We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me

By Neuroskeptic | March 1, 2013 6:18 am

Jonah Lehrer’s Sin – Telling Stories?

So the fallen star of popular neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, is back. Kind of. Lehrer’s made headlines for giving a talk apologizing for the plagiarism, fabrication of facts and quotes, etc. that ended his career when they were found out last year. His impressive portfolio of books, articles, blogs and lectures turned out to be a house of cards.

But many people are arguing that there was a deeper problem with Lehrer’s journalism than the fact that it was often made up or stolen. Lehrer’s work was, the critics say, just bad science writing, because it was based on telling ‘nice stories’ at best loosely based on the facts, nice stories which were more self-help than science. Some go even further and accuse all of popular neuroscience of doing this. We Are All Jonah! seems to be a common theme, as eloquently expressed by John Wilkins:

“He seemed not to fully understand the science he was trying to explain; his explanations were inaccurate, overblown, and often just plain wrong, usually in the direction of giving his readers counterintuitive thrills and challenging their settled beliefs”… Entirely lost in such criticisms, though, is that this is a failure of the entire field of science reporting, whether on blogs or in published outlets (or both)… what you read in the successful mass media is not factual, nor complete, but a story, a narrative. And narratives need to have drama, or they will not be published, and if they are, they will not be read.

There’s a lot of truth in that, but I’m going to argue that there is an answer, albeit not an easy one.

Everything’s A Narrative

Everyone uses narratives and drama. It’s not even use, really, because to write anything is to tell some kind of a story, even if it’s as simple as “Someone says that…”.

It’s how the mind works. Even if you did craft a more-or-less story-free piece of writing, people would only remember the story. For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses is not the story of a guy walking around Dublin, but that’s how everyone remembers it and summarizes it. It’s actually about consciousness and a criticism of the very concept of narrative, but it’s very hard to express how it does that. So we either narrativize it as “guy walks around Dublin” or, as I just did, we tell the story of how “Once upon a time, a man named James Joyce wrote a book that was a criticism of the very concept of narrative.”

But every protagonist needs a motive. What was Joyce’s?

Joyce believed that conventional writing bent, or just ignored, the facts of human experience, in order to tell neat stories… much like Lehrer. He thought We Are All Jonah! as well, but on a more fundamental level. So in Ulysses, he tried to just write down the truth about our consciousness, thoughts and emotions as they might evolve over a very ordinary day. To do this he wrote Ulysses as a loose collection of chapters written in a series of different styles – and made each one into a parody of itself, to underline that each style tells a different kind of story but they all obscures as much as they reveal.

Or did he? Maybe all that’s just a narrative to explain a weird book by a weird guy. The above is the most popular reading of the book, but who knows? Narratives are unavoidable but problematic.

Good Narratives And Bad

We can’t avoid narrative, so what can we do? Well, in my view, we just have to get the narrative right. While no story captures all of the facts, a good story captures the essence of the events it’s about. A bad story fails to reach that essence, and hence misleads. A narrative can mislead either because the author just doesn’t grasp the essential truth, or just doesn’t bother to try and decides to spin an attractive narrative which seems to be a good one, but is actually not.

What makes good narratives, good, is not that they’re less ‘selective’ or somehow more ‘complete’ than bad ones. The difference is that the good ones selectively tell the important truths. This is, of course, the best way to tell the truth. An important truth buried within a mess of unimportant truths, might as well not be said at all. If there’s a fire, you say “Fire!”, not “The building we’re currently in, a three-story structure built in 1972… (one hour later)…is on fire.”

To tell the truth, you have to tell a story. Lehrer did that, and that’s fine. Where he went wrong was in letting the desire to tell attractive, exciting, self-help style narratives trump the facts. This is a particular danger of neuroscience journalism and it is, as many have said, all too common. Other fields of science have other kinds of characteristically bad narratives.

