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Daily Howler: Understandably, Brooks believe in the experts. Too bad they're constantly wrong
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IN THE EXPERTS! Understandably, Brooks believe in the experts. Too bad they’re constantly wrong: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, MARCH 23, 2009

A passion for spontaneity: Chris Matthews won’t be running for the Senate, Bill Carter reports, a bit belatedly, in today’s New York Times. In the following passage, we thought the talker sketched an insightful self-portrait:

CARTER (3/23/09): [Matthews] said he had held a lifelong love affair with the Senate...“To be a senator was the greatest thing in the world.''

He modified that view [last year] as he examined the current role of senators, which, he said, has become dominated by raising funds. And he came to question, he said, whether he had at least one prerequisite for a political career.

''Every great guy has three things,'' Mr. Matthews said. ''Motive, passion and spontaneity. Clearly I had the final two. But motive? I would say to my wife, 'When the tough calls come, I would do the right thing. I would check the Constitution.' And she would go, 'What do you want to do?' I didn't have that drive to do particular things.”

Matthews is filled with passion—but passion for what? When his wife asked him, he had to admit. There’s nothing about which he cares.

By the way, the liberal world’s silence has created this framework—it’s now set in stone—about the past sixteen years:

CARTER: Supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton accused him of being overly tough on their candidate during the Democratic primaries. He said at one point that she owed her political career to the fact that her husband had ''messed around'' and later apologized, saying the remarks had been ''nasty'' and ''callous.”

In fact, this influential talker trashed both Clintons, and especially Candidate Gore, over the course of a great many years. In the history-changing twenty months of Campaign 2000, no one trashed Gore in a crazier fashion. But liberals agreed—have continued to agree—to keep their traps shut about this misconduct. According to Carter, Matthews may have been “overly tough” on one of the three. For perhaps one year.

In this way, the liberal world has insisted on misinforming the public—to the other side’s advantage.

The hot tub and the vegetable garden: We don’t necessarily disagree with the thrust of Maureen Dowd’s latest column. But no one’s more comically clueless than Dowd, even when she hits on something which may be right. We treated ourselves to a good solid laugh when we read this small chunk of her column:

DOWD (3/22/09): Now that Mr. Obama has made $8,605,429 on his books—including $500,000 for letting his memoir be condensed into a kids’ book—maybe he’s lost touch with his hole-in-the-shoe, hole-in-the-Datsun, have-not roots.

Look who’s talking, we mordantly quipped. Then we let ourselves throw back our heads and enjoy one more solid laugh.

By the way: Who but Obama would ever dream of accepting pay for a children’s book? The answer, of course, is everyone. But so this big famous scribe snarks.

Dowd starts her piece with trenchant thoughts about the Obamas’ new vegetable garden. (And about Michelle Obama’s “sinewy arms.”) But then, the lady has always had a strong sense of what belongs where at the White House. In 1997, Vile Clinton installed a (donated) hot tub—and this tribune of the Average Joe quickly swung into action. “Call me crazy,” she said at the start of her piece. Sadly, after reading that column, nobody would have bothered:

DOWD (8/23/97): Call me crazy, but I had a funny feeling that I was never going to be invited to the President's hot tub. Michael McCurry, the White House press secretary, had said it belonged to the American public, so I considered just showing up one night at the northwest gate of the White House with flippers, a sand bucket and a towel.

My dermatologist, Tina Alster, was alarmed at the prospect. "Haven't you ever heard of hot tub folliculitis?" she asked. “It's an organism that causes an itchy, bumpy rash on hair follicles. And the President, who has to worry about rosacea, that Jimmy Durante, W. C. Fields red-nose thing, should not be aggravating his blood vessels in a hot tub."

But then I came to California, home of hydrotherapy, aromatherapy, all therapy, and indeed, home of the President's Hot Spring Grandee seven-seater with 31 massaging jets, and I couldn't resist dropping by the showroom of the manufacturer that donated the hot tub to the National Park Service. I wanted a test soak, as they say.

I took some friends along so we could float a few theories about the iconic meaning of Bill Clinton installing a hot tub on the South Lawn—Jerry Nachman, the former New York Post editor who now works in TV; Dee Dee Myers, the former White House press secretary who now lives in L.A. and works at Vanity Fair; Barbara Hower, author and TV personality; Rebecca Liss, a reporter for The Los Angeles Daily Journal, and Mickey Kaus, a magazine writer.

Memorize the names of Dowd’s friends. Learn to dismiss them completely.

This nonsense occurred before these dopes got Miss Lewinsky to play with. In part, your country is in the shape it’s in because this tribune of the people clowned her way through the Clinton-Gore years in this remarkable fashion. Gore’s bald spot was next. (“Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating,” she wrote on the day, in June 1999, when Candidate Gore was making his formal campaign launch.)

A bit later in yesterday’s column, Dowd conspiratorially snarked that Tim Geithner “grew up as a Republican.” But then again, so did Dowd! Dowd is an expert at sniffing bad faith—from her spot on one of Dear Jack’s shag rugs, inside the high walls of Versailles.

The earlobe monologues: As we reviewed that hot tub column, a question popped into our heads: How many times has Dowd’s dermatologist, Tina Alster, appeared in the lady’s column?

Our answer: According to Nexis, Alster made three appearances in Dowd’s columns in the worst of the “call me crazy” years, from 1997 through 2001.

Her first appearance came earlier in 1997, when Dowd was pondering the ways her beloved Average Josephines can keep themselves looking young. “I dimly recall a time when women talked about books, plays and politics,” she simpered at the start of her piece. “Now all we talk about is skin.”

Frankly, we’ve noticed. Before long, Alster appeared:

DOWD (3/22/97): Dr. Alster, the author of "Cosmetic Laser Surgery," is a glamorous blonde in Chanel whose motto is "Natural, shmatural."

"In D.C., everybody wants to be a natural beauty," she says. "People always ask me, 'Have you had anything done?' I say, 'Of course I have! Who do you think we try out these lasers on?' I've had peels. I've had the bikini hair-removal laser."

On this day, the 37-year-old has just had an injection of Botox. The toxin that causes botulism also relaxes the muscles that cause a frown. But you mustn't let the toxin drip down, where it could immobilize your eyeballs. "You just can't bend over to try on shoes for a few hours," Dr. Alster says, sitting up straight.

She guards against overkill—women "wanting Daffy Duck lips," she says, or fixating on earlobe wrinkles. "Some people have hideously wrinkled faces and they're worried about these creases in their earlobes because God forbid their diamonds should be next to their wrinkles.” (Or, God forbid, the diamond should drop into a wrinkle.) “You can't get so caught up in this stuff that you get sucked down the drain.”

How about women wanting Daffy Duck columns? At the Times, such desire is assumed.

More Alster. By 2001, Dowd was pondering “abattoir betes noires,” and the exciting new work of the McGhan Medical Corporation. No, her goal wasn’t health care reform. Deferring to established authority, she let Alster have the last word:

DOWD (4/11/01): McGhan also has a biogenetically engineered human collagen waiting for F.D.A. approval that may eventually supersede bovine collagen. The foreskin of one infant boy—the son of a company executive, according to Dr. Klein—will be engineered into a supply that will replicate endlessly and provide lips, etc., for women all over the world ad infinitum. A bris to remember.

But until women can start injecting infant-boy foreskin into their faces, they must confront the specter of being quarantined if they start drooling and slobbering [a reference to mad cow disease].

Tina Alster, a Washington dermatologist who gives herself bovine collagen injections, is calm.

"I would rather be among the quarantined than on the outside of the ring," she says. "Let everyone else look horrible."

A few months later, Chandra Levy’s murder gave this gang another way to kill time till Osama struck. This is the way your “press corps” simpered during the transition years.

Yesterday, the lady was smacking Vile Obama for losing track of his Average Joe roots. She might even have had a point. But we’re often amazed when we take a look back at the ludicrous way we all got here.

Special report: David Brooks believes!

Read each thrilling installment: When it comes to public schools, David Brooks believes. Read each thrilling installment:

Part 1: David Brooks believes in Obama’s agenda. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/17/09.

Part 2: David Brooks believes in the power of tests. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/18/09.

Part 3: David Brooks believes in higher standards. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/19/09.

