Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What Has Been Forgotten About Jonah Lehrer

Today the science writer Jonah Lehrer made his first extended public remarks since he resigned his various positions and his publisher withdrew his third book last summer. The venue was a Knight Foundation conference in Miami. Lehrer gave a short speech about decision making, focusing on his own bad decisions and how he plans to prevent them from recurring in the future. To my surprise, the foundation, which supports "journalistic excellence," seems to have paid Lehrer $20,000 for his appearance.

As is well known, Lehrer first got into trouble last year when it was revealed that his new blog at the New Yorker incorporated much material that he had previously published, including in his old column at the Wall Street Journal. This led to a suspension of his blogging privileges. Then various investigations showed that he had not only "self-plagiarized" (a lazy and exploitative practice) but also plagiarized the work of others, and perhaps worst of all embellished and fabricated quotes from his interview subjects (most prominently Bob Dylan) and other sources. The New Yorker finally let him go, as did Wired. He completely ceased tweeting, Facebooking, or updating his website.

At first I felt bad about Jonah Lehrer's problems. He seemed like a nice person. When I published a fairly negative review of his third book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, in the New York Times, he was up on his blog with a reply, titled "On Bad Reviews," in a matter of hours. I wrote my own strong rebuttal and posted it a couple of days later. The next day, Lehrer emailed me proposing that he interview me by email about the issues I had raised, for publication on his blog. We did the interview, which took several weeks to complete. After various delays, caused by the suspension and then cancellation of his blog, the interview was finally published at the Creativity Post website. I was pleasantly surprised that Lehrer bothered to engage my criticism, and then to ask me directly how I thought he (and other science writers) could improve their practices. I was a bit upset when he tried to block the final publication of the interview, which was supposed to happen (coincidentally) the day after he departed the New Yorker, but the Creativity Post editors managed to convince him to change his mind.

When the allegations of plagiarism and fabrication came out, the story became one of "greatest science writer of his generation makes unthinkable mistakes," and the analysis was mostly psychoanalysis of Lehrer's motives or of the media culture. Entirely lost was the fact that Jonah Lehrer was never a very good science writer. He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs. You can read my review and the various parts of my exchange with him that are linked above for detailed explanations of why I make this claim. Others have made similar points too, for example Isaac Chotiner at the New Republic and Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions. But the tenor of many critics last year was "he committed unforgivable journalistic sins and should be punished for them, but he still got the science right." There was a clear sense that one had nothing to do with the other.

In my opinion, the fabrications and the scientific misunderstanding are actually closely related. The fabrications tended to follow a pattern of perfecting the stories and anecdotes that Lehrer -- like almost all successful science writers nowadays -- used to illustrate his arguments. Had he used only words Bob Dylan actually said, and only the true facts about Dylan's 1960s songwriting travails, the story wouldn't have been as smooth. It's human nature to be more convinced by concrete stories than by abstract statistics and ideas, so the convincingness of Lehrer's science writing came from the brilliance of his stories, characters, and quotes. Those are the elements that people process fluently and remember long after the details of experiments and analyses fade.

After the Dylan episode, others found more examples of how Lehrer did this. I think one of the clearest was Seth Mnookin's analysis of Lehrer's retelling of psychologist Leon Festinger's famous original story of "cognitive dissonance," based on Festinger's experience of infiltrating a doomsday cult in 1954. Of the moments after an expected civilization-destroying cataclysm failed to start, Festinger wrote, "Midnight had passed and nothing had happened ... But there was little to see in the reactions of the people in that room. There was no talking, no sound. People sat stock still, their faces seemingly frozen and expressionless." Lehrer narrated the same event as follows: "When the clock read 12:01 and there were still no aliens, the cultists began to worry. A few began to cry. The aliens had let them down." Do you see the difference? Lehrer's version is more dramatic: people worry, they cry, they feel let down. It's more human. Each one of these little errors or fabrications makes the story work a little bit better, makes it match our expectations more closely, and thus gives it greater influence on our beliefs.

So by cutting exactly these corners in his writing, Lehrer was able to mask the fact that his conclusions were facile or erroneous, and his prose earned him a reputation for being much more authoritative than he was. Who was harmed by all of this? Writers who were trying to do with correct understanding and real quotes and stories what Lehrer did with his "material," for one. And certainly his editors, publishers, and anyone else who paid money for his halo and his drawing power. But readers most of all, since they were told things about how nature works that simply weren't true. Not just what Bob Dylan said and when he said it, but what it has to do with creativity, neuroscience, and everything else.