How Not To Be Jonah Lehrer

There’s no way of saying this that won’t annoy some people, so here goes: I wonder whether it’s (almost) impossible to write about neuroscience and reach the essence of it, unless you are, yourself, a neuroscientist or neurologist. Because neuroscientists are the ones trained to find out the truth about the brain. Of course, being a neuroscientist doesn’t mean that you will write well about the brain (many academics can barely write stuff that’s comprehensible to each other, let alone for a broader audience.) But it helps.

Now there are exceptions. I can think of journalists and non-neuroscientists who write penetratingly and brilliantly about the topic, but generally they’ve spent years specializing in doing so, and have become brain experts just like more formally-trained neuroscientists. I’m not trying to be an academic snob here, honestly. A PhD in Neuroscience is not a magic scroll that gives you the power to be a neuroscience writer – there are other ways of gaining the necessary expertise, but they’re just as hard as a PhD.

I’m fundamentally an optimist here. I believe that in neuroscience, the truth is always interesting. I’m convinced that there’s a story behind everything, one that’s both true and compelling – because the brain just is interesting. The problem is that it’s hard to find that story, to perceive that essence. It’s easy to think you’ve found it, to uncover fool’s gold rather than the real thing, and write about that. But the real gold is deeply buried.

Maybe to write about science is itself a scientific endeavour.

  • http://twitter.com/js_simons Jon Simons

    Very interesting. There appear to have been many problems with this individual’s work, but his need to write “nice stories” certainly seems to have been one of them. Of course, there is no absolute “truth” when anybody is writing about something. The act of translating an experience into a written sentence necessarily requires information encapsulated in that experience to be omitted or emphasised or distorted in some way. The trick is in ensuring as much as possible that the reconstruction of the experience on the page is not misleading in capturing the salient points of what occurred.

    We think that memory works in exactly this way: when remembering a previous event, we reconstruct a plausible narrative describing the event on the basis of a few stored sensory elements, a narrative that can be hugely influenced by our thoughts, expectations and other biases at the time of retrieval. In this way, no eyewitness is ever providing a 100% veridical rendition of an experienced event. But a “reliable” witness who nevertheless manages to get across a faithful interpretation of the salient points as they perceive them is very different from somebody deliberately trying to twist the facts to make a “nice story” that may mislead or gloss over important complexities.

    As you say, there are many science writers who are consistently able to be “reliable” witnesses in their writings, but some for whom the need to produce a “nice story” detrimentally affects their reliability. And, it would seem, a very small number who may go further, and perhaps introduce fabricated evidence to sustain a “story” that never actually happened.

  • @hugospiers

    Nice narrative! I guess a key point is that narratives can be good and
    bad for a number of reasons (hard to follow / inaccurate). As a
    neuroscientist I don’t ever seek the ‘truth’, just the current state of
    play of the evidence for the models we use. I’m not sure I’m typical
    though. I keep wondering when popular science is going to start saying
    “okay folks, now we can stop the analogies and move to equations”. I
    heard there was a equation relating the number of equations you can add
    to a pop sci story and the number of readers you loose. Equations too
    are narratives, but harder to fabricate Lehrer-style.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Hmm – nothing wrong with a good analogy. Personally I don’t understand something until I’ve worked out an analogy for it or some kind of meaningful explanation: I’ve never been able to comprehend equations just as they are, without a verbal gloss. I do agree that pop science ought to be ‘meatier’ but I don’t think equations are necessary for that.

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me : Neuroskeptic | Story and Narrative | Scoop.it()

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me : Neuroskeptic()

  • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

    I’m reminded of the other Jonah – the sinning man who brought misfortune to the sailors on whose boat he travelled. They through him overboard in order to save themselves from the storm. But Jonah was swallowed by a whale and coughed up 3 days later on dry land, a redeemed man (or something like that). The plot is eerily similar. No?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      It’s exactly the same – especially the whale, which I think is symbolic of Bob Dylan.

      • http://jayarava.blogspot.com Jayarava

        I’m not sure. At first I thought the whale might be Paul, then I remembered he was the walrus.

