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Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer (nymag.com)
47 points by nir 1845 days ago | hide | past | web | 50 comments | favorite

It's not surprising that it was Bob Dylan fans who caught Lehrer fabricating. The stuff he was saying about Dylan was obviously off – equally ignorant and glib. I remember listening to Terry Gross interviewing him well before the scandal and being shocked at what bullshit he was peddling.

Fabrication and plagiarism are what got him fired, and I suppose it has to be that way, but there's an unpleasant corollary: had he been a more careful or even just a less prolific bullshitter, he would still be a celebrated star of science writing.

Can you elaborate on the bullshit part from the interview? I'm curious. I read the book (Imagine) and I enjoyed it. It wasn't particularly deep, but I didn't catch anything that wasn't consistent with what I already knew about the topic.

It seems I can't answer your question without ranting. Sorry about that.

I was referring to what Lehrer said about Bob Dylan and "Like a Rolling Stone". His narrative about Dylan's biography and his creative process was totally off – not consistent with what even a casual fan like myself has picked up over the years. It wasn't just a little odd here and there, it was screamingly wrong. The idea that Dylan got stuck between "Bringing it all back home" (March 1965) and "Highway 61 Revisited" (Aug 1965) is laughable – that was the middle of the greatest creative rampage of his career, his annus mirabilis. Everybody knows that that manic phase peaked in "Blonde on Blonde" (1966) and the crash happened afterward. Lehrer's fairy tale about how Dylan was going to quit music (!) but it turned out he just needed to take a little rest and then, boom, a creative outpouring and out came "Like a Rolling Stone", was silly. Dylan had been pouring out material in that way for years. Lehrer's thing about how there had been only two kinds of pop song and Dylan finally put them together in "Like a Rolling Stone" is cringeworthy, the kind of thing you would tolerate in a precocious adolescent until you could take him off to one side and tell him to knock it off and learn something. Then there were howlers like claiming that while writing the song Dylan coined the term "juiced" to mean "drunk". That was as ignorant as Gladwell's "igon values" but worse, since it indicates a readiness to make shit up to fit your narrative.

My point is that these things weren't just wrong, they were obvious concoctions. And someone who would bullshit that much about one thing would clearly bullshit about anything. If he hadn't fabricated quotes and plagiarized, that would still be the case. And it's not like people didn't call him on it, even before he got caught on the no-nos [1].

What bugs me, and I'm almost done, is that Lehrer's editors and patrons were quite happy for him to propagate this kind of thing. Not in a "sure it's crap but we need material" way, but in a "take a look at this! he's a wunderkind!" way. Had he not gotten grandiosely sloppy, he'd not only still be doing it, he'd still be widely praised for doing it. He'd be in that elite group of repeat guests on Fresh Air, maybe even the super-elite who are allowed to say "thank you" when Terry says "Welcome back to Fresh Air". So to me this was a little like a criminal who eventually got busted on a technicality.

[1] http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/103912/bo.... To say something positive: yay to Isaac Chotiner for being the one who nailed this stuff on its essential crappiness rather than its accidental transgressions. Plus he wrote a good piece about P.G. Wodehouse: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/06/the-esca..., so I'm going to watch for him in the future. Perhaps the New Yorker could hire him :)

Worth noting here that the original New Yorker article Gladwell wrote had "eigenvalue", not "igon value"; the incorrect spelling occurred in a reprint of the same article. Not dispositive, of course!


After having read Glieck's Chaos years ago, I thought I would pick up "Tipping Point" at the library. Before I got to the door, checking through a few pages, I realized I would be physically unable to read the book, because it was just wrong. In the way that trying to reason about free body diagrams without having any math is going to be wrong. Or to do eigenvalues without understanding arithmetic in the complex plane. Let alone igon values.

I don't find this eigenvalue controversy all that interesting. Gladwell also wrote a long New Yorker article about ketchup and the market for different ketchups. I doubt Gladwell could, given the ingredients and a good kitchen, make a passable ketchup. I still like the article.

If anything, the eigen/igon thing just tells me that unlike many popsci writers, Gladwell is at least out there talking to people and trying to report. Bear in mind that Gladwell makes no pretense to actually being a scientist (unlike Lehrer). He's a journalist by training. I am given to understand from a great conversation I had earlier this week that it is not necessarily reasonable to assume that physicists have mastered linear algebra. So, in that spirit, it is not reasonable to expect journalists to understand linear algebra simply to report on quantitative finance.