Jonah Lehrer gave a talk today that was more interesting than I expected. He acknowledged his mistakes and said he was trying to erect operating procedures and safeguards to make sure his own arrogance stays in check in the future. He said some things that were hard to believe, such as his claim that he has a poster in his office of Bob Dylan by Milton Glaser (a graphic artist also misquoted by Lehrer), and that he flinches every time he sees it. Does he really flinch every time? Hasn't habituation or inattention taken care of that by now?

I actually think Lehrer might be able to return to writing successfully, because he has the technical skills, and he is obviously a very intelligent and energetic person. But he should take the time to not only protect himself against his tendency to fabricate and plagiarize, but also to learn the basics of journalistic practice and ethics, to learn how to think clearly about science and facts, and above all to commit himself to the truth. Then maybe he will have something valuable to tell us.


  1. I think it is either way.

    Or we focus on "behaveior" (copying your own pieces? no teacher allows this! go sit in the corner and give tear creating remorse lectures. Inventing Bob Dylan qoutes? villain of the century. and so on)

    OR we focus on accurate science reporting.
    Here most of the cited sins are irrelevant.

    I am personally with you. The ONLY relevant issue is accurate and intelligent reporting.

    But we are here in journalism. and the colorful, sensational, emotional etc. take the cake. boring scientific accuracy does not make he headlines.

  2. Without a commitment to ethical practice, his professed determination to create mechanisms that protect against his inclinations is meaningless. This direction essentially becomes a twisted form of blame in which the problem shifts from what he's perfectly happy doing to publishers who are now supposed to ensure that he's not making things up. He has the terrible combination of arrogance and justification: he has a high IQ, and that makes him more susceptible to problems. Unfortunately, IQ is not the same as practicing intelligence and arrogance is particularly damaging when it is unjustified. I was surprised to learn just now that he's over 30. His attitude seems like that of someone in his early 20s.

  3. You write:

    "He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs."

    In my experience this is true of the more successful (sales-wise) current popularizers of science. So Lehrer fit well in his job.


    1. I do feel a bit sorry for Lehrer, even though he's still a guy who can get $20,000 for a speech. He seems a bit more defensive and wary (at least from his super-brief interview with Jeff Bercovici at Forbes), but can you blame him? He probably needs the money and the work.

    2. Thanks for the comments. I did not mean to imply that Lehrer is the only popularizer with flaws; he just happens to be one whose work I studied for my review of his book. And I feel a bit sorry for him too -- it's sad when people suffer, even at their own hands. I still think that the most common view of Lehrer, even today, is that he did nothing wrong but commit specific journalistic errors (fabricating quotes, lying to other journalists, plagiarizing himself and others). Even if he had done none of those things, every problem with his work that I pointed out last year would still apply, since my critiques were all written before anyone knew about his "sins."

  4. Thanks for this smart analysis.

  5. It isn't just science writing. It the memoirs, the modern docs that focus on "point of view" rather than the truth and all other nonsense that is currently in vogue.

    There are two saying that I think are applicable, however. 1. If it is too good to be true, it probably isn't. and 2. You can't cheat an honest man, so never give a sucker an even break. People love being conned by these people. So we get the writers and doc makers that we deserve.

  6. I think creativity cause distraction, and not viceversa, distraction problems don´t help to being more creative. When a high correlation exists, cause or effect should be treated in a bidirectional link possibility, both things could be the cause or the effect.

    Creativity is the tendency to think abstract, to see the forest even if a big tree is almost blocking its view, a creative person tend to watch it as a NON "elephant in the room".

    Creativity is an abstract concept so a non scientific one. I should be very careful when I am referring to an abstract concept, but here I am trying it. Creativity helps you to see what most of the people is NOT able to see, beyond the big tree that doesn´t let regular people see the rest of the forest. Creativity is in you when you are able to see even thing that don´t exist, but that could exist in theory, so the mind recreates the rest of the puzzle. I don´t think creativity is a personality disorder. Creativity is there when ,seeing only what could be a feather, is enough for you to imagining a bird.

    You say maybe the forest doesn´t exist when you only see a big tree in front of your sight, and few other branches. For me this is a non creative way of thinking.

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