On Jonah Lehrer

By Razib Khan | August 7, 2012 11:32 pm

Since Jonah Lehrer came up in the open thread last week, I’m going to mention it. First, I’ll preface this by saying that my interactions with Jonah, who I labeled the “boy king of cognitive neuroscience” jokingly at one point, were all positive. Since Jonah quoted me in The Wall Street Journal I received an email from a fact-checker asking me about this. He didn’t misquote me, and on the contrary, he was punctilious about correcting a misspelling of my name. I liked what I knew about Jonah as a person, and the whole episode has left me rather depressed.

Plagiarism, fabulism, whatever you call it, what he did was horrible. But what really sent me over the edge was the possibility that Jonah threw an editor under the bus, casting blame elsewhere to cover up his sloppiness. The main reason I post this is that I want to reproduce a comment which illustrates the sort of error Jonah regularly made:

If anything I was a little surprised that you thought it was fit to mention Lehrer’s post on the decline effect in one of your posts lately as noteworthy exception to poor science journalism industry (if I can recall correctly).

To me, this man is dangerous because he demonstrated in that article that he was willing to fabricate things in order to prove his point. More specifically, in order for this thesis to have science-wise applicability, he decided to invent evidence about Physics, the most robust of the physical sciences.

He wrote that the ‘weak coupling ratio’ of a decaying neutron had fallen by ten sigma. Since my area of relative expertise was Physics and that my instructor for a course that semester was in the team at NIST who study neutron decay, it became instantly clear that this man didn’t know what he was talking about. (in fact, it was in the ‘not even wrong’ category, as what he probably wanted to say was axial vector in the weak coupling constant, which we use to calculate a ration)

Anyway, no amount of emailing or writing the new-yorker to retract this assault against fundamental science was useful. I remember just being really annoyed with how you can get away with something if it’s cryptic enough and not published to an audience who has any level of expertise or understanding of the subject matter. I wrote to this man again recently, asking him to do the right thing and own up to all the things that he has made up because undoing and erasing the internet’s memory of falsehoods is almost impossible, even if new yorker retracts or corrects something.

I am just pissed off that it has to be an inconsequential Bob Dylan quote that has caught the publics attention and not the important frauds.

This sounds familiar. In 2006 the blogger behind Mixing Memory, Chris, kept telling me that Jonah simply did not know what he was talking about in the details. This area of cognitive neuroscience was one where I didn’t know enough to judge (though I did know enough to know that Chris’ critiques of Jonah’s representation of Freud were accurate). But after all, Jonah was a Rhodes Scholar who also studied neuroscience at Columbia. How could he not know! Meanwhile, Chris was also very knowledgeable in his domain. But what about evolution? RPM of Evolgen also noticed some problems with Jonah’s handling of the details of science.

So the warning signs were there if you chose to look. I didn’t look. Jonah was nice, and had an impressive pedigree. It was enough that I ignored very compelling criticisms from people who I trusted. Perhaps it is a time to reflect on how we decide who we trust.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science
MORE ABOUT: Jonah Lehrer
  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    In fact, I recall reading Lehrer’s article and stumbling over exactly the same point. I believe he was referring to the neutron lifetime though, see this graphic

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/access/id/340399/name/Neutron_lifetimeChart.gif

  • skeptic

    Hmm, perhaps one reason this blog is somewhat trustable (in that I believe you won’t fake things) is you aren’t nice and have no pedigree :-).

    PS: Just a joke, no offence intended.

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R

    worth noting that imprecise or skewed facts, and misquotes are pretty commonplace in science writing (which is why a lot of scientists don’t even wish to speak to reporters); Lehrer’s downfall was the sheer sloppiness and deliberateness of his errors. One reason some people have urged scientists themselves to more actively engage in blogging/writing/reporting is that only they truly understand their complex subject matters; even the best of science writers rarely do, and if you went line-by-line over their output there’d be plenty more to complain about; probably always best to read them with a grain of salt (having said that, there are certainly science writers I love reading).

  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    “But after all, Jonah was a Rhodes Scholar who also studied neuroscience at Columbia. How could he not know!”

    I wonder if the fact that Lehrer started out being seen primarily as a “blogger” rather than a “journalist” helped him along; maybe bloggers need to be as critical of each other, as we are about other writers.

  • Charles Nydorf

    I haven’t been reading Jonah Lehrer. Can anyone point to a case where he actually tackled a difficult scientific subject and made it comprehensible in the way that writers like Gamow, Asimov, Sacks, Penrose, Cox and Forshaw, etc. do routinely in their books?

  • simplicio

    @3)” worth noting that imprecise or skewed facts, and misquotes are pretty commonplace in science writing (which is why a lot of scientists don’t even wish to speak to reporters); Lehrer’s downfall was the sheer sloppiness and deliberateness of his errors”

    Yea, my impression was that Lehrer’s mistake was to try and concoct a bunch of lies about fictitious unreleased Dylan interviews to explain away his misquotes. If he’d just copt to a minor mea culpa when people started asking questions, and said he’d gotten the quotes confused in his notes for the story or something, I imagine it would’ve been chalked it up to usual Journalistic carelessness and his career would’ve survived at least until the next scandal.

  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    simplicio: Yeah, it was the coverup rather than the Dylan quotes I think but even if he’d survived that, more allegations of dodgy facts & quotes are emerging, see http://www.twitlonger.com/show/illeo6 and others from Moynihan on Twitter.