  • Leila Jameel

    Science writing, neuroscientific or not, is a tricky thing. It is not like other journalism where being a lay person (i.e. you don’t have to be a Michelin starred chef to write about good food!) may have little bearing on one’s ability to create an interesting and coherent picture or argument. But equally, modern scientists shouldn’t sit in ivory towers, or try to keep scientific understanding to their elite academia club, where dissemination is highly technical and inaccessible. So, what is the most important thing? To write a clear, exciting and interesting account, or to be painstakingly accurate? I don’t think science writers need be academics, but that there should be personal responsibility to writing cautiously and checking out sources carefully.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jack.butler.562329 Jack Butler

    I’m a novelist and poet, highly successful critically though never even close to a best-seller. I’ve said many times that the reason we all need to learn honest and good storytelling is that even our memories are stories. Have also said that stories are a model, like scientific theories, but unlike them in that stories allow us direct experiential access to the model, not merely cerebral (good stories certainly do not IGNORE the cerebral). A story builds itself into our very being. Whatever that is.

  • petrossa

    Thanks for the compliment, Neuroskeptic. I always thought i wrote penetratingly and brilliantly about the subject. :-)

  • Dirk57

    Ah, you’ve fallen for the trap of thinking that a scientist can be taught to write more easily than a truly talented writer can be taught the science. I try very hard to read scientists writing about their field, but my understanding usually comes from outsiders who interpret the field for lay readers. Sorry, but I don’t think that leaving it to scientists to tell science stories is a good idea at all. Honestly, most of them can’t write their way out of a plastic bag.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Very true, they can’t. And I didn’t say that scientists learning to write is ‘the answer’, that would be difficult. But journalists learning the science is also difficult. That’s all I’m saying. I don’t know that there’s any kind of reforms that would fix it.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003752878746 Mark Smith

      Be careful not to fall into the trap of only ‘learning’ from people who have no idea what they are talking about, and are able to explain things in a simple way because they alter the content to something more easily understood, but also wrong or misleading.

      • Dirk57

        God forbid something should be understandable—A perfect recipe, if your goal is to keep Club Science safe behind the moat. No so good if your goal is science communication, however.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003752878746 Mark Smith

          I hope you didn’t take what I said to mean you actually do that. I just meant in general, it’s good to look out for that.

          I don’t want “Club Science” to be behind a moat. I think it is good for the public to have an accurate understanding of science. What bothers me are all of these ‘cute’ stories you see that basically use the name of science to present something entertaining, and completely distort reality to do so.

          It’s like that quote from Einstein, “Make everything as simple as possible, and no simpler”. Many science stories try to present things in a way that is simpler than possible.

          • Dirk57

            Great Einstein quote. Most egregious example of bad science reporting has gotta be the health sciences. Just yesterday I read a “fountain of youth” story…

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me : Neuroskeptic | Learning-Teaching | Scoop.it()

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003752878746 Mark Smith

    There is a certain aspect of science writing that always struck me as one of those “If a tree falls in the woods….” type questions.

    If a journalist doesn’t understand the subject he is writing about, and misrepresents it, and the editors also don’t understand the subject, and don’t notice the misrepresentation, and the audience also doesn’t understand the subject, and so doesn’t know it’s being misrepresented, and will never actually use this information, does it matter?

    I would say it does matter. If someone writes that the Higgs boson gives particles mass because it is like the paparazzi and follows the particles around, and you believe you understand the topic now, you actually know less now than before you read that. Before you didn’t know what the Higgs boson was, but knew you didn’t know that. Now you still don’t know what the Higgs boson is, but now you don’t even know that you don’t know that.

    The negative effect of this is that it makes the world look tidier than it really is. If you see how messy the truth can be, you will be more skeptical in general and not just accept hand-wavy answers, and that will help with a lot of things.

