People are telling me that David Brooks’s New York Times column of last Thursday, “The Harlem Miracle,” was the most emailed article last week.
If this is true, I weep. The thing is just a big sticky blob of wishful thinking.
“In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.”
I hereby nominate that as the most whopping and shameless non sequitur of last week. Promise Academy’s results would have eliminated the black-white achievement gap only if a control group of white students had been subjected to precisely the same intensive learning and behavior-modification environment, with no consequent improvement in their test scores. Of course this was not done. If it had been done, the no-consequent-improvement outcome is a priori pretty improbable … but since it wasn’t, we really don’t know.
Teenage girls have less upper-body strength than teenage boys. If you were to select off a group of girls and give them a couple of years’ intensive weight training, you might indeed eliminate the upper-body-strength gap between those particular girls and the New York City average for their male coevals. See?
I have mulled over the David Brooks problem before on this site. Such a bright guy, author of such fascinating books of social observation, such a witty and engaging speaker, yet such an innumerate numbskull in this one zone.
It more and more seems to me that the ability to engage dispassionately with cold facts is pretty thinly spread among Homo sap., and even those of us who have any of it don’t have much, and the little we have is concentrated in certain areas of our attention, not in others. As I said in that previous piece:
The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, and social. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the esteem of our peers. For most people, wanting to know the truth about the world is way, way down the list.
For a cold-eyed look at Brooks’s piece from a researcher who’s spent his whole working life in these thickets, see Charles Murray on the AEI blog here.