bobos in numberland

In the course of promoting his pop psychology treatise, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011), David Brooks has been disseminating the claim that 94 or 95 percent of professors in America say that they are above average in teaching skills. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.) The browsing functionality of permits all interested parties to find and read the relevant pages 218 and 397 in his book, which credit page 73 of another specimen of the same genre, penned by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth, The Free Press, 2006. In its turn, endnote 8 on p. 286 in that book credits the statistics of professorial overconfidence to an article by Janet Metcalfe, “Cognitive optimism: self-deception or memory-based processing heuristics?”, published in Personality and Social Psychological Review, 2 (1988), pp. 100-110. The referenced article is available in its entirety from several online sources. (1, 2, 3.) Needless to say, it says nothing that remotely resembles the foregoing claim.

Update: Tracing the notion of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average” yields a reference to P. Cross, “Not can but will college teachers be improved?”, New Directions for Higher Education, 17, 1977, pp. 1–15, said to describe a study at the three branches of the University of Nebraska, where in responding to questionnaires that asked professors to rate their teaching abilities, 94% of the faculty considered themselves above average in teaching ability and 68% placed their teaching abilities in the top 25%. This likely source of Brooks’ statistic is not nearly as expansive as the countrywide claim that he erroneously credited to Metcalfe. It would be preposterous to claim that a certain percentage of professors in three branches of a single university in Nebraska, a state whose economy depends on delusional overconfidence, can stand proxy for the same proportion of their profession throughout America.