Friday, February 22, 2013

Polishing Rabbits and Passing Off Squirrels—Andrew Zolli on Jonah Lehrer

Andrew Zolli, the Executive Director and curator of PopTech, as well as the co-author of Resiliencesent me a very thoughtful reflection in response to my earlier post on Jonah Lehrer and his recent apology. He had tried to post it as a comment on my post, but ran up against Blogger's comment length limits. So with Andrew's consent, I am posting it below. I think that Andrew's points are excellent. (Note: I have been an invited speaker at PopTech, both on the stage and to the Fellows program.)
At this point, the whole sad L'Affaire d'Lehrer has been dissected into a finely-ground powder, and everyone has assigned Jonah appropriate culpability, including Jonah himself.  What I find of more lasting interest is a systemic issue which Chris touches on glancingly, above: 
We live in a media moment that massively encourages and rewards the pulling of proverbial rabbits out of hats—storytelling that culminates in a counterintuitive fact about human beings and their nature.  It's sort of "Sudoku storytelling", in which the reader is presented with a confusing storyline, and the author presents a rubric and reassembles the elements in a way that snaps the pieces into place in a clean and satisfying way.  This kind of writing gives the reader a little positive jolt, a sense that they've been let in on some secret wisdom that decodes part of the human condition. (That "snapping into place" phenomenon—it's what makes a joke with a good punchline work too - you know it's coming, and you can't quite see how it will resolve itself, and then *wham*—there it is! The same is true for get-rich-quick-schemes.) 
These are the kinds of pieces—not just books, but blog pieces, and other forms of writing—that go "viral." Our appetite for such secret wisdom is so strong that passing them along actually raises the social capital of the *forwarder*, not just the author. (This is what Twitter was made for, I believe.) 
And this is *exactly* the kind of content that beleaguered mainstream editors often push writers, particularly talented writers, to produce—not nuanced tomes with confidence intervals attached to data, including examples of counterfactuals and copious footnotes—but snappy, highly "applicable," linear narratives (with counterintuitive endings!) that sacrifice complexity for accessibility. (As one editor put it to me: "You wanna write that other shit? Go to a university press!") 
And its not just editors—these are the kinds of books that command significant advances, that backlist, that build the author's speaking fees, that get them bylined articles in prominent magazines, and tv appearances—a whole edifice that, most of the time, ends up with the "talent" becoming a not-terribly-intellectual-public-intellectual. (By the way, it's not just science writers … business gurus in particular are often peddlers of pure horseshit, yet find a insatiable appetite for their nonsense. Because if there's one thing human beings find even more interesting than ourselves, it's how to make a buck off of some other clueless rube.) 
Of course, the big problem is that there really aren't an endless supply of rabbits to pull out of hats. And not all rabbits are of first quality—sometimes, we have to "polish the rabbit," so to speak. And that's how I believe Jonah (whom I know personally, though not well) got into this predicament—being overly committed to the rabbit production line. So you start to reuse your rabbits, then you try to pass off second quality rabbits by making them look all the more surprising. And then you're panicked to discover you're passing off squirrels. 
Oddly enough, the rabbit-out-of-the-hat counterintuitive ending is actually Jonah's story, which is why his downfall itself went viral. You think this guy is just blessed with preternatural explanatory talent, but it turns out, "the 'Imagine' guy was making up his own quotes!" It's a joke! And a punchline! Love it! Instant schadenfreude! Have you heard? Pass it on! 
I am not excusing Jonah for his mistakes, which are significant. I think it's an honor to be held to a high standard, and he failed that standard, more than once. Worse, he had (and has) the abundant and enviable talent not to fail. And there should be real consequences for his having done so. 
Yet I also think we ought to be careful in making him a cautionary tale for a civilization drowning in its own bullshit. He was unprofessional, but he was also responding to perverse incentives and societal norms in our public square that we collectively bolster, if not passively tolerate, by our own consumption habits. 
For me, I'm trying to become more mindful of my own bullshitological contributions—which are, I'm sure greater than I'd care to admit. I'm also finding myself reflecting on how we might make the system itself better, with fewer incentives for bad behavior, and better rewards for good behavior. 
Because, while I'm sure there is some intrinsic character in all of us, it's also true that incentives draw forth aspects of that character, which then can come to publicly define us. (I can be fairly charitably-minded until someone cuts me off in traffic; fortunately for me, my utterances thereafter are not part of the public record.) 
So here's my concluding truism: Piling on Jonah is like jumping on a trampoline: fun for a while, but it won't take us very far. Better to think about how we can springboard to a better place for everyone. 
I know it's not counter-intuitive enough. I guess I'll never make it in this business. 


  1. I wrote this review before the story about Lehrer broke. Despite the shortcomings, its still a good book, full of interest and inspiration. I'm sure Lehrer still has a lot to offer - everyone makes mistakes.

  2. Ironically enough, irony works.

    But is that a good thing?

  3. Here's what I don't get about the whole situation: Is there anything actually all that counterintuitive in any of the pop neuroscience books, including Jonah Lehrer's? We have no free will...our decisions, memories and so on are unreliable...your brain determines everything you do... Even if you're not familiar with cognitive science, some philosopher or major cultural figure already said all this a long time ago--sometimes centuries ago, and usually more intelligently. Not saying everyone necessarily *agrees* with these ideas, but they aren't new, so why do we lap them up as if they were?

    Maybe what's appealing about the stories Lehrer peddled is that they're just counterintuitive *enough*--not the dominant ideas everyone says all the time, but not new and surprising enough to be threatening?

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