Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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14 Responses

  1. Avatar Damon says:

    Here’s hoping this guy’s fall is long and painfull.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    You know, I got a review copy of Lehrer’s first book, and could have seen this coming. He plays fast and loose with the science, so there’s nothing to stop him from playing fast and loose with facts and ethics.Report

  3. Avatar Randy Harris says:

    Lehrer sounds like a sociopath.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Randy Harris says:

      I don’t think he’s a sociopath. I think he’s a bright guy, a talented writer, who got in over his head both with the science and with the writing. Then when he did some unethical things and got away with it, and more than got away with it, became very successful very fast and was the talk of the science journalism town, the incentives were all pointing towards doing it again and lying about it. I suspect that if, early on, someone had said “this is unacceptable,” he’d have cut it out, his rise wouldn’t have been so meteoric, and he’d be making a decent living writing for Discover or Scientific American right now.Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    My brother the journalist went apeshit over the Jonah Lehrer epicfail. The best journalists, he said, would purposely walk onto the scene without preconceptions. It really helps, he said, to be kinda ignorant. Their one redeeming feature was their ability to write down what they saw and what they learned from whom. It’s not an art, it’s a craft, he’d say, no different than any other sort of job. After a while it almost becomes automatic. You’re not writing for geniuses, he’d say, when you’re doing newspaper reporting.

    Jonah Lehrer was just so full of himself and thought himself the cleverest man in the room anywhere he went. Any time you feel as if you’re the smartest guy in a given situation, shut up immediately. You’re not. It’s just your big bulging ego about to rudely crepitate. If necessary, excuse yourself from that situation.

    What’s so terrible about doing your homework as a writer? All those great people in the world, every one of them containing the wisdom of hard-earned experience, hell, there’s no end of wisdom if you’re humble enough to learn. Blaise Pascal once said:

    Eloquence is this: on one hand, it is a connection we try to establish between the heads and the hearts of those to whom we speak — and on the other hand, a connection between our own thoughts and the expressions we use. We must put ourselves in the position of those who must hear us, constantly testing our own hearts. As much as possible, we ought to confine ourselves to what is simple and natural, not to magnify the small or belittle what is great. A thing must be more than beautiful, it must be suitable to the subject at hand: there must be neither excess or defect.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I think part of the problem with Lehrer is that his books weren’t just works of science journalism, but presented novel theses that he’d come up with on his own (or roughly), and then had to defend using scientific literature from fields in which he wasn’t an expert. So he was doing something more than just journalism; he was doing something science-like, or maybe philosophy-like. Instead of just telling a story of existing science, he was writing a new story, and he wasn’t really qualified to do that, so he ended up cutting corners and making things up.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

        Ecch, most of Jonah Lehrer’s stuff was about neuroscience. He has an undergrad degree in neuroscience. Some people I knew at the time were raving about his Proust was a Neuroscientist book so when How We Decide came out, I looked it up in the bookstore. Well, I do AI work, I wanted to see what this new up-and-comer had to say about it.

        I wasn’t particularly impressed. Me, I don’t think we can really understand the mind until we’ve mapped the brain and spinal cord. It’s like being in an airliner looking down on a city at night, seeing all those headlights without understanding why those people are driving around. Maybe when we get down to ground level, get through baggage claim and get a rental car and get out onto the street, map in hand — then we might gain some perspective.

        It seemed awfully glib at the time. I had no idea Jonah Lehrer was also makin’ shit up and plagiarising. But my brother did buy the book.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Proust was a Neuroscientist wasn’t very good. Honestly, anyone familiar with the literature he was discussing would have seen through the thesis in about 2 seconds. It was stretched so thin after the Proust and Whitman chapters, and based on shoddy science and selectively choosing from that even, that it really wasn’t worth reading. It was a pleasant fantasy for people who like Whitman and Proust, but it wasn’t good.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

            I’m glad I didn’t get it, for I love Walt Whitman to distraction. Proust was like eating fruitcake: delicious in small doses with a glass of good sherry but a mighty slog to get through.Report

            • Avatar Chris in reply to BlaiseP says:

              I’m a big Whitman fan as well. Proust I can take or leave, though I haven’t read him since I was much younger, so maybe I’d appreciate it more now.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to Chris says:

                Proust is a huge attic, seven capacious trunks full to brimming with daguerrotypes and souvenirs, stacks of crumbling correspondence, bound carefully in ribbons, bills of sale and recipes. For those who enjoy that sort of thing, it’s a symphony of delicious melancholy.

                But I’ll never re-read Proust.

                Whitman gave us something timeless.

                Over the mountain growths, disease and sorrow,
                An uncaught bird is ever hovering, hovering,
                High in the purer, happier air.

                From imperfection’s murkiest cloud,
                Darts always forth one ray of perfect light,
                One flash of Heaven’s glory.

  5. Avatar zic says:

    Seems to me like Lehrer also got stuck in a trap between the demands of science and art and the demands of journalism.

    Science and art each go deep; you spend a lot of time focusing on the same thing, reworking the same ideas. Creativity tends to happen in a very narrow range, pushing and exploring a single thing.

    Journalism, by contrast, is shallow and broad, even when you focus on a single beat. You have to be able to move around from topic to topic, you observe, investigate, but it’s still mostly a skimming process, though there are exceptions of extremely focused journalists with incredible depth of knowledge about the field they cover; but even there, they’re still typically skipping about from topic to topic within that beat.

    Lehrer tried to bring the disciplines of science and art to journalism, and the necessity for shallow and skim of journalism created a massive conflict with the required focus of science and art.

    I think the scientist or artist who can function as journalist, with a high output, and do so over an extended period and still be productive as a scientist or artist probably a rare bird; even an endangered one. And the journalist who has the deep focus and understanding of a scientist or artist seems nearly as rare.

    /this is not to defend; but to try to understand the heffelump trap he encountered.Report

  6. Avatar Kolohe says:

    (now ex-)IOZ’s take on L’Affair Lehrer.Report