Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

Culture, Economy, Education, Media, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

Mark Twain, like an twitter journalist claiming their child wondered how we could entrust the nuclear codes to a man who doesn’t understand the Triad, attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the now-famous saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But I tend to take a less charitable view of the misapplication of statistical evidence in the pursuit of Trend Journalism. I am in the Harry G. Frankfurt school on this; I consider it less a lie than a more pernicious type of bullshit. The liar uses untruth intentionally and instrumentally, but she recognizes the difference between the lie and the truth—in fact, a precise appreciation of truth is necessary for a good lie. But the bullshitter makes no categorical distinction; the bullshitter collapses the categories. The bullshitter is a sort of sub-Nietzschian superman, beyond truth or fiction.

So we find in this recent Times piece, where a few grumbling, mostly older male alumni of certain exceedingly selective and prestigious undergraduate institutions have told our reporter that they will no longer give generously to their alma maters where, as I’m sure you can already imagine, they are shocked and horrified by a benighted culture of political correctness.

Students are too wrapped up in racial and identity politics. They are allowed to take too many frivolous courses. They have repudiated the heroes and traditions of the past by judging them by today’s standards rather than in the context of their times. Fraternities are being unfairly maligned, and men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations. And university administrations have been too meek in addressing protesters whose messages have seemed to fly in the face of free speech.

College protest is as old as college, and whatever you think of the apparently extreme sensitivities of today’s students—I tend to be amused rather than threatened—by and large, it’s salutary for students to flex their new political muscles over topics that, while silly to us old folk, are deeply meaningful to them. Student housing, campus dining, the content and delivery of course material—these are at least as important, as fundamentally life-altering, to a third-year undergrad than, say, the carried interest tax exemption to a hedge fund manager. Speaking of which:

“I don’t think anything has damaged Yale’s brand quite like that,” said [Scott C.] Johnston, a founder of an internet start-up and a former hedge fund manager. “This is not your daddy’s liberalism.”

The that that Mr. Johnson is referring to here is the much-publicized and briefly infamous “Yale student who was videotaped screaming at a professor, Nicholas Christakis, that he had failed ‘to create a place of comfort and home’ for students in his capacity as the head of a residential college.” But I’m more interested in Your Daddy’s Liberalism. Mr. Johnson “graduated from Yale in 1982,” placing his birth date at roughly 1960, meaning that the Daddy Liberalism these-kids-today have viciously traduced with their signs and chants is no more or less than the precise political values of one Mr. Scott C. Johnson himself. What did we used to say at my prestigious, selective, not-at-all-representative-of-the-vast-majority-of-institutions-of-higher-learning institution of higher learning? The personal is the political? Huh.

Having discovered a small band of wandering anecdotes, the reporter must fence them in with empirical evidence, and this is where the 1-year variations in annual giving and participation are carefully deployed to suggest struggles where none really exist.

At Princeton, where protesters unsuccessfully demanded the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from university buildings and programs, undergraduate alumni donations dropped 6.6 percent from a record high the year before, and participation dropped 1.9 percentage points, according to the university’s website. A Princeton spokesman, John Cramer, said there was no evidence the drop was connected to campus protests.

So. A one-time drop from a “record high” with no prior period information to contextualize the multi-year and multi-decade trends is correlated by implication with a campus protest to which in the same paragraph we are told that there is no evidence of a connection. Oh by the way, in 2015, Princeton’s overall endowment earned 12.7% or $1.7 billion dollars, to reach an overall value of $22.7 billion. Yale, Mr. Johnson’s struggling little scrapper, runs what may be the world’s most successful venture capital fund and has an overall endowment of $25.57 billion.

Not every college is Yale, but even at poor, grotty little Amherst we find an almost identical story:

At Amherst, the amount of money given by alumni dropped 6.5 percent for the fiscal year that ended June 30, and participation in the alumni fund dropped 1.9 percentage points, to 50.6 percent, the lowest participation rate since 1975, when the college began admitting women, according to the college. The amount raised from big donors decreased significantly. Some of the decline was because of a falloff after two large reunion gifts last year, according to Pete Mackey, a spokesman for Amherst.

You do have to love an article that unironically notes that dudes once stopped giving because they let in the chicks and now will stop giving because “men are being demonized by sexual assault investigations.” But once again, I’m more focused on the figures. Once again, we see a sharp but single-year decline coming off a big reunion year: reunion-year giving always spikes high. What is the 10-year-trend? Who knows?

This story is bullshit in the true, philosophical sense of the term: utterly unconcerned with truth. There may or may not be an interesting story about alumni giving at elite institutions, but you couldn’t tell either way from this farrago of bad information and missing context. And as I’ve observed before and will surely observe again, there’s a small shame and a big shame here. The small shame is that some reporter wrote this. The larger shame is that an editorial staff approved it and permitted its publication.

9 thoughts on “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It

  1. The drop off was nearly identical at the two institutions. Why it’s almost like larger economic forces were at play.
    Nah, that bitch said I was supporting patriarchy.

  2. Glad to see you writing more prose here, Jacob. Always a treat.

    My favourite laugh-out-loud use of statistics to say nothing is from this article in The Walrus, Canada’s adorable excuse for a literary magazine, from several years ago when I tried out a trial subscription (I did not re-up):

    “At the time of this writing, the US government’s best estimate is that the corn harvest will be less than 11 billion bushels, putting 2012 among the four worst harvests in a decade.”

    So… 2012 is a food crisis year, because that year’s harvest was at the 40th percentile for recent harvests? I guess the author must have grown up in Lake Wobegon.


  3. All statements are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.

  4. i don’t know what the NYT or alum donors are bitching about. some of these overblown grievance factories are the future Samantha Powers & Condi Rices. slight change in the direction of the outrage, & they’ll have us bombing S. Sudan in no time.

  5. Do you ever get the impression that some of these articles are basically built to order around the particular gripes of the one or two hedge fund managers (or whatever) quoted in the article? Connected in some way to the publisher or author, who wishes to curry favor in some hope of keeping a justifiably dying medium afloat. Like a medieval patron painted in miniature, kneeling and pious, into the corner of a religious tableau.

  6. College protest is as old as college

    No. It is as old as the Port Huron Statement (1962). It took a long time for the left to realize that the university was “an overlooked seat of influence”. But since then… things have changed. Change! Oh change!

    May you live in interesting times!

  7. At the heart of it, I have some broad agreement with the author’s clear biases. Education, properly understood, is INsensitivity training. One learns methods of thinking and analysis to identify causal relationships that may not accord with one’s own wishes or the interests of one’s own group(s). The emphasis on eternal sensitivity turns toxic very quickly.

    But rather than make this point directly, the author casts about for some kind of morality tale where our wealthy “betters” see the enormity of our collective sin, and then punish us for this sin by withholding their precious dollars. This is part of the toxic culture of the New York Times. They don’t make the honest case against the excesses of campus leftism; they just make some infantile appeal to authority. And yes, as Jacob points out, now they use “data-driven” journalism, which apparently consists of cherry-picking data points around a narrative. This, of course, contains none of the discipline of actual analysis, and is simply an exceptionally boring form of myth-making.

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