Sunday, November 11, 2012

Piling on Jonah Lehrer

Now that Jonah Lehrer has been exposed as a serial plagiarist and inventor of quotations, everybody seems to want a piece of him. Including science writer Virginia Hughes. In this post, she goes after one of my favorite Lehrer pieces, "The Truth Wears Off," which appeared in The New Yorker back in 2010. I was braced to learn that it was a tissue of misquotations and bad summaries of the science it cites. But no. Hughes wrote to all of the scientists whose work appears in the piece, and none of them made any such accusations. After all, The New Yorker employs famously rigorous fact checkers these days, and they presumably checked all those quotations before the piece ran. One of the scientists said to Hughes,
I had no problem with Lehrer’s portrayal of my own results. . . I actually thought he did an excellent job there.
I actually thought that piece was rather good. And he quoted me accurately.
So what's the problem?

The problem, as Hughes and some of the scientists see it, is Lehrer's interpretation of this material. The essay, she notes:
has no tweaked quotes, no plagiarism, no obviously wrong statistics or data points — in other words, none of the easy mistakes that all of us make, occasionally, and might be forgiven, occasionally. Lehrer’s offense in this piece is worse than any of that. Lehrer describes an idea — The scientific method is broken — as if many scientists support it. Do they? . . . The biggest problem is that Lehrer presented an argument that is not supported by the vast majority of scientists, and never let his readers know just how far out of the mainstream he was taking them. I think it was misleading, and perhaps dangerously so.
No, he does not. I read this piece and came away with a completely different impression. I thought  Lehrer was claiming the notion that something might be fundamentally wrong with science as his own new and radical proposal. In fact, I thought the point of the piece was to present this idea and to claim credit for it. It is in no way foisted on the scientists. They are portrayed as narrowly focused on their own confusing results, with only the wise Lehrer diagnosing a broader and possibly fundamental problem.

Virginia Hughes obviously hates the notion that something might be wrong with the scientific method. So do a few of the scientists involved. That, it seems to me, is their problem, not Lehrer's. If they don't like his interpretation, they should offer one of their own, and find some evidence to support it. It is inevitable that science journalists will be drawn to the most radical ideas, because those sell best. I find this annoying in my own field, and I have written several times here about the tendency of journalists to celebrate any radical ideas that "overturn" the old orthodoxy. But the solution is in fashioning a better defense of orthodoxy, not in attacking the character of the authors who advance dubious ideas.

No comments: