Why You Should Care About Jonah Lehrer’s Great Fall

Falling Man

 

I discovered Jonah Lehrer in 2008 as I was browsing around the internet looking for interesting, accessible blogs about the brain for non-brain-people.  Back then, Lehrer’s blog was hosted on a relatively obscure (given where he ended up) blog sharing site called Science Blogs, but regardless of where he was, it had the same name as the subsequent, heavily-trafficked blogs he moved to afterward:The Frontal Cortex.  The frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for most of our higher functions.  It is a noble place, and Lehrer wrote about a lot of noble and exciting and human things.  I was fascinated with Lehrer and his writing, the way he was so genuinely enthusiastic about the brain, the quirks of it, the peculiar, exciting things that it did and didn’t do.  As an English and Psychology major in college who quickly (thought he) abandoned both in favor of theatre (though, in hindsight, it seems I’ve actually managed to find a way to perfectly mash them together into what I do on most days), I found the accessibility of Lehrer, his patience in explaining complicated processes, his seemingly overwhelming volume of writing, his grasp of anecdote and story, extremely gratifying and pleasant to read.

When I discovered he was my age and had written a book and was a frequent guest on Radiolab, one of my favorite radio shows, and was a much-sought-after speaker—and did I mention he was my age—Lehrer officially became my idol and model.  Perhaps even more than his rising success, he became someone for me to emulate because of his dual respect for science and creativity, and his oft-evident belief that the two are linked, inexplicably, one driving the other, one explaining the other, both absolutely necessary to the functioning of society.  As someone who spent a lot of his time (especially in 2009 and beyond) attempting mightily to strengthen the link between science and creativity—as someone who increasingly devises experiments and research and conversations the express purpose of which is to measure assumptions about the power of art using scientific means—finding a kindred spirit who chronicled the thorny, convoluted, but always-there relationship between art and science with such eloquence and frequency was truly energizing.

I heard Lehrer speak at a conference in San Francisco put on with Wallace Foundation money in 2010 and felt like a fantastic insider.  As people were questioning who this young, tiny, dorky guy on stage was, I was sitting in the back, self-satisfied at having found him first.  It was Lehrer who sparked my interest in the mirror neurons in the brain, which I’ve written about here, and their demonstration of the physical response to communications and, perhaps, art.  It was Lehrer who reminded me of what it really means to suspend disbelief, which is to say to lie to yourself, and why that skill, just like a lot of other brain skills including memory and language acquisition, improve over time and with repetition.  It was Lehrer who re-introduced me to “flashbulb memories,” the concept that in the right circumstances you can store away an incredible amount of detail about an event, much more than you ever would normally–which I have carried with me as I have wandered through the forest of art and impact and memory-making.  It was Lehrer whose frequent writing on the way memory works, most notably in his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has inspired and continues to inspire my investigations into how we as artists can affect memories as they are made, make them stickier, and therefore impact people more.  It was Lehrer whose discussion of belief revolutionized my thinking about art and what we can do in a dark room.  In a real and true way, Jonah Lehrer is responsible for some of the best ideas I have ever had.

Which is why I’m in a sort of mourning now, because my idol has fallen, and fallen stupidly and with great hubris.

Let me put out there right now that I don’t care at all about the charges from earlier this  year that Lehrer “self-plagiarized.”  Lehrer comes from the blogosphere, much as he’s now considered a “writer” and “journalist,” and much of what he did over time was visit and revisit ideas, fine-tuning conversations, making variations on the same point, fleshing out a picture.  As someone who writes and blogs all over the place (with much less frequency and lower recognition, I admit), I must say I frequently revisit ideas.  I am, right now, obsessing, repeatedly and in a variety of places, about the concept of “participation” in a presentational medium and, separately (at least for now) about the concept of mediating the artistic experience.  I write about them a lot, and often the writing takes the same or similar forms.  With all that, I can’t blame Lehrer for reusing his writing, and I’m not even sure I feel like he really needed to acknowledge where it came from in the first place—who, honestly, feels so put out at having read the same paragraph twice?

But I do care, and care deeply, about the scandal that is going to rip Lehrer down—that has already cost him his cushy job at the New Yorker, that has already halted sales of his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.  I care very deeply about the fact that Lehrer fabricated quotes.  From Bob Dylan.  Who is still alive, and about whom people obsess.  I care very deeply that those fabricated quotes added almost nothing to the parts of the story he was telling that, it sounds like were true—that he fabricated them as artifice, not thesis (not that fabricating them as thesis would have been any better, but I could perhaps have understood in it the desperation).

