David Brooks Goes Jaywalking About Complexity

Now and then I don’t mind David Brooks’ columns at the NYT, but too often they are inkblots of au courant sociology jargon. Today’s column is an example, with a Deepwater-related collection of predictable verbiage about “complexity”, with the usual ritual bows in the direction of Richard Feynman, Three Mile Island, and our hand-wringingly awful inability to understand … all those complex things in life we can’t understand. Like garage door openers. And hide-a-beds. (Okay, I made up the last two.)

I’m increasingly convinced that citing complexity in these things is mostly a thumb-sucking, multisyllabic way of saying something is hard. And yes, deepwater drilling is hard. But so was shallow water drilling. And so were the first high-pressure land wells. Throwing in complexity doesn’t really add much to the discussion. You would be better to talk about generational changes in related extraction technology, and whether that technology is up to the task of producing oil predictably and safely.


But Brooks does go on to say the following, which deserves a closer look:

People have a tendency to place elaborate faith in backup systems and safety devices. More pedestrians die in crosswalks than when jay-walking. That’s because they have a false sense of security in crosswalks and are less likely to look both ways. [Emphasis mine]

Now there’s a fun party claim. Hey, did you know that more people die in crosswalks than when jay-walking? It sure sounds like a Brooks-ism though, a risk homeostasis-ish sort of thing in service of a semi-partisan, sociopolitical point.

The trouble is, this one’s true, and not just in absolute terms, but in per-passenger-crossing terms. Here is a DOT graph showing the difference in pedestrian accident rates for marked and unmarked crosswalks:


Source: “Safety Effects of Marked versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations: Final Report and Recommended Guidelines”, U.S. Department of Transportation

The argument is that a subset of people tend to see a crosswalk and march straight out, assuming they’re protected. After all, the local government put the damn crosswalk there, which must mean I’m supposed to cross here. Of course, this is  also about contributory negligence on government’s part, in that a flat crosswalk doesn’t really do much of anything (it’s invisible to cars), as traffic data has long shown. This isn’t like a functioning safety system in an oil rig, which is what Brooks is arguing, but more like a dummy dial unconnected to anything.

So, while this is intriguing and fun and counter-intuitive and all, even this isn’t quite as neat as Brooks would like it to be.