Thank you Jonah Lehrer

I’m unhappy. I’ve been made this way because someone I’ve admired has disappointed me. That person, as you can guess from the title, is Jonah Lehrer (I couldn’t find a picture in which he wasn’t trying to look thoughtful and rugged, so I’ve omitted one). Why I’m particularly disappointed with him is quite apart from the fact that he has (quite a while ago) been exposed as a lazy writer and a liar.

This is chiefly because I owe inspiration for the name of this blog and the founding idea behind it, to him, and his book Proust was a Neuroscientist. Now, until recently, I knew little about the man himself, mainly hearing him speak on Radiolab (book-wise, I’ve only read Proust) and so it was through his ideas (hopefully mostly ‘his’, although thankfully for me, Proust hasn’t been mired in his controversy to my knowledge, yet), that I have come to ‘know’ him, so to speak. To me he concisely and even lyrically, put into words the same passions and fascinations that I felt for science and the arts.

In the last chapter of Proust he calls for a ‘Fourth Culture’, where a free and mutually beneficial dialogue between the sciences and the humanities can be fostered. This resonated with me (as you’ll read in my ‘about’ bit) as I have this annoying and fragmenting dichotomy in my passions and fascinations. I want to describe the world around me in lyrics, stories and tones as well as acronyms, proteins and pathways.

I am frustrated when a lecturer teaching neuroscience waves away emotions as the domain of psychology, and therefore (in her mind) of secondary importance in a medical course to, for example, the visual system. This is wrong on several counts, not least the fact that future doctors (who share our lectures) should pay great attention to making an emotional connection with their patients, but more so to me because our stories, which our emotions colour so vibrantly, are our lives.

However, sometimes neuroscience doesn’t give us the answers that satisfy our desire to have our stories made sense of, and people will find an infinite number of ways to make sense of their own, but my choice, and the choice of many others, is the arts. Lehrer argues (and so do I) that the arts give us a way of living with the uncertainties that are part in parcel of the most interesting and most complicated science of today, and are distinct from the natural processes that they may emerge from. This idea gave me the impetus to start this blog with that union tying together my interests into a more sustainable whole. You see the fourth culture is too big for me to tackle all on my own, but for my part, because I share so with its ethos, I have created this fourth society out of the fourth culture’s environment. So for that I thank Mr. Lehrer.

But I hear you say: “Don’t let him off the hook so easily, he’s betrayed your trust by violating the basic rules of his profession.” And yes, you’d be right. It’s precisely the lazy (or just plain dishonest) fact checking and the recycling of older blog posts into his new book Imagine and later posts, that all amounts to a such a disappointment, and a big “fuck you” to all his readers. I remarked today to my girlfriend, who so often acts as the tired repository of my rants, that I’d rather have heard that he’d been a murderer than have the rot been associated with his work. This may seem extreme, and as far as moral questions go, whether Lehrer’s crimes are more morally wrong than murder, it’s not a difficult one, but I didn’t admire him for his moral compass, I admired him for his ideas (although because I liked his ideas I assumed he was a moral person).  So for it to come out that his writing, and thus potentially his ideas, are at fault, it gives me a sense of unease to say the least.

However, I can take heart in the fact that the ideas that I harmonised with aren’t really of the scientific, but more of the philosophical bent. Thus, if I agree, then they have some worth, independent of whether he bullshitted in an earlier section. Also, the fact that it wasn’t his moral compass I admired, means surely that I can take his ideas without endorsing the man wholesale. All in all though, this has lead me to some annoying soul-searching, which I shall now elaborate on.

The most interesting issue thrown up by this whole kerfuffle, and described very nicely (as is the aforementioned kerfuffle) in an article on nymag.com, is that Lehrer’s rise and fall, is a symbol for the first casualty of the “insight-peddlers” which use books, posts, articles and talks to sell their flavour of the month idea, and make it to the top of the thinker mountain. The article also cites Malcolm Gladwell as being one such peddler. The contrast is given between the sloppy citations of some science adjacent ‘thinkers’ that tie together some weak sources to support a prearranged narrative, with the actual working scientist that may have a public reputation of intellectual elitism but a foundation on the incremental and cautious process of good science.

Why this has lead me to some self-analysis is because I feel I’ve been a bit blind to this kind of thing. And frankly this is because I’d rather like to have an idea that I can spin into a book or a series of books, from a score of posts, articles and lectures, that would lead me to be described in the terms of ‘thinker’, ‘important’ and ‘the next…’ etc on some hypothetical dust jacket or review. It’s hardly an unattractive future, and one desired by many hard working published or unpublished science writers (on the day of writing this I read a nice post on this subject from Rachel Does Science, herself a hardworking science writer/blogger), who glow at the idea of a “big-idea book” of their own.

But Lehrer has rather put me off the idea of writing about science without having the kind of actual expertise that is only garnered from years of actual work in one’s field. In short, I want to have had the privilege and good fortune of having spoken at a conference of my peers before I ever appear behind a TED lectern. But to have the years of work, and the silver tongue… well there in lies the real treasure. So thank you again, Mr. Lehrer for this reaffirmation of what I want to do.

In any extent, to be rooted in the beautiful knowledge and the key to communicating it beautifully, one reading of the sciences and the arts- is always something to practice and aspire to, no matter where I’m standing decades from now.

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