I find myself mourning this loss in a way that makes me feel silly.  And when I examine the mourning, I realize that it’s not just about me losing a personal idol.  Jonah Lehrer, both before and after the publication of his latest book, which is all about the creative process and the elevated place that creativity deserves in our society, was a strong and articulate proponent of the power of art and creativity in society.  By relying on scientific findings, by pulling difficult, jargony papers into the mainstream with patient and enthusiastic explanation, by placing the role of the creativity in the functioning of the brain, and both the brain and creativity at the center of what makes us human, Lehrer in ways large and small was an ally to the arts field.  Whether he meant to or not, he fought against the marginalization of what we do by attempting over and over to explain the particular work that our work was doing.  And more than that, particulars aside (as I don’t pretend to know what other quotes he might have fabricated), he told true stories, valuable stories, stories based in a tremendous amount of reading and research, built out of data and embroidered with stories and anecdotes.  Imagine is a formidable book, a book that at its core tackles the same questions our research into intrinsic impact is trying to tackle—what is creativity?  How does it happen?  How does it work?  What does it do to us, as makers, as consumers?  In the same way that he previously tackled memory through the creative lens, Lehrer has created in Imagine a book, which had sold more than 200,000 copies at last count, that placed front and center the secrets of what we do in this field, and for the world.

And now, because he needed to tack on a few emphatic quotes, because he needed to not let the words of one of the great poets of our time sit as they were, that book has been pulled from shelves, removed from e-book stores, and its author shunned.

In November 2006, before I started reading Jonah Lehrer, he wrote a blog post called “Deception.”  Here it is, in its entirety:

Abraham Lincoln summarizes the election:

“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.”

That, right there, is the genius of the democracy.

It is also, Jonah, the downfall of a person who allowed foolishness and unnecessary embroidery get in the way of good, strong arguments.  I do not have many idols, and now I have one fewer, and for that I am sad.

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  1. says

    Clay,

    thanks for alerting me to this post. Reading it I was immediately drawn back to the firestorm over Mike Daisey and the “Is it art or is it journalism?” conundrum. As much as I am sometimes fascinated by the capacity of science to help us better understand the impact of art I still firmly believe that the functions of art and science are different. For one, science is valued for its ability to be replicated and with art it’s the opposite. Second, I agree with Daisey and others that there are different kinds of “truth” and that the deeper truth that is often conveyed by art is valuable even if it is not a “factual” truth. And third, while the scientific process can be highly creative, and the creative process can have great rigor and systematic testing, the two processes are aimed at different ends. Like Daisey, what many valued about Lehrer, it seems, was his ability to engage people in ideas that they might have disregarded had they arrived via a different carrier in a different wrapping. Regardless of whether he stepped over ethical lines in fabricating a bit of evidence to support his ideas, Lehrer’s manner of thinking and communicating (part creative/part scientific?) impacted the thinking of you and others. I’m not minimizing or forgiving his offenses. I’m just arguing for holding onto the value that remains and building on it. While Lehrer has demonstrated shortcomings as a scientist and journalist there is still, it seems, great value in some of his propositions (it doesn’t sounds as though his entire corpus is now being called into question) and his ability to engage people to think about creativity, imagination, etc. and how they work on the human mind, body, and soul.

    I think the larger lesson of Lehrer may be how quickly we are prone to promote people to the status of expert or hero. When everything was going down with Daisey, the Synge play “Playboy of the Western World” kept popping into my mind. And I think it’s a good analogy for what’s happened with Lehrer, as well. It’s the surprisingly fast rise and instant adoration of which we should be skeptical. Sometimes we turn people into heroes even when it seems inconceivable that they could have succeeded where so many have failed (and at such a young age); or even when the story seems way too good to be true; or even when they tell us we shouldn’t trust them–even when they hint at the fact that they are only human and call themselves artists, or storytellers, or showmen. I’d like to blame our tendency to catapult people to fame on reality television and the 24-hour news cycle but I’m guessing that there are other (deeper) causes.

    BTW, regarding that quote from Lincoln. Are you aware that (1) the wording is, I believe, “You can FOOL … etc.”; and (2) it is not confirmed whether this is really a quote from Lincoln and some have attributed it to PT Barnum; and (3) there is an adaptation of it, “You can PLEASE … etc.” that has also been (probably incorrectly) attributed to Lincoln.