You're right on the details, yet the symbol remains compelling. I find this interesting. When a symbol or meme takes hold and gets repeated, it's often because it captures something real – not usually accurate or logical, but resonant – about the thing. It's almost the default case for the details to be all wrong and discredited, yet the image hovers in the truth field of the thing it's about, often closer to the core than any accurate detail. "Igon value" is an example. Maybe Gladwell never typed i-g-o-n, and you're probably right to say so what if he did, yet there it sits in exactly the space of glibness approaching charlatanry that (a lot of people argue) he inhabits. It's almost as if there is a force of cultural justice that speaks in symbols, not facts, yet finds its mark anyway. I've noticed this over and over. Some of the best examples are political so I won't mention them here. But I'd like to see an example of the phenomenon where the repetition of the meme really is unjust.

As for Gladwell, he's a good storyteller, and part of what makes him interesting is that he glides so smoothly between things that we expect to be made up and things we trust to be factual. If Lehrer is a petty criminal then Gladwell is a master art thief. Bet he'd like that analogy.

When you write "yet there it sits in exactly the space of glibness approaching charlatanry that (a lot of people argue) he inhabits", my inner Wikipedian says "WP:WEASEL". I get the sense that you think he occupies that space, too, and it'd be interesting to know why.

I don't intend to win a debate here. :)

Sorry, but I don't have much of an opinion, just a vague impression that is based on random snippets and could easily be wrong - hence the "a lot of people argue".

(To avoid circularity I might add that, if the "igon value" thing really is inapt, that would be a counterexample to my "cultural justice" theory, which is okay since I only thought of it this morning.)

In general, I think storytelling and factual fidelity are at odds with one another. They're incommensurable and can't even really be balanced. What we most want is stories, but we also want them to be true, which is impossible, so we do a lot of complicated ritual dances around that, and get angry when someone breaks the dance rules.

I do agree that he is one of the great storytellers of our time. As was Jerzy Kosiński. (Who was a plagerist and didn't actually write his own books.)

The problem to me is more one of leading an audience to where the conclusions sound nice, but are either dubious, or, as in the case of Tipping Point, far short of the beauty of more informed explanation.

It's pretty disappointing, I love reading these popular science books. I guess they're fun to read because they're entertaining, now I know how some of these authors are making them entertaining...

This was a pretty interesting article in itself to read.

"Self-plagiarizing" isn't a real thing. It's complete nonsense to say you are plagiarizing from yourself.

Shocking part is so many people are just falling for this argument without thinking about it. As well as those who think about it, and to join in the thrills of a witch hunt, justify to themselves that this self-plagiarization is not just a real thing, but unethical behavior bordering on criminal.

Fabricating quotes and making up facts though is bad and justifies firing and blacklisting. Both practices are unfortunately endemic within contemporary publications, perhaps due to a lack of fact checkers at many publishers.

The "victim" of plagiarism isn't the original author. It's the reader, who is deceived into thinking they are reading original thoughts when they'd instead be better served by the original source.

Nobody in the media is "just falling" for the idea of "self-plagiarizing"; in virtually every place I've seen this issue covered, there's been extensive scrutiny of the idea of "self-plagiarism" and where it ranks in the catalog of literary sins.

This post is yet another example of the "middlebrow dismissal":



It is all well and good to grapple with the idea of whether and how "self-plagiarizing" is a real offense. But to do so in a comment like yours, dismissing it as herd thinking and witch hunting, is lazy and ill-informed. Your comment has as its premise something that is actually the opposite of the truth; ironically, it distracts from the real controversy of how big a deal self-plagiarism is by pretending that there is no such controversy.

I don't buy it. You're the author of the original source. If you write an essay, and then realize there are some good parts, but most of it was too confusing to follow, you are no longer allowed to use those good parts in a new essay, which would be better for the reader?

Of course you're allowed to do that; you simply have to be honest about what you're doing. Similarly, when some other author writes a few good bits but fails to make a point you feel is worthy, you're allowed to incorporate their work and expand on it; you just have to be clear and direct about what you're doing.

What's not OK is to pass off work from some other source as original or novel.