Today, we conclude our report:

PART 4—IN THE EXPERTS: In his column about Obama’s education agenda, David Brooks quoted Arne Duncan—and Duncan made some remarkable statements. Perhaps because Brooks doesn’t really know schools, he didn’t quite explain what they meant:

BROOKS (3/13/09): The problem is that as our ability to get data has improved, the education establishment’s ability to evade the consequences of data has improved, too. Most districts don’t use data to reward good teachers. States have watered down their proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.

As Education Secretary Arne Duncan told me, “We’ve seen a race to the bottom. States are lying to children. They are lying to parents. They’re ignoring failure, and that’s unacceptable. We have to be fierce.”

“States are lying to parents,” Duncan said (though Brooks doesn’t seem to have asked him how many). And this process is part of a “race to the bottom.” Those are very striking remarks. But what did the new Ed Sec mean?

Presumably, Duncan refers to these unnamed states’ proficiency tests—not so much to the particular curriculum standards a state may prescribe for its fifth or sixth grade. There are at least two ways a state can “lie to parents” through those tests—can “water down [its] proficiency standards so parents think their own schools are much better than they are.”

In the simplest sense, a state can create a set of tests which are quite easy to pass. If fifth-graders reading on third-grade level get ranked “proficient” on a state’s fifth-grade reading test, parents may get a false impression of how well their schools are doing.

In another sense, a state could make its proficiency tests easier from one year to the next. Most schools’ passing rates would increase—but only because the test was now easier. Here too, parents could get a false impression—the impression that their schools are improving when they actually aren’t.

What exactly did Duncan mean when he made those striking remarks? How many states was he talking about? Which ones—and how are they “lying?” There’s no real way to tell from Brooks’ column. Like many major pundits, Brooks doesn’t seem especially well-versed in these issues. There’s no reason why he should be, of course—but he’s comfortable telling us who the heros are (the “reformers”), and he’s comfortable naming familiar villains (the “education establishment,” “liberal orthodoxy”). In short, Brooks seems comfortable with familiar scripts—but how well does he actually know his subject? His failure to clarify Duncan’s remark is maddening to the extreme.

For ourselves, we’ll leave the L-word to Duncan. But can a state grossly mislead its parents by watering down its proficiency tests? Of course that can happen—and Duncan offered some truly striking remarks. But though Brooks believes, he doesn’t quite know—and he failed to ask the obvious questions. How many states have lied? Which ones? Duncan’s answers would have been major news. But there is no sign Duncan was asked.

We were especially struck bu Duncan’s remarks, because we’ve discussed these types of issues for many years, long predating THE HOWLER. And then, there’s that recent, striking case involving the state of Virginia. In 2006, we did several months of work at this site concerning the way the state of Virginia was misstating its test scores—its school-by-school passing rates. (Before we were done, the head of the state school board had acknowledged the state’s error.) Virginia’s parents really had been grossly misled. But David Brooks didn’t wrote about that—and neither did anyone else.

David Brooks seems to believe in the experts; he recited a good deal of their familiar cant all through his education piece. We thought it might be worth remembering how the experts (and the major journalists) behaved when it turned out that a major state had been faking its passing rates—had faked them so badly that the Washington Post got fooled by the con, right at the top of page one.

Long story short: Virginia had adopted a crackpot method for reporting elementary school passing rates. We became aware of the scam after the Post praised a small, low-income Alexandria school right at the top of page one. How bad was Virginia’s reporting system? This bad: At this small school, only five of its 19 third-graders had passed the state’s third-grade reading test. (At the time, Virginia was only testing third- and fifth-graders. Fourth- and sixth-graders weren’t tested.) At the third-grade level, this constituted the second-lowest passing rate in the whole state of Virginia! But uh-oh! While only five of 19 third-graders had passed, the state had reported—incorrectly—that seventeen of 19 had passed. And uh-oh! Failing to notice the statistical anomalies occurring in this school’s complete data, the Washington Post had taken the bait. In reality, this school had the second-lowest passing rate in the entire state of Virginia at one of the two grade levels tested. But there it sat, at the top of page one, praised as an inspiring, high-scoring school! The school was “a study in pride, progress,” the Post headline said. For links to past reports, see below.

