Updated: Aug 30
Editor’s note: Guest blogger, Stanton Peele, takes aim at errant science writing and its outlets. Stanton may be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/speele5.
Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author who specialized in reducing artistic endeavors to neurological events, was an important science writer for Wired and The New Yorker, as well as contributing to such leading publications as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times Magazine.
This matters because these publications have played a critical role in the reductionism that pervades American thinking about mental illness and addiction. Our leading scientific journals in America have placed the imprimatur of official scientism on reductionism, a endeavor whose seediness is represented perhaps most clearly by Lehrer. But his published lies really reflect the entire enterprise of reductionism in American science.
As I have noted in the Huffington Post, Lehrer became a runaway best-selling author by making outlandish, unscientific, and obtuse assertions about the nature of the relationship between art and creativity, on the one hand, and neuroscience on the other. This writing amounted essentially to making metaphoric leaps from biographical information (which Lehrer often misstated or made up out of whole cloth) or superficial artistic observations to like-seeming memes in neuroscience (e.g., great novelists describe changes people undergo, we can generate new neurons = miracle association between art, biology, and science).
Lehrer’s personal fate is now of little interest, since, his fabrications and lying revealed, he was fired immediately from his staff position at The New Yorker and his publisher ceased shipment of his runaway best-seller, Imagine: How Creativity Works. But the implications of Lehrer’s intellectual dishonesty and pandering go far beyond his making up quotes, his systematic inaccuracies, and his lies in order to cover these up. Rather, they go to the heart of recent brain science and its massive incomprehension of what psychological science comprises.
For this reason, it’s fascinating to note how those who enabled Lehrer’s falsehoods and fakery hasten to cover over the depth and scope of his misdeeds. Here is how one Scientific American blogger does so:
All the lies and deceptions cannot tarnish Lehrer’s ability as a writer. He may not have been a great journalist after all, but he was a great writer. He had a fabulous way with words and could make complex science reasoning accessible to a more general audience. He was able to convey some epic science by using poetic and eloquent narratives which touched and stuck to readers. . . .This is what science represents to me. I would never dare drop even the tiniest of stains onto this immaculate canvas. Lehrer blotted all over it. Granted, Lehrer’s mishaps did not involve the science he tackles in Imagine per se.
In other words, Lehrer made up a few quotes, but the fundamental science in Imagine remains intact. No it doesn’t. Lehrer’s intellectual dishonesty pervades every aspect of his work – his faking evidence, his implausible and stunningly mistaken claims and, more importantly, the falseness of his endeavor from the start. As Jonathon Keats described in Salon: “Lehrer’s book is worth discussing for this reason: It embodies an approach to the humanities and sciences that threatens the vitality of both.” (The book in question was Proust Was a Neuroscientist.) Or, as Isaac Chotiner for The New Republic: “There is little to be learned about Bob Dylan, or the creative process more generally, from Jonah Lehrer. What his book has to teach, and by example, is the fetishization of brain science, and the anxious need for easy answers to complex questions.”
Hayden Christensen playing Stephen Glass
As to Lehrer’s demonstrated lying, Michael Moynihan detailed Lehrer’s conscientious lies to him as Moynihan tried to track down Lehrer’s fabricated Dylan quotes (so reminiscent of The New Republic’s Stephen Glass obstructionism, as reflected in the 2003 film, Shattered Glass). Lehrer was a liar and fabulist above all else. But, then, how did a distinguished writer, journalist, and editor like The New Yorker’s David Remnick, on whom this whole affair must now reflect, permit this to occur on his watch? Here is how The New Yorker reacted when Lehrer was revealed to regularly recycle material from one publication he wrote for to another:
Nicholas Thompson, the editor of The New Yorker’s website, said on Wednesday afternoon that Mr. Lehrer, whose blog he lured away from Wired, was still employed by the magazine but declined to elaborate, saying, “This is wrong. He knows it’s a mistake. It’s not going to happen again.”
Note that The New Yorker pursued this sketchy character then defended him – they loved his false self-presentation.
Here’s how Daniel Bohr described Lehrer’s behavior at Nature, the world’s leading science magazine:
At the same time, though, he wrote a with a glaring factual error in it, in a field I know intimately. He was writing about the celebrated mnemonist, Shereshevsky, and stated, “After a single read of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he was able to recite the complete poem by heart.” This poem is 700 pages long, so that is quite a feat, especially given that Shereshevsky didn’t speak a word of Italian, and the poem was presented to him in its original language. The truth, instead, as Luria writes in his wonderful little book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, is that only a few stanzas of the poem were presented to Shereshevsky. . . When I emailed Lehrer to point out this mistake, his reply was that “it was the one fact my editor added in the final draft. . . .”At the time, I simply assumed this was true. But now I don’t. This morning I contacted his editor at Nature, Brendan Maher, to ask about this, and Maher told me that this mistake was present in the first draft of the article that Lehrer sent to him, so was most definitely not an inaccurate last minute addition by the editor. To add insult to injury, after I’d pointed out this mistake to Lehrer, he nevertheless repeated it verbatim 7 months later in this Wired blog article, and then 6 months after that in another Wired blog article.
We know Lehrer lies. But how does this excuse the editors of Nature and Wired from permitting this completely implausible tale (a man instantly memorized 700 pages of a foreign language on first reading) to be perpetuated? Can’t they tell bullshit from fact? Have they no idea what the human mind is capable of (or at least enough of an intimation to check a claim like this one out)? Instead, they pass the prevaricator — and his favors — around from one to another like a drunken whore at a sleazy bar.
This blogger (a neuroscientist writing for Psychology Today blogs) notes error after error about how the brain operates in yet another Lehrer best-seller, How We Decide. Jonathon Keats performed a similar exercise on Lehrer’s Proust for Salon, while Isaac Chotiner did the same for his Imagine in The New Republic. It’s like Mary McCarthy’s old line about Lillian Hellman: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Isn’t this all reminiscent of a criminal conviction when it has been revealed that an unscrupulous forensic laboratory has made up evidence in the case, and then all the convictions in which it played a role must be reversed?
[Next, in Part 2, Stanton examines the spawning and perpetuation of myths about addiction in Science, Scientific American, and other scientific publications.]