I remember seeing a Hacker News submission of one of the later Jonah Lehrer stories, and thinking, "Didn't I read this a couple years ago?" Indeed I had, in the earlier publication where Lehrer published the same piece. When an author submits a story to a professionally edited publication, the standard terms of the publication contract routinely include a provision in which the author warrants that the writing is new, an original work of authorship not published before. (Publishers have other contractual arrangements for publishing reprints of previously published articles.) I'm with you in thinking that "self-plagiarizing" is an inartful phrase, but when Lehrer submitted pieces to later publications that he had written a few years earlier and already had published in earlier publications, he was violating the promises in his publishing contract, and committing a kind of fraud. Perhaps using the term "breaching author's contract" or even the strong term "fraud" might have made clear why that aspect of what Lehrer did was wrong and a ground for the recent publishers to decide not to deal with Lehrer anymore.

I agree with you that in many of these cases it may be a contract violation and can be discussed as such when that's the case. My objection is to terming this plagiarism which it is not. As we see in the referenced article, it moves from the modified "self-plagiarism" to "plagiarism" quickly, by the fourth paragraph when it says "Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler." Now the word plagiarism is screwed because of irresponsible articles conflating contract violations with plagiarism. I see this term in an article, what does it mean? Who knows. Probably is BS. It's like the word rape. If I hear someone is a rapist, it means nothing to me since he probably had consensual sex with his 17 year old girlfriend when he was 18. Or perhaps it is a reference I have seen tossed around to refer to when a male gets into a heated argument with a female, it can now be termed "verbal sexual assault", also now known as "rape".

No, he actually was caught plagiarizing from other authors. I don't love this NYMag piece, but it isn't pulling a fast one on you.

OK, thanks, you are right.

Three cases of slightly rewording other people's blog posts. Full text here, and is very clearly plagiarism.


I'm 100% with you on the nonsense of "self-plagiarizing". But I think making up quotes wholesale in a non-fiction piece ought to be enough by itself to get you drummed out of journalism.

I agree with you completely. Fabricating stuff in journalism and scientific studies (see "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False") should result in blacklisting, and if the publication is complicit, they should be boycotted. Not that that's what happens, but would be nice if it worked that way.

I understood "self-plagiarizing" as it was used in this article to be selling your words to one entity and then selling them to another.

It's likely that a highly paid writer would be expected to produce unique pieces, and not to resell the ones paid for.

Writing pieces on your blog and then using paragraphs in a e-newsletter would not fall under this definition.

It's pretty clearly a real thing -- even if you don't like how the concept is named or think that it's unethical, it's a specific type of behavior/action that can be discussed.

Did any thought reading this..."Malcolm Gladwell"?

Just curious, but why did you feel the compulsion to comment on an article you very clearly didn't even read?

Just curious, why would you draw such a horribly flawed inference?

I read the article closely, and I was also struck by the similarity of what he was trying to what Malcolm Gladwell does. And the end of the article the parallel is made very clearly.

If an article mentions Gladwell several times, and someone asks if the article made anyone think of Gladwell, it's a pretty good guess that they didn't get to that part of it before commenting.

I had to resist making the same comment that you replied to, because I felt like the article was at some pains to put Lehrer in the context of Gladwell. I too assumed that anyone who could ask this question probably hadn't read the article.

Some pains - sure.

But I would have been drawing the parallel anyways, and in fact was well before the article twisted that way.

I'm guessing that binxbolling thought that desireco42's post was in response to the title, supplying Gladwell for "... wasn't the only ...". It's a common sort of generally useless comment.

He's specifically mentioned in the article, unsurprisingly.

Indeed: "Malcolm Gladwell got into hot water in 2005 by telling a story about games he played in the pages of the Washington Post that turned out to be almost entirely untrue. In print, Gladwell is often knocked for reducing social science to easy epiphanies and is occasionally called out for ignoring evidence that contradicts his cozy theories"

I dispute how much "hot water" Gladwell got into over the Moth story. First, it's hard to listen to that story and take it seriously; it's pretty over-the-top. Second, The Moth is a somewhat informal venue; for instance, Mike Birbiglia's Moth performance is more or less a standup routine. The story was covered in the media because it suggested (playfully) that major publications were sometimes run more by gamesmanship than by a duty to report the facts; true or not, it was obviously catnip to media critics.

The latter allegations --- that Gladwell's stories are too pat, and that they exclude contradictory evidence --- amount to Gladwell being "wrong" about things. But being wrong isn't a journalistic crime; journalists, columnists, and essayists are wrong all the time. It's disingenuous to lay that case out in an article about someone who committed real journalistic crimes: fabrication and plagiarism. In the actual NYMag piece, the case against Gladwell consists largely of innuendo: that he gives a lot of high-priced talks, that in marketing himself and The New Yorker, he created a brand that he can milk for his own personal gain. Well, we all milk things for our personal gain; it's called "having a career".