  • http://twitter.com/edyong209 Ed Yong

    The problem I have with the ending is that it focuses on knowledge. Training, becoming “brain experts” etc. etc.

    Which feels like the conclusion to a different piece than the one you wrote. You’ve correctly identified one of Jonah’s problems: Selling attractive narratives at the expense of interesting truths. And that’s really the issue here. Crap science writers aren’t crap because they don’t know enough. It’s because they haven’t bothered to find out. Maybe they have an overinflated sense of what they know, or maybe they’ve settled on the story beforehand and are just fitting what they find into that scaffold. And btw, does that sound like many academics you know? Because it does to me.

    You don’t need a PhD in neuroscience to fix these problems, because these are issues of attitude and approach, rather than knowledge. You need… well… decent journalistic skills. Journalists don’t screw this stuff up because they’re ignorant about science. They cock up because they’re crap journalists. This is why there are plenty of great science writers without science backgrounds at all – they’re just aware of what they don’t know and make efforts to fill in the gaps.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003752878746 Mark Smith

      ” Crap science writers aren’t crap because they don’t know enough. It’s because they haven’t bothered to find out.”

      Not bothering to find out is just the cause of not knowing enough. If you don’t know something, learn about it before you write about it. I think that’s what Neuroskeptic was getting at.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      I agree that attitude is a very big problem. I think it was Jonah’s problem, he could have done it right, but decided (semi-consciously or entirely so) that he’d rather ‘sell out’.

      You need good intentions. And no, many academics don’t have them either – but that’s precisely why writers need knowledge as well as good intentions.

      If all science were good science, all the writers would have to do would be to explain it clearly (what a paradise!) but unfortunately, it’s often flawed and in this case, simply explaining the stated conclusions clearly would be misleading.

      You need to be able to spot the flaws – at least to be able to spot dodgy claims and just avoid touching them!

    • gfish3000

      Crap science writers aren’t crap because they don’t know enough. It’s because they haven’t bothered to find out.

      Now this is just my guess, but something tells me that Lehrer did bother to find out but didn’t like what he saw, knowing that it won’t fetch him the speaking fee he wanted from the enthralled 15-minute experts at TED, so he just used the parts of the story from which he could weave a product to be sold.

    • Annonymous

      “Selling attractive narratives at the expense of interesting truths.”

      To riff off a comment by 1boringoldman below (originally from jamzo in a comment on his site):


      The greatest threat to the contribution of neuroscience research to
      psychiatry is no longer psychoanalysts but Drs. Charney, Nemeroff,and their ilk.

      Neuroskeptic, these individuals really deserve some further attention from you. Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of research knows that everyone spins some tales to get funded.

      However, let’s try a thought experiment. Take the way Dr. Charney represented those papers in his talk, especially the imaging work. And, what we can do with it today (not even pretending like this is something further down the line). Now, pretend like that had presented that way by a writer at the New York Times, the Huffingtonpost, whatever?

      Your reaction at that point?

      However,Charney is pitching this stuff to psychiatrists. Many of whom are worse than non-neuroscientists, they are neuroscientist wanna-bes.

      We’re heading towards some sort of neuroscience nirvana in DSM-6. No, wait, maybe DSM 7.5. Blah blah blah.

      At least the anti-psychiatry people, and the neuroscience haters,
      don’t drape themselves in neuroscience as a kind of religion. Essentially, to paraphrase Dr. Carroll paraphrasing Dr. Feynman, treat it as Cargo Cult Neuroscience.

      “Selling attractive narratives at the expense of interesting truths.” And, at the expense of important truths.

      Who is doing more damage?

  • Kate Benson

    Ed Yong makes some relevant points. However, many times science writing is only as good as the sources themselves. Some of my sources are better at explaining their area of expertise and why what they have found is relevant more than others. Yes, journalists can and do find a niche such as Ed Yong has, but essentially journalism in general is all about finding and using sources to tell the story for them – otherwise it is an opinion piece. As a journalist it would be impossible to be a specialist at all things science. I personally understand life sciences much better than quantum physics, but I could conceivably write about quantum physics with the right sources – and no not Sheldon Cooper.

