years of subscribing. I have no idea who could make it through the whole book.