Thanks, I didn't have the context - that's a quote from the article.

Undoubtedly, Lehrer's journalistic crimes are pretty serious, and shouldn't be compared to Gladwell. And you're right that having a brand is no crime :) .

I like to read popular science book. Does that mean that I have to give up reading popular science and read dreary academic papers?

There's plenty of popular science books that are written by respected scientists - Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Stephen Hawking - as well as books that are effective summaries of accepted information by laypeople, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (which interweaves the history with first-person narrative of the author's interactions with Lacks's living relatives) or The Big Bang by Simon Singh.

There's also lots of blogs written by laypeople or former researchers who carefully distill and contextualize individual scientific papers, such as many of the folks at Discover Magazine blogs (Phil Plait, Ed Yong).

Moreover, there's a larger problem of lay journalists, public, and many university PR people treating every bit of research as a groundbreaking answer to a huge question, when the reality is that each paper is merely a bit of dialog in a massive conversation about the nature of our universe. This leads the public to become rightfully distrusting of the massive overstatements, and therefore tragically disinterested in the nuanced conversation behind it all.

So perhaps the single best thing to do is become part of the conversation! Follow authors and bloggers on social media, talk to your friends in science, furrow your brow at bombastic university press releases and seek the nuance. This will lead you to the best books, articles, and science communicators out there.

I've been bitten by this several times. I would hear about an exciting result in psychology or something, tell my friends about it, then double check the original study just to be sure, then call up my friends with apologies and corrections. So my advice is, if you like popular science books, at least don't retell their conclusions to others!

No! Not by any means. But don't take them at their word. As with everything you read (or hear, or see . . .) you should question it. It should encourage you to investigate more of the subject at hand, to look up the references (no references is a bad sign). If nothing else, it can provide a valuable lesson in skepticism and the depth required to truly understand these fields; you didn't really think that such complex topics could be properly addressed in a twenty minute TED talk or a single non-reference book, did you? These things are teasers, meant to whet your appetite or let you know that there is a broader world out there.

Only if you want the truth.

More seriously: you're probably ok with books written by scientists who are respected as scientists, such as Kahneman mentioned in the article. But be very wary of books written by journalists.

Only if you are intellectually ambitious.

Kind of... that is my conclusion. Imagine :)!

No, just limit your popular science reading to books written by scientists instead of journalists.

If I see an interesting pop sci story, I'll track down the original research that it's based on. Generally speaking, if the concept was interesting to me in a pop sci context, it's even more interesting to me in depth.

If I can't find the original research, I try to treat the information as tainted, because even honest and intelligent writers often oversimplify concepts when presenting them to a lay audience.

Is anybody wondering: What's Jonah Lehrer doing now?

He's writing about his ordeal:

“I’m writing something about the mistake and affair myself, if only so I can learn from the failing, and I’d prefer not to talk until my writing is done.”


OT: that was a good example of a print link that is not obnoxious. Unlike most print links, it did not come up with a freakishly wide columns of diminutive text, and had a clear way to get the non-print version so that one can read the comments and other extras lost on the print version. More sites should implement their print links like that.

I kind of disagree, and think this is a poor implementation. "Print view" is a feature that JavaScript lightbox-style dialogs should not be used to implement. This one for instance, is totally broken on mobile (on Chrome on a Nexus 7 at least, you cannot scroll to read it)

It's interesting how relatively minor fabrications like these earned Lehrer complete ostracism, yet much huger distortions are told in the political arena daily and no one bats an eye. To pick a random example, "there is no evidence for climate change". I wonder why the double standard?

There is no economic incentive motivating a group of people to spend large amounts of money to convince the public that Bob Dylan did say those quotes.

Lehrer should have lied about things that have been politicized for economic gain, like climate change, economics or medical science. Then when you get called on it you have well funded groups with media clout ready to support you.

I agree the double standard is ridiculous, but I don't find it surprising.

Lehrer chose to distort subjects that are easily objectively verifiable, i.e., what Bob Dylan said or did in a publicly broadcast TV series watched by thousands of hardcore Dylan fans.

Climate change is verifiable, but not easily, and most evidence is unfortunately circumstantial. Furthemore, the significance of what this means is not settled, which makes the issue political rather than scientific.

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