  2. Rachel Grossman says

    Having a difficult time unpacking my feelings around this, but wanted to get a few initial and completely personal/emtional reactions off my chest.

    While my “relationship” to Lehrer is different than Clay’s—I came a little later to the party—I would describe my reactions similarly:
    1. I feel as if I am in mourning.
    2. I was not troubled by the “self-plagiarizing”.
    3. He has muddied the waters of work I am passionate about and inspired by.
    4. I believe this was a truly stupid act.

    I do not “inspire” easily, but Lehrer’s book and all the pieces published leading up to it over the past year or so struck a deep chord in me. So much that IMAGINE is on the list of source texts for one of my next projects. And now I feel dirty and a bit shameful about that.

    I also more/less immediately thought of Mike Daisey. Because I worked at Woolly Mammoth during the initial run of Steve Jobs and have been around Woolly and Mike during the remount. Because I respect and enjoy Mike and his work/process/raison d’etre… as I do/did with Lehrer. Because I happened completely by chance to listen to the TAL “tell-all” episode when it first aired in DC, and I was one of the first people I am close with to read IMAGINE. But I don’t see the similarities much beyond that. (I have serious concerns about TAL’s perspective of itself; the primary concern I have with Mike/STEVE JOBS is with the “contract” made with audiences (see Oskar Eustis: http://publictheater.org/images/Yelena/eustisstatement.pdf).)

    In truth I am having a similar reaction to Lehrer’s situation as I did to Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. When he finally admitted to his indiscretions, I wanted to hit him upside the head and say “Really!? How did you ever think you were going to get away with this?” At least Lehrer did not drag his “lie” out. Which means I am likely to forgive Lehrer in my heart before I forgive Clinton.

  3. michael rohd says

    clay, really good to read your thoughts on this. And as always, great to hear diane and rachel add to the conversation. One thing i will add, as much i found parts of Imagine interesting, and certainly smart, it was very clear to myself and many others that he had fabricated and misrepresented much about second city’s practices and body of work, and that his take on musical theater wasn’t super nuanced nor entirely accurate either. So i had to make the decision a while ago, after i first read it and found values and an ally in ideas io believe in, whether i should recommend it to others or not, especially in my capacity as a teacher and speaker. And i decided not to recommend it, because i feared experts in other areas would, sooner or later, speak up with more significant problems than i had observed. And i am sad that is the case. And, I’m hoping that he at some points trains his intelligence and eloquence on the factors that led him to play fast and loose with knowledge…both the kind that he was seeking, and the kind he wants to share.

  4. says

    I am among the few who was little-troubled by Mike Daisey’s fabrications (at least inside the walls of the theater). I carry around the expectation that whenever I walk INTO a theater, I cannot abdicate responsibility for determining for myself whether what I’m being told is true or not. Even when I’m explicitly told (as with Daisey) that it is.

    As someone is as avidly engaged with science as I am with theater, however — and perhaps, in some ways, even more — I do not carry the same presumption into my engagement with science writing. I have what I think is a reasonable expectation when I open a Jonah Lehrer book (as I would for a book by Steven Johnson or James Gleick or Dava Sobel or Laurie Garrett) that the information being presented to me is not only true, but well-researched and documented.

    Of course… I was trained by my years as a graduate student and professor not to take anything 100% for granted. I maintain some responsibility, even a small one, for determining what to believe and what not to believe. But still… the onus here was, I think, more on Lehrer than on me. (I feel somewhat — though not exactly — the same way about journalism, though I trust reportage less than science… which is why I think Daisey’s errors stemmed more clearly from his move into that medium.)

    Translating science into more accessible and more engaging terms is, I believe, one of our highest callings as writers. I have made it part of my project as a playwright to just that, though in a very different medium. To be honest, Lehrer never struck me as a particularly skilled or innovative practitioner of that art. Certainly not as accomplished as the four writers I mention above, let alone Jared Diamond or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Pinker or even Mary Roach. He always seemed to me to be a touch smug, a touch superior to his subjects. I read his work (though not yet Imagine) regularly, but it often felt like a duty, rather than a delight. I did it begrudgingly, and wishing I didn’t have to hear what he was saying in his voice.

    Having said that… I will now read imagine (assuming I can acquire a copy), if only to be more fully a part of this discussion. But I will read it, sadly, far more defensively than I might have. And that’s sad.

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