What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science?

Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wishes people would lay off of Jonah Lehrer. It's bad enough that people made a fuss last July about falsified quotes and plagiarism that caused Lehrer's publisher to recall his book Imagine and cost him a plum job at The New Yorker. Now people are crying foul that the Knight Foundation paid Lehrer $20,000 to deliver a mea culpa that Lehrer's critics have not judged especially persuasive on the "lesson learned" front. Ulin thinks people ought to cut Lehrer some slack:

What did we expect from Lehrer? And why did we expect anything at all? Like every one of us, he is a conflicted human, his own worst enemy, but you’d hardly know that from the pile-on provoked by his talk.

Did Jonah Lehrer betray us? I don’t think so.

Ulin apparently feels qualified to speak on behalf of all of us. In light of some of the eloquent posts from people who feel personally betrayed by Lehrer, I'd recommend that Ulin stick to "I-statements" when assessing the emotional fallout from Lehrer's journalistic misdeeds and more recent public relations blunder.

And, to be fair, earlier in Ulin's piece, he does speak for himself about Lehrer's books:

That’s sad, tragic even, for Lehrer was a talented journalist, a science writer with real insights into creativity and how the brain works. I learned things from his books “How We Decide” and “Imagine” (the latter of which has been withdrawn from publication), and Lehrer’s indiscretions haven’t taken that away.

(Bold emphasis added.)

Probably Ulin wouldn't go to the mat to assert that what he learned from Imagine was what Bob Dylan actually said (since a fabricated Dylan quote was one of the smoking guns that revealed Lehrer's casual attitudes toward journalistic standards). Probably he'd say he learned something about the science Lehrer was describing in such engaging language.

Except, people who have been reading Lehrer's books carefully have noted that the scientific story he conveyed so engagingly was not always conveyed so accurately:

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.

(Bold emphasis added.)

If this is the case -- that Lehrer was an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge -- did Ulin actually learn what he thought he learned from Lehrer's books? Or, was he misled by glib storytelling into thinking he understood what science might tell us about creativity, imagination, the workings of our own brains?

Maybe Ulin doesn't expect a book marketed as non-fiction popular science to live up to this standard, but a lot of us do. And, while lowering one's standards is one way to avoid feeling betrayed, it's not something I would have expected a professional book critic to advise readers to do.

2 responses so far

  • boba says:

    ...an entertaining communicator but not a reliably accurate communicator of the current state of our best scientific knowledge...

    Maybe this could be called the Jared Diamond effect, where interesting and entertaining trump dry and accurate.
    And about accuracy, geography teaches us that as you shift the scale, (i.e., zoom out) the precision suffers. And while the accuracy should not change, our perception of it does. As one zooms in, the precision increases, but again, our perception of accuracy may also change. The trick is to balance the two so that the image presented is precise enough to convey an accurate depiction.

  • [...] What did Jonah Lehrer teach us about science? | Adventures in Ethics and Science [...]

Leave a Reply