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What's Really Wrong with Jonah Lehrer -- and Us

Posted: 08/02/2012 12:10 pm

Jonah Lehrer is the New Yorker writer and author of the best-seller Imagine: How Creativity Works, sale of which has been suspended by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, because Lehrer made up many of the Bob Dylan quotes used in the book. Lehrer had compounded his original crime when he lied to Michael Moynihan, a journalist for Tablet, as Moynihan tried to pin down the quotes with Lehrer. (This is reminiscent of the Stephen Glass scenario as a New Republic writer who fabricated stories, then constructed elaborate facades to disguise his malfeasance, as captured in the 2003 film, Shattered Glass. In which case, New Yorker editor David Remnick would be played by Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Glass's editor in the film.)

Lehrer has been highly sought after as a writer who can explain neuroscience for laypeople, particularly in applying the field to the arts, which partly accounts for his prior contra temps of recycling his material in the many prominent newspapers and periodicals for which he writes -- including Wired, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine.

But Lehrer's regular appearance in these iconic publications speaks to a larger issue -- our desperation to make common sense out of neuroscientific discoveries, which many feel hold out the keys to our happiness and well being. And that is Lehrer's worst sin -- his simplistic, almost ludicrous, efforts (given the name "reductionism" in philosophy of science) to boil down the workings of the artistic mind to biological platelets. This can't be done, as reviewers of Mr. Lehrer's work pointed out well before his duplicity was uncovered. That Lehrer's preposterous reductive effort was so widely welcomed by the public and leading publications is what we most need to be concerned about.

In response to Lehrer's first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonathon Keats wrote in Salon:


Lehrer's ponderings about Escoffier are trivial. His writings about novelists including Proust, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot are disastrous. His treatment of Eliot serves an apt example, since he credits her with anticipating an especially surprising discovery about the brain: neurogenesis, or the ability to grow new neurons. ... Which makes him think of Eliot's "Middlemarch," in which characters have the startling ability to develop, becoming, by the end of the book, different from who they were at the beginning. "[N]eurogenesis is evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving," Lehrer writes. "Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning."


Setting aside the fact that Eliot hardly needed to anticipate neurogenesis (or even neuroplasticity) to conjure characters changed by circumstances, the essential question arises: What is the good of saddling Eliot with neuroscience? Lehrer's reductionist reading of "Middlemarch" strips it of any interest as literature, and denies the value to be found in any work that doesn't operate as an exemplar of neurogenesis, such as fatalistic "Oedipus Rex."... If illustration of scientific principles avant la lettre is the best defense to be had for the arts, the arts are better off dead.

Isaac Chotiner, meanwhile, noted in The New Republic about Imagine:

IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in "studies" and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.

It is not just, as Chotiner points out, that Lehrer is so often "inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic," or even so much, as Keats notes, that Lehrer selects evidence "arbitrarily and often inaccurately" in order to support his claims, or that he so often argues both sides of the issue. Chotiner points to Lehrer's discussion of newcomers, or mentally unbalanced people, or other "outsiders" as being those primed to make great discoveries, even as Lehrer then claims that Shakespeare and others could only flourish when their cultural eras supported their efforts. Alternately, Lehrer devotes a great deal of time to indicating that people have great artistic or scientific creative bursts when they divert their attention from their work -- except, that is, when great concentrated efforts are responsible for such advances or discoveries.

In other words, the lack of intellectual integrity in Lehrer's work has been obvious all along. Only our cultural institutions welcomed it nonetheless because it fulfilled our need for bite-sized intellectual products. Thus Chotiner's critique is more devastating about our cultural and intellectual milieu than it is about this one particular writer: "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." Keats, meanwhile, chimes in: "Lehrer's book is worth discussing for this reason: It embodies an approach to the humanities and sciences that threatens the vitality of both."

Therefore, we don't need to discover more about Lehrer's highly successful intellectual charade. Rather, the bells chiming now in acknowledgement of his self-evident crimes toll for us all.

 

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