KSJ Tracker November 1, 2012

New York Mag: Jonah Lehrer was a Huckster and so are Popularizers of Evolutionary Biology and Other “New” Fields

It sounds weird, but that’s what Boris Kachka seems to say in his New York Magazine story, Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist and Neither was Jonah Lehrer. And yet, aside from the unfounded insult hurled at a huge swath of the science writing community, the story is pretty gripping, well-reported and full of new details about the rise and fall of Jonah Lehrer and what the episode says about the state of journalism.

The story chronicles Lehrer’s rapid rise, identifying the Wired and New Yorker editors who enabled him.  Kachka then offers a detailed account of the events that exposed Lehrer’s fabrications. Especially interesting was the dogged investigation by that Bob Dylan fan - Michael Moynihan, described as a freelance writer who was then guest-blogging for the Washington Post.  

Katcha then digs deeper makes a case that Lehrer didn’t just invent trivial quotes, he invented whole ideas that he supported with made-up facts.

“…..His conclusions didn’t shed new light on the facts; they distorted or invented facts, with the sole purpose of coating an unrelated and essentially useless lesson with the thinnest veneer of plausibility.”

Kachka goes out and gets the goods by interviewing some of the scientists named in Lehrer’s work.

“Lehrer quotes one neuroscientist, Mark Beeman, as saying that “an insight is like finding a needle in a haystack”—presumably an insight like Dylan’s, though Beeman’s study hinges on puzzles. Beeman tells me, “That doesn’t sound like me,” because it’s absolutely the wrong analogy for how the brain works—“as if a thought is embedded in one connection.” In the next chapter, Lehrer links his tale of Dylan’s refreshed creativity to Marcus Raichle’s discoveries on productive daydreaming. But Raichle tells me those discoveries aren’t about daydreaming. Then why, I ask, would Lehrer draw that conclusion? “It sounds like he wanted to tell a story.”

I was glad that Kachka discussed the New Yorker Piece: The Truth Wears Off because many of us in the science writing world read it and talked about it.

Headlined “The Truth Wears Off,” it sets out to describe a curious phenomenon in scientific research: the alarmingly high number of study results that couldn’t be repeated in subsequent experiments. Researchers worry a lot about this tendency, sometimes called the “decline effect.” But they’ve settled on some hard, logical truths: Studies are incredibly difficult to design well; scientists are biased toward positive results; and the more surprising the finding, the more likely it is to be wrong. Good theories require good science, and science that can’t be replicated isn’t any good.

That wasn’t Lehrer’s approach. His story begins, instead, with the question, “Is there something wrong with the scientific method?” To answer that question definitively would require a very rigorous review of research practice—one that demonstrated persuasively that even the most airtight studies produced findings that couldn’t be replicated. Lehrer’s conclusion is considerably more mystical, offering bromides where analysis should be: “Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” It sounds an awful lot like the Zen-lite conclusion of Imagine: “Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”

These are very telling excerpts and go far to demonstrate the hollowness of some of Lehrer’s writings.

But at one point early in the piece Kachka makes his own ridiculous extrapolation in what appears to be an attempt to puff up his New York Mag piece into more than the story of one rogue journalist.

"….the scientific fields that are the most exciting to today’s writers—neuroscience, evolutionary biology, behavioral economics—are fashionable despite, or perhaps because of, their newness, which makes breakthrough findings both thrilling and unreliable. In these fields, in which shiny new insights so rarely pan out, every popularizer must be, almost by definition, a huckster. When science doesn’t give us the answers we want, we find someone who will."

Hucksters? Every popularizer? One could probably make a case that enough sexy findings come out of neuroscience and behavioral economics to attract a few hucksters and keep them in business. But of course there are plenty of solid, responsible writers who have popularized those fields.

What I found even more bizarre was blanket application of the H word to people who popularize evolutionary biology. Anne Coulter might agree that evolutionary biology writers are a pack of hucksters, but that’s understood to be right wing lunacy. Is Mr. Kachka a victim of the lack of good evolutionary biology education in U.S. schools? Surely he’s aware it’s not a new field, but in fact goes back to this 19th century guy named Darwin.

How does Kachka justify the contention that findings in evolutionary biology are more “thrilling” and “unreliable” than, say, findings in cell biology, molecular biology, astronomy, or particle physics? He doesn’t. Which popularizers of evolutionary biology does he consider hucksters? He doesn’t name one.

His unsubstantiated, grandiose criticism comes across as irresponsible and, ironically, rather Lehreresque.

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