The worst part is it was a really helpful book
For those of you not across the controversy, New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer resigned as a staff writer for the magazine after it was revealed that he had fabricated a quote in his New York Times best-seller, Imagine: The Science of Creativity.
It took an investigation by one of his peers, former VICE editor and Wall Street Journal freelancer, Michael C Moynihan, whose expose in Tablet magazine led to Lehrer’s resignation.
In the very first chapter of the book, Lehrer creates, seemingly out of thin air, a narrative of Bob Dylan’s creative process which supported his theory that writers block was an inevitable part of inspiration and that the physiology of the brain’s make-up could almost predict this “frustration” like clockwork as an essential part of the creative process.
Except that at least seven of the quotes he attributes to Dylan are either made up, or spliced together from numerous interviews or taken completely out of context.
From a journalist’s perspective I can’t imagine what it must have been like having to write this expose. I’m sure that it wasn’t a scoop Moynihan was pleased to earn. Nobody enjoys bringing other people down, nobody with ethics anyway, but especially not one of your own. His comments in a Q&A with The Observer reflect that.
But from a consumer’s perspective, it may be a long time before we see another book that tries to comprehensively explain through analogies and case studies how the human body works.
Lehrer’s writing style was reminiscent of Malcolm Gladwell – taking big complex topics like social science and psychology and examining their unexpected consequences, breaking down theoretical concepts into real world examples. Gladwell’s style of writing is engaging because it doesn’t require you to have a science Phd to understand it. Imagine was the Freakonomics* of psycho-physiology. Until it was revealed that at least part of the book was completely made up.
It turns out that Lehrer’s style was more than just reminiscent of Gladwell. Lehrer actually plagiarised paragraphs from Gladwell’s Designs for Working on page 153 and 182 of Imagine. This isn’t the first time he’s been in trouble either. Just last month it was discovered that he had plagiarised himself in his New Yorker blog, often copying whole parts of Imagine and recycling them in print.
More and more inaccuracies, fabrications and plagiarisms are being unearthed by readers every minute.
Writer, Edward Champion began cataloguing Lehrer’s fabrications on his blog about a month before Moynihan’s expose was published. He has been updating it with new discoveries every day since the 20th of June.
Thanks to Lehrer’s fabrications, it will probably be a long time before we get another Imagine, because authors won’t want to be associated with Lehrer or his writing style. Consumers are the one who will miss out. Good journalism is the ability to explain big ideas in a way that is easy to understand but in a way that is both accurate and entertaining. People bought and read Imagine because they wanted to know how their brain worked, and how they could tap into their own biology to enhance their abilities.
I too began reading Imagine after being plagued by a serious bout of writers block and I’d be lying if I said Lehrer didn’t help me. Less than 24-hours after reading Imagine I went through one of the most creative spurts I’ve experienced it in a while, and even now I attribute this great unblocking to the advice he gave me through his book.
And this is why his unethical behaviour is such a massive betrayal.
There was some really good advice in Imagine. Maybe once we peeled back all the errors it might have better suited for the self-help section than the sciences (in which case less people would have bought it). But whatever truth existed in Imagine will forever be shadowed by doubt.
I want to believe that Lehrer didn’t mean to plagiarise. I want to believe that, like many of the people he discusses in his book, that he was crippled by his own self-doubt, and that his errors were unintentional.
I really wish that I didn’t know that he lied to try and cover up his fabrications and that he had been caught plagiarising before. I want to forgive him. And I hope that he recovers from this because even with all this controversy, he is a good journalist.
But like it or not Lehrer’s fabrication problem will have long-term consequences on science non-fiction in years to come.
And consumers are the ones who will miss out.
*Freakonomics also got a beating in the New York Times for being inaccurate.
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