  • Darkseid

    I guess what always bothered me most about blog and his popularity was that, at the end of a post, you hadn’t *really* learned anything you couldn’t deduce on your own. Analytical thinking can lead you to your own biases but what is more interesting is the actual underlying connections that cause them. For the most part, no one really even knows those answers but jonah always repackaged them and presented them as if he had figured it all out. That’s why I didn’t bother reading him too often.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeahub Hubbard

    The weakness of Jonah Lehrer was old news if you’d been reading The Last Psychiatrist: http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2011/02/the_decline_effect_is_stupid.html

  • mrmandias

    “Hmm, perhaps one reason this blog is somewhat trustable (in that I believe you won’t fake things) is you aren’t nice and have no pedigree ”

    The main reason is that the author is willing to air that he was duped. Of course, the author is smart enough to know that being willing to air it increases his credibility. But (1) being smart and (2) caring that people perceive you as credible, are both credibility enhancers anyway.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    I wonder if the fact that Lehrer started out being seen primarily as a “blogger” rather than a “journalist” helped him along; maybe bloggers need to be as critical of each other, as we are about other writers.

    hm. i don’t know. he was/is as much a blogger as carl zimmer. he always had a productive writing career, and at scienceblogs he never got involved in the ‘blog community.’ i think jonah’s blogging was always a supplement. over the years he actually began to take it more seriously as blogging and journalism merged in the mainstream.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    perhaps one reason this blog is somewhat trustable (in that I believe you won’t fake things) is you aren’t nice and have no pedigree

    very funny :-)

  • Siod

    Re “Perhaps it is a time to reflect on how we decide who we trust.”

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    ― Michael Crichton

    Perhaps we should only trust the experts when they communicate within their own domain.

  • DavidB

    What puzzles me is that he would make up quotes from Bob Dylan, who is, after all, still alive and notoriously tetchy.

  • http://shinbounomatsuri.wordpress.com Spike Gomes

    14:
    Dylan’s been making shit up and grabbing lines and melodies unattributed since he started. Nowadays when he’s caught at it, the person he’s nicking from often feels honored (like Junichi Saga’s book). If he caught wind of this he probably grinned and mumbled “Amateur.”. Then again, Lehrer can’t hide behind the justification that it’s part of America’s folk science tradition. :-)

    That said, Dylan’s still a genius.

    In general, I tend to distrust people who are intelligent and come across as “nice”. You can’t go around this world with brains that work without getting jaded and/or irritated. It has to be a front. I like blunt assholes. It’s harder to hide an ulterior motive when you come across as not giving a shit about what others think about you.

  • Roger Bigod

    It’s hard to see any harm that Lehrer did, other than to readers’ trust in the organizations he writes for. He didn’t promote quack medicine, suggest bad financial advice or give political counsel that would lead to an unwise use of the franchise. The take-away message would be the same without the inaccuracies. Excising the bogus quotes leaves the same general account of Dylan’s creative (if that is the word) process.

    Is there a typology or classification system for untruth? IIRC “confabulation” is filling out the outline of a story with plausible details to complete a narrative, and the individual doesn’t intend to lie. Many of his inaccuracies had the effect of simplifying a story line or adding a dramatic punch, in the spirit of editing reality. I don’t know how one could distinguish this from psychopathic lying.

    The one time I tried to intervene was on his blog. He was discussing a paper on the neurology of music, and the authors had used the word “corticofugal” to describe some neural pathways. His interpretation was “Neuroscience, stealing vocabulary from music, has named these malleable cells ‘the corticofugal network’, after the fugal form Bach made famous.”

    Um, no. The “fug-” root just means “going away from”, as in “fugitive”. Corticofugal fibers leave the cortex, but the term can apply to pathways heading for the toes as well as brain areas concerned with music. I pointed this out to him, and so as not to sound like a smarty-pants, confessed that I initially had a similar musical interpretation about the psychiatric term “fugue state”. (I believe my theory has a certain poetry, but I’m glad I realized its silliness before announcing it to anyone.) Maybe it would have been better if I had been nasty and told him to do some fact-checking.

  • ac

    OTOH, 80% of what malcolm gladwell says is generally wrong (see: igon problem), and he doesn’t seem to be having any trouble getting published

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #17, gladwell seems kind of dumb, right?

  • Spike Gomes

    18:
    Kind of dumb? He is the sort of dumb that comes from 10,000 hours of practice in describing the emperor’s new clothes to NYT readers. You have to work hard to get that stupid.

    The difference between him and Lehrer is that Gladwell is a guy who thinks he’s pretty damn smart and intuitive when he’s just a relatively dull but glib shill for the conventional wisdom of all right-thinking people. He doesn’t realize how much of an intellectual hack he is, so he has no need to falsify things to support his conclusions. He just makes the wrong conclusions without even realizing it and people lap it up without thinking. Lehrer is smarter than Gladwell (though probably not as smart as he thinks he is, which is why he eventually got caught) and thought that he really needed to “sell” his conclusions and ideas to his audience by riffing on the cultural tropes they get off on. “Look, I’m name dropping Proust, and hey this science word/process is like a Bach fugue! I’m so culturally with it, and by reading this and grokking it, you are by extension bridging the gap between the high arts and cutting edge science too!” Eventually he just started putting himself more and more on a limb to play that part of both a cultural and science polymathic insider, and retractions due to errors would have dinged that image.

    Of course this is just armchair quarterbacking on the character of people based on impersonal public writings, so take it with a salt mine’s worth, yeah?

  • http://www.facebook.com/doclonglegs Andrew Selvarasa

    I think Malcolm Gladwell’s heart is in the right place.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #20, $$$ :-)

  • Roger Bigod

    Financial dextrocardia?

  • Igon Spengler

    You’re wasting valuable time. He’s drawing strength from a psychomagnotheric slime flow that’s been collecting under the city.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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