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 And narratives need to have drama, or they will not be published, and if they are, they will not be read.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.