  • http://twitter.com/sarcastic_f sarcastic_f

    Truth? After all the critiques that you (and others) have written on false positive psychology and neuroimaging methods? @hugospiers made some good points here.

    Scientists engage in professional storytelling all the time, and are rewarded quite handsomely for it with publications in high-profile journals. Some of these stories lead us further away from the truth, in the fashion of a Science Mad Lib:

    “The concept of _____________ has occupied scientists throughout recorded history because the ability to _________ is central to ________. However, little is known about the neurobiological underpinnings of ___________ and how these neural mechanisms might differ between ___________ and __________.”

    Data that do not fit the story are conveniently left out. Is this really reaching the essence of free will or consciousness or decision making?

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Absolutely – but then it’s the job of the writer to get to the truth of that, which is “This looks impressive but it’s actually not – here’s why, here’s what went wrong and here’s how to fix it”. As you regularly do :)

  • Pingback: Samir’s Selection 03/01/2013 (p.m.) | Samir's Selection()

  • Cee
    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      True. And to Neuroself’s credit he called it before the Fall Of The House of Lehrer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jona.sassenhagen Jona Sassenhagen

    The whole story is quite similar to another aspect of science you talk often about.

    Jonah (no relation, as far as I know) committed the big sins (outright fraud), and that caught the public eye, but he also committed the little sins (story telling, just-so, post-hoc, not-even-wrong), and those we don’t usually notice.

    Just like scientists all look down on outright fraud (Hauser, Stapel …), but post-hoc stories, overselling, lies of omission and the like are so entrenched and common and normal that they may be even more hurtful.

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me : Neuroskeptic | Creating a professional profile | Scoop.it()

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me : Neuroskeptic | All About the Brain | Scoop.it()

  • Zachary Stansfield

    This strikes me as one of those areas where we must either accept the flawed nature inherent in popular science writing or else eschew the whole endeavor entirely. The point never even mentioned here is that it is the readers, not the author who must come to understand a subject with sufficient accuracy and legitimacy for a science writer to have done his job well… And then perhaps not even the readers themselves but their fallible memories. Even in a perfect world where the quality control system in academia and popular science journalism didn’t promote inaccuracies in reporting we still suffer from biases in human cognition. At some point, these cultural narratives may just be bound to poison the well.

    On a brighter note we can always trust that there will be at least some small few whose critical natures inspire a passionate defense of truth over beauty and elegance. Perhaps by writing for these few we can still earn redemption for our literary sinners?

  • 1boringoldman
  • Pingback: 2013-03-01 Spike activity « Mind Hacks()

  • Brain Molecule Marketing

    We are marketers, pro communicators and brain geeks and have to report uniform failure in communicating anything about the brain to an audience. We would propose the same kind of failure in pop science overall. We do see a little movement in educating professional and semi-pro audiences but that appears to be along slog as well – and expensive.

    The human brain is just not equipped to handle this kind of complexity and even question everyday, intuitive beliefs. Our brains love stories and stories must adhere to local ideologies and social norms. Facts challenge those norms so are immediate threats.

    When people say the general public is interested I say “Is that the 80% of Americans that believe the government is hiding evidence of alien visits/guardian angels/satan as a physical being?”

    We moderate 2 Linked In neuromarketing groups, started the first and only neuroscience group in MeetUp and submitted a pop science book on Brain Molecule Marketing to Kickstarter. The book idea was quickly blocked by Kickstarter, no one ever shows up for the neuroscience group and the level of discussion on the Linked In groups is appallingly low.

    My view is that attempts to popularize any science mainly produces “blow back”, personal attacks on scientists and increases hostility to evidence-based knowledge. Pop science is somewhat popular but it’s just dum and mainly silly. We are active debunkers of neuromarketing and behavioral econ. They just don’t work. But they sell a lot of stuff.

