found drama

get oblique

on Jonah Lehrer’s resignation

by Rob Friesel

Jonah Lehrer (Photo by Nina Subin)

Jonah Lehrer. (Photo by Nina Subin.)

When I posted my review of Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, I also posted a copy/variation of that review to Goodreads. Today, I received a question in the comments:

If he made up some of his sources, would you still respect his message?

Given Michael C. Moynihan’s article and Lehrer’s own admission and resignation (see Julie Bosman’s coverage), I responded quickly with:

There’s no “if”; Lehrer has admitted to fabricating at least some of the sources. […]

As to whether I would still respect the message… Yes, I believe that I would. I already had enough skepticism about most of the text, and had already concluded that he was at least attempting to say something constructive. To date, most of the controversy I’ve seen around the quotations/citations/etc. have been around the Bob Dylan quotations; and it isn’t that I “forgive” Lehrer on this point, as much as I just don’t care about a few fabricated Bob Dylan quotations.

I stand by these remarks, but also feel that they are worth clarifying, and worth clarifying here on this blog, which I consider the canonical repository for my scribblings.

To the point of the original question: do I still respect Lehrer’s message? The answer is: yes, inasmuch as I ever did. Call me naïve if you must, but I still find it refreshing that Lehrer took the position that “creativity” is not an innate “gift” but is something that comes from a combination of perseverance and synthesis. This is a positive message, one that defrocks a presumed intellectual elite and empowers anyone willing to engage with the world around them. In my reading, that was the central thesis, and that is something that I can continue to support.

That being said, there are plenty of qualifiers that decorate my “yes” response here. In my review, I accused him of “undermining his own prior arguments […] to support whatever argument he [was] shaping in that chapter”, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that perhaps he was imprecise with more than just his own lines of logic. I think that in the interest of rhetorical flourish, Lehrer played it fast and loose with his source materials. This is not to say that he fabricated anything beyond the Bob Dylan quotes; he has admitted to those fabrications, but there is no evidence that he did the same for any of the other quotes, facts, or figures. Naturally, this is not to suggest that he didn’t fabricate anything else; those same admitted fabrications are enough to cast a pall (reasonable or not) on everything else in the text.

But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I already implied that he was sloppy with his conclusions (even if he’s a hell of a wordsmith), and he has himself admitted to lying about those quotes–but let us assume for a moment that it stops there. Let us assume that the Dylan quotes are the only error of their kind in the text. I’m not much of a Bob Dylan scholar–I don’t much care for his music and by extension had no other interest in him–but I hear that he’s something of a notorious recluse, and has a history of confounding the press. I picture Lehrer plumbing for new and interesting material vis-à-vis Dylan and when he comes up empty he… what? Inappropriately combines some contextually irrelevant quotes? And then flat-out makes up others? I suppose I could see how it might happen (rushing toward a deadline, mounting pressure from an editor and publisher…) but this is also a critical line that you do not cross. You’re limited to facts, otherwise you’re selling your book on the other side of the store.

The above is not meant to serve as an excuse for Lehrer, nor to absolve him. He was right to apologize and resign in response to this; his publishers were right to recall the book. I only offer up this missive as an explanation for why I have chosen to stand by my original review.

As I reflect on the events, I feel a great disappointment. Neuroscience has yet to find its Carl Sagan, and though I did not believe that Lehrer was that person, he was a clever enough writer that I’d hoped that maybe he might have inspired one. Sadly, I believe that inspiration will now have to come from someone else.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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