(How did this gross misreporting occur? This particular school had 19 third-graders; only five passed the reading test. But so what? Twelve fourth-graders were given the third-grade test and passed it; the state thus reported that seventeen students had passed the third-grade test, in a school which had nineteen third-graders. In this way, 5 out of 19 was magically transformed, and this floundering school ended up on page one, headlined as “a study in progress.” No, we really aren’t making this up—and yes, this was the state’s standard procedure; it inflated passing rates all over the state. Just how crazy was this system? The state even had a rule about what to do if more than 100 percent of a school’s students passed some particular test. Schools should round it down to 100 percent, the state instructed—thereby hiding the sheer absurdity of its inexcusable procedures.)

This Alexandria school sits minutes from Washington—in a region which teems with “educational experts” and top education reporters. But none of these “experts” had ever noticed the groaning problem with the way Virginia was reporting its passing rates—and we never saw any experts mention the problem after we revealed it. (After the head of the state school board acknowledged the depth of the problem.) Nope! None of these “experts” had ever noticed the truly clownish procedures which led to this particular bungle—even though these procedures were producing bogus passing rates at schools all over the state. None of these “experts” noticed the problem, even after Virginia’s second-lowest-scoring elementary school appeared at the top of the Post’s front page.

None of the “experts” noticed; we did. What explains that anomaly?

Actually, the answer is fairly simple. We noticed the problem because we aren’t rubes—because we aren’t the dumbest people on earth. We had learned long ago—many decades ago—not to trust the feel-good stories about public schools which often adorn our front pages. We had learned, decades ago, to take a second look at the data behind such claims. We had learned that you mustn’t trust pleasing claims of the type which sat atop that front page. We had learned the oldest saw in the book: When a story’s too good to be true, it often isn’t.

We had first learned that in the early 1970s. Thirty-five years later, the Washington Post still didn’t know—and neither did a capital city of “experts.” And oh yes: These are the “experts” to whose wisdom Brooks largely deferred in his column about public schools. When he offered his vague but familiar claims about who the villains are.

In large part, Brooks was reciting the views of the experts—the experts who failed to notice Virginia’s problem, even after we revealed it. Like so many modern elites, these “experts” work from expert scripts. They refuse to tell you the truth.

In 2006, it was actually true: The state of Virginia was grossly deceiving its parents about the success of their schools. Passing rates were inflated all over the state, thanks to the craziest bureaucratic procedure we’ve ever seen, in any area.

In his column, Brooks expressed his concern about the terrible problem Duncan cited. You see, Brooks seems to believe in the experts—and this is one of their high-minded scripts. We were quite struck by Duncan’s remarks, because we recalled what Virginia had done. Because Brooks seems to believe a bit too truly, he might want to review what the experts did when a “lie” of this type was revealed.

In fairness, you can’t blame Brooks for believing the experts. By one common standard of reckoning, when the experts all say the same thing, their high-minded notions should be believed. Over the years, though, we’ve learned something different: Whenever the experts all say the same thing, you can safely assume that they’re wrong.

By the way: Virginia’s groaning act of deception should have been major news. But your newspapers simply refused to report it. In Duncan’s argot, the state of Virginia had lied to its parents. Then your exceptionally high-minded newspapers lied to those parents again.

Brooks has never heard about his. As his “experts” whistled and cheered, his “press corps” chose not to report it.

Visit our incomparable archives: On February 2, 2006, the school in question hit the top of the Post’s front page. By March 23, the head of the state school board had acknowledged the state’s (groaning) error.

For a summary of this nonsense, with links to previous work, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/20/06. In that post, we discuss a column which appeared on this topic. For a working link to that column, click here. (You’ll encounter a somewhat standard procedure. Make snide remarks about the non-journalist—before you note that he was right.)

The next week, we spoke with Kirk Shroder, a Richmond lawyer who was president of the Virginia Department of Education during the period when this program was enacted. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/23/06. Shroder told us—and we believe him—that he hadn’t understood the problem involved with these procedures. Obviously, though, the state department was full of professionals who knew this whole thing was a scam.

Was Duncan referring to this sort of thing? We don’t know. Nobody asked him.