    With the brain stuff I repeatedly see two obstacles:

    1 – You have to know something. There won’t be a useful conversation if the people don’t know about HS biology, evolution and some animal ethology. You really do need to have read about these topics and beginning brain physiology.

    2 – Brain science debunks pretty much every belief and ideology. Starting with no free will, the human brain just can suspend belief — neither can most academics, intellectuals and scientists.

    So we don’t waste our time with those projects anymore. We focus on the, very few, educated and motivated decision makers. The EU and Brits especially are more open.

  • Pingback: We’re All Jonah Lehrer Except Me | memoir writing | Scoop.it()

  • Amtram

    There are some very accessible, user-friendly scientists who write on the internet. I know, because they have taught me a huge amount and encouraged an interest in science that I never had when I was younger. (Neuroskeptic being one, of course!) From my perspective as sort of hanging on by my fingertips to understanding science and being surrounded by people who know nearly nothing about it, I feel there’s a need for something that bridges the gap.

    Narrative is the framework for that bridge, but all too often it’s incomplete. It’s attached either to the science end, where comprehension by the masses is nearly nonexistent, or to the Average Joe end, where its ability to provide pat answers in digestible sound bites determines its value. Someone has to come in and build the middle.

    The most difficult thing for the non-scientist to understand, from what I’ve found, is not the language or the diagrams or the statistics, but the fact that there are no final answers that wrap everything up in one neat package. When I try to explain science, I get the most resistance to the ideas that “well, this explains this one particular thing, and how it works by itself, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it always works, or that’s how other things like it work,” and “we’re never going to have PROOF, which is why we have to keep looking.”

    Lehrer was appealing to the public because he lined things up so nice and neatly that it was easy for a non-scientist reader to sit back afterwards and proclaim, “Well that explains it all perfectly!” No science journalist is ever going to be able to communicate effectively to the general public until the general public learns that science is an ongoing, never-ending process. (It’s one of the reasons woo is so successful – it reinforces the idea that there are absolute answers, and that if the answers change, they were wrong.)

  • Pingback: Improving Interpretation of Science Writing | House of Stones()

  • Pingback: Google()

  • Han

    Beyond flagellating the journalists and scientists, it’s may be helpful to discuss what readers seem to want out of science stories (and what scientists and journalists hope to achieve).

    I found that the most popular science articles I shared on G+ were about food and nutrition.

    It’s easy to spin this as a symptom of the modern obsession with the self. Lay people (great holdover from religious terminology, eh?) don’t always share the sense of wonder and curiosity that scientists do, so they often ask “what’s in it for me?” “How can I use this to get more women/customers/clicks”?

    Once science writing is constrained (by the public) in this way, journalists and rock star scientists find themselves experience a “selection pressure” towards sexy stories about how to become fitter, happier, more productive etc.

    It might be important for the popular neuroscientists to occasionally remind themselves and their readers that human curiosity is often an end in itself, and may in fact be beautiful for its own sake.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Absolutely. But there is hope. In my experience, a big part of science writing is being able to spot the ‘sexy’ story even when it’s not obvious.

      Sometimes it is obvious – if someone discovers that coffee causes breast cancer… that article pretty much writes itself.

      But often the interesting story is hidden. The trick is being able to find it, and tell it – without distorting it to make it sexier than it actually is.

      That’s what I meant when I wrote:

      “there’s a story behind everything, one that’s both true and compelling – because the brain just is interesting. The problem is that
      it’s hard to find that story, to perceive that essence. It’s easy to
      think you’ve found it, to uncover fool’s gold rather than the real
      thing, and write about that. But the real gold is deeply buried.”

      • Han

        Perhaps this is a good opportunity for you and the other celebrity neuro-bloggers to tag each other to do “sociological” posts — on how you came to neuroscience, what drives your interests, and what you think the ideal scientist-blogger-journo-public relationship might look like.

  • Pingback: Houses of Stones()



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar