03 September 2012

The melting solidity of Jonah Lehrer

Charles Seife skewers Jonah Lehrer’s writing and thought in an essay published at Slate. According to Seife, Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, asked Seife to examine and analyze Lehrer’s blog posts and the upshot is pretty ugly:   

It is thus my opinion that Lehrer plagiarized others' work, published inaccurate quotations, printed narrative details that were factually incorrect, and failed to address errors when they were pointed out.
Such a damning critique really requires some reflection. Let me begin by making one observation. Lehrer’s work inspired many students I encountered in my classes over the last five years. I can think of at least four students who explained to me that they wanted to go into neuroscience or neurology because of something that Lehrer had written. That probably says quite a bit about the age of his intended audience. People will no doubt now hold that fact against him too, but I actually think in one sense it was an important role. While inspiring young people may not be the proper part for a journalist (or any professional who aspires to “truth”) *to play, we do need people to act in motivational ways in our culture. Lehrer did that and he did that well. And that is why he had a market.

No doubt, people will point out (rightly) that this only underscores his irresponsibility. I’m sure he is now reflecting on that too. Yet he does live in a society that in my lifetime seems to have traditionally rewarded people who dissemble, fabricate, and exaggerate enormously (political conventions anyone?). That isn’t an excuse, but it is a context. In this way, Lehrer’s ‘crime’ strikes me as positively banal, and at least one can say that he might have done some good by exciting young people about science.
In any case, I'm not writing to defend him. Rather I’d like to say something totally different. I’m sorry – but if you took Lehrer seriously before all of this attention was directed at his misdeeds, well, then, that reveals more a failure of your judgment than it does Lehrer’s. Lehrer wrote about topics that might seem suitable for smart adults, but he wrote them in a lively fashion for people who were either attempting to get their daily “information fix” or for people with scant knowledge about the brain, mind, nervous system, and human behavior. And on top of that he wrote about topics that he probably hoped would interest people. Had he engaged in the kind-of polysyllabic effort necessary to actually talk about – you know, science – he would have alienated his readership.
Those of us who spend our lives reading all things neuroscience, historical, or ethical found most of his commentary (and utopianism) banal, and we were sometimes horrified to discover that there really were people – sometimes scholars – out there who thought it appropriate to cite his books and essays (just as we were horrified when people cite Malcolm Gladwell or thought Freakonomics deep).

Now this might sound like snobbery, but many of us are getting tired of the idea that a glib analysis, slick TED-like packaging, PowerPoint, and an occasional appearance on Real Time an expert makes. My favorite expertise that everyone apparently gets to claim for their identity is “historian”. Recently Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg addressed this problem through the lens of the sad case of Fareed Zakaria. They noted (essay here) sarcastically that all that appears necessary to pass as a profound expert historian is an “avuncular” personality. The same could be said of any number of journalistic and interdisciplinary authors. Basically many of these authors are producing schlock for a variety of markets populated by self-identified intelligentsia. Sorry to report this startling news: but expertise requires hard work and its products are often dull (even when they are truly fascinating too).
Trashing Lehrer might be easy for people right now. It might even be satisfying. But I’m amazed at how people seem not at all awake to the idea that there was a whole media empire behind Lehrer. Let me put it this way: most people don’t have an editor. Most people pay copy-editors out of pocket. Most scholars and thinkers don’t have a staff of researchers working for them. The New Yorker isn’t backing most people up. The New York Times doesn’t publish most people's work. Houghton Mifflin isn’t likely to call. Lehrer had all of those things. So who made the errors here? Someone hired Lehrer – every single time he wrote an essay or a book. Multiple someones read his books before they went to print. And, by the way, people bought his books and swilled the Merlot he was serving as fast he could uncork his bromidish bottles.
And, then, after multiple years when anyone with a bit of critical thought and time could have realized that all that is solid in his work melts, the ugly head of social indignity suddenly popped its head above the masses and demanded to know “How dare you, Sir!”. People who now have problems with the way Lehrer did things need only turn and look in a mirror to see the problem. Did you cite his work? Did you extol his genius in places? Did you book-drop his efforts at dinner parties?  Did you invite him to your television show? Then your reflection conjures up the mass social superficiality, the stunning lack of regard for expertise, the general unawareness of what it means to be theoretically informed and to occupy a theoretical space, and the contempt for anything that appears complex and complicated. Lehrer’s audience should have been eighth graders. Instead graduates of Ivy League Universities voraciously devoured his contributions and felt smugly self-satisfied by their grasp of “the day’s issues”. Having never read a word in Science or Nature (or heaven forbid a primary source from neuroscience’s past), suddenly people had the answers to all of the hard questions. They could write deep histories; they understood economics; they were their own experts.

Now one of their numerous houses of cards has fallen down. And a number of people with blogs, access, or positions of academic prestige feel betrayed and embarrassed as the solidity of their own ideas melt. Their reaction, completely predictable, reminds me of a South Park Episode – that one where a certain celebrity is sacrificed for public amusement! Perhaps Lehrer’s media rehabilitation can begin with his own postmodern reflection on the neuroscience of fallen celebrity.
Maybe we should hold Lehrer accountable. Perhaps. I don’t think the rules of blogging, the practices of journalism, science and medical publishing, or historical writing have really been caught up to the realities of the digital age. I’m tempted to paraphrase Benjamin and ask “whither the work of knowledge in the age of digital reproduction?” Has anyone answered this question yet?
Meanwhile: do readers fully appreciate, want to know, or even hold in high regard the challenges of become an expert? Indeed many people seem confused - they operate under the assumption that if they can look it up on "google", then they know something (extended mind debates?). Sorry - that is not the way expertise works.

And as for the question of originality - by that measure, who among us? Most people will get no more than one original idea in their life time. Really smart people might get two. And the genius: she maybe has three. And by the way – the more original ideas you have the less likely it is that anyone will understand them in your lifetime.

Sorry; it sucks. But it turns out that even individualism has its limits. One-to-three original ideas - the rest is just window-dressing. And anyone who tells you differently probably doesn’t have any good ideas at all. I suspect Lehrer probably wrote an essay somewhere on the neuroscience of these various points. If he did, then his essay was probably eminently forgettable. So too are the critiques of his misdeeds. And that fact is probably worse than anything Lehrer did and did not do. Mirror, mirror, anyone?

* a few people noted this insertion clarified this essay.


  1. This is exactly what unnerves me, especially with the advent of digital technologies. It seems that no one fact checks or really takes the time to contemplate, question and/or verify anything. I am no expert nor do I hold any degree above a B.S. currently, but I never take anything as an absolute nor do I even for a second allow myself to buy into the idea that so-and-so is an expert because online news papers, wikipedia and everyone else and there mother says so. =/ I guess (luckily for me) I've always been the do-your-own-research type...

    1. *there = their. That's going to bug the hell out of me. I guess I need to focus on proof reading as well. =D

  2. Yes - but the "there = their" problem underscores my point. Most of us don't come with a media empire behind us. I think we can allow you a slip. The world that created Jonah? Not so much! To your larger point - it unnerves me too. He was on Charlie Rose for goodness sake. Why didn't they vet him?