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Jonah Lehrer Charmed Me, Then Blatantly Lied to Me About Science

What Jonah Lehrer's betrayal of our trust reveals about popular science writing

Jonah Lehrer
Jonah Lehrer is one of the hottest science writers around. But this week, in a dramatic fall from grace, he resigned from his staff position at the New Yorker, and his publisher has removed his latest book, Imagine, from sale. The catalyst for these dramatic events is the fact that he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, as uncovered by the online Tablet magazine.

I had a few small interactions with Jonah Lehrer in late 2009, and looking back, they perfectly reflected both the reasons for his fame, and his impending troubles. At the time he was in charge of the Scientific American Mind Matters blog, and I was writing a piece for this. In a field where some editors are rather brusque, he in contrast was extremely friendly, complimentary, charming, helpful and supportive. It was the easiest thing in the world to like him, and I dearly hoped to have more dealings with him in the future.

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At the same time, though, he wrote a News Feature article for Nature 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.

This doesn’t detract from Shereshevsky’s exceptional skills, though, since he was tested on this foreign set of lines 15 years after this single reading, and was able perfectly to recall not only every word, but every aspect of stress and pronunciation. Unfortunately, Lehrer didn’t recount any of these details, which to me are in some ways more staggering.

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.

While I enjoy Bob Dylan songs, and admire the man, to me the furor shouldn’t have exploded following this fabrication revelation (though perhaps that was the last straw?), but months before, when some of the early reviews for his latest book, Imagine, came out.

In Lehrer’s previous book, How We Decide (also known as The Decisive Moment in the UK), I experienced yet again the same twin traits of charisma and lack of care over factual accuracy. The writing was utterly engaging, charming, oozing with talent, but at the same time peppered with basic errors. For instance, on page 100 he writes, “This kind of thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the outermost layer of the frontal lobes.” This is anatomical rubbish—the prefrontal cortex instead, as the name implies, is simply the front-most section of the frontal lobes. Layers have nothing to do with it. I expect such mistakes from less able undergraduate students, who are too lazy to read the first line of the relevant Wikipedia article, but never ever in a respected science book. Then on page 112-3, he writes “the first parts of the brain to evolve—the motor cortex and brain stem.” Where did this come from? The brain stem very probably evolved hundreds of millions of years before the much more recent cortex, which the motor cortex is obviously a part of. So this is completely wrong as well. One last example (of many more) on page 100 again: “Neanderthals were missing one of the most important talents of the human brain: rational thought.” To me, rational thought is what keeps most species of animals alive, but at the very least can you make advanced tools and use fire, as Neanderthals did, without “rational thought”?

I was rather surprised to find that How We Decide received almost universal critical acclaim, when the science within it, although beautifully and stylishly explained, was error strewn and somewhat superficial. Most reviewers know little science in detail, I suppose, so don’t notice these errors that scream off the page to a jobbing research scientist. But at what point should these errors be caught?

I am a little ashamed to admit that I felt relief and a little pleasure that Lehrer's latest book, Imagine, received what I would call a more accurate set of reviews. My favourite is in the The New York Times by the highly respected Harvard scientist, Christopher Chabris, which in part lists a similar set of simple neuroscientific facts that Lehrer got wrong.

Imagine is sold as a science book, and so the explanation of science doesn’t really suffer if the odd Bob Dylan quote is made up. So although such an act is utterly sloppy, potentially fraudulent and very embarrassing, I don't feel that this is the aspect of the book we should be pouring the majority of our scorn over.

However, the main purpose of Imagine, to impart science, does suffer significantly when many of these elementary yet important scientific facts are just as wrong as the Dylan quote, and perhaps also if the topic is dealt with in too superficial a way. Chabris’ review came out on May 11th, and it should have been at this stage that the publisher stepped in, and pulled all copies of Imagine off the shelves for a few months, until a factually accurate replacement was available (preferably checked by an actual scientist). And the newspapers and magazines that Lehrer contributed to should have paused and thought about fact and source checking at this point, in early May. Instead, Lehrer was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker a month later.

I want to emphasise that I think Jonah Lehrer is incredibly talented. He has an enviable writing style, and can talk with amazing eloquence. So it infuriates me even more that he currently lacks rigour in his work, and seems habitually to adopt a deceptive schoolboy attitude to mistakes when they are revealed to him, rather than maturely owning up to his errors. And I do really hope he bounces back from this. If he more deeply immersed himself in a topic, stopped cutting corners, fact-checked religiously, then he could easily reclaim his position towards the top of scientific journalism.

But to me there are wider issues that Lehrer’s case highlights. I’ve written before about the problem of fact-checking and trust within the neuroscientific community (specifically surrounding problems in neuroimaging reporting). But the issue in scientific journalism and book publishing is so much worse.

Cognitive neuroscience might have its set of problems, but at least when we publish an academic paper, it has undergone peer review, where a few other scientists have carefully read through it, and have had an opportunity to highlight problems. For my current general audience science book, The Ravenous Brain (incidentally due out one month today), I took it upon myself to ensure that the book went through an informal peer review process, with academic colleagues reading the entire manuscript, to check for errors. I believe for any general audience science book, but especially those written by non-scientists like Jonah Lehrer, the publisher and author should always include academic scientific review as part of the process, to catch the kind of errors that Lehrer repeatedly makes before they turn up in print. Although my main experience is in the book field, the same applies to newspaper and magazine articles about science.

Another issue brought into focus by Jonah Lehrer is that he clearly has a winning formula for writing popular science books, and might well be able to retire on the earnings from his handful of years of communicating science. This is a very rare position in publishing. Science writing for the general audience should definitely be engaging, fascinating, even inspiring, and there’s no doubt that Lehrer has solved this part of the equation. But ideally it should also be substantive, even challenging at times, not hiding the complexities inherent in almost all science, but guiding the reader carefully through them. Can a non-scientist succeed in this second aim? Possibly in rare cases, but undoubtedly it is far easier for a research scientist within the field to capture this aspect of the work. I wish more scientists wrote for a general audience, and definitely wish that more newspapers and magazines engaged scientists on articles of scientific content. In the magazine sphere it isn’t uncommon for scientists to pair with journalists on articles, and I think it would be great if more articles were written with such partnerships. And perhaps this should be a more common model in the science book realm as well.

In this increasingly competitive academic culture, career respect is almost entirely related to academic publication quantity and quality. I would love for at least a gentle cultural shift, where public engagement of science is given more priority for scientists, not just in the odd talk, or afternoon of public experiments once a year, but in actively providing the time and space for scientists to produce general audience science articles or even books.

Finally, I think the bottom line here is trust. Lehrer betrayed the reader's trust, not just with making up Bob Dylan quotes, but perhaps more importantly by pretending that his scientific descriptions were carefully, rigorously checked and sourced, when they weren't. And just as vitally, he didn't think to update his work when mistakes were apparent. But part of the blame also lies with the industry in failing to create a pressure for accuracy, such as with a pre-publication professional critique. We trust our magazines and publishers to oversee their writers, but this isn't necessarily the case. With the explosion of blogging, tweeting and so on, I hope increasingly that scientists can keep tabs on such issues, and make them public, as Chabris so ably did with his review of Imagine.

But perhaps you also have a role to play in keeping a hint of doubt always in your mind, perhaps a little more broadly for journalists than scientists. And with the internet an increasingly interactive place, many times you have the power to check facts yourself, badger authors for sources, or other scientist bloggers with questions and clarifications. This way we can all do our bit to raise the quality of scientific writing.

Copyright Daniel Bor.

Daniel Bor, Ph.D is a research fellow at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science and the Department of Informatics at the University of Sussex.

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