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February 12, 2013


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Interesting post, MNM.

Two quick questions / notes:

(1) Is it me, or is Jonah Lehrer substantially less charismatic / dynamic as a speaker than one would have expected? Perhaps it's a function of the forced contrition. Or the age of the crowd. Or the rubber chicken catering. But still: Droning on and on, monotone, with an occasional Joan Didion quote? Tedious.

(2) I agree that Lehrer's glib approach to science is obnoxious. But isn't your criticism here a condemnation of the entire genre? It's not as if Lehrer invented this approach. He plagiarized that too . . . .

Tamara Piety

Michelle - I completely agree with you. That is also my view of his most serious transgression. It is maddening when someone gets so much attention for work like that.

Michelle N. Meyer

Thanks, SM! and Tamara.

SM!, Re: your second question, I don't at all mean to condemn the entire genre of popular science writing. There's lots of it that's really, really good (though you're right that there are certainly others besides Lehrer, some of whom are, ahem, equally famous, who also provide a rough and ready version of science). (For examples of good science writers, check out #Worth20K, trending right now on Twitter.)

It's a false either/or, in my opinion, to say that science writing either has to be accurate but boring and/or unintelligible to laypersons, or else layperson-friendly and captivating but "dumbed down" and/or plain wrong. Ordinary people are capable of understanding, for instance, the difference between correlation and causation (a distinction Lehrer's writing frequently conflates -- whether intentionally or not, I've no idea).

Lehrer strikes me as someone in love with the story he's telling rather than someone who is primarily committed to the truth. That makes him a not-very-good science writer, and the fact that he's nevertheless an excellent writer helps seduce us into overlooking the less-than-rigorous science. When he made up Dylan quotes that fit the narrative he wanted to tell, most people focused on the fact that he made something up. But let's also pause and reflect about the part where he's willing to be selective in the name of enhancing his narrative. Making up or embellishing Dylan quotes is just a slightly more egregious version of cherry picking actual Dylan quotes (or any other source of data), and Lehrer's books are filled with that latter kind of error.

I'm willing to forgive people just about anything, but until he owns that, along with the plagiarism and fabrication, I won't be reading his comeback book.


Ugh. The comeback book. I hadn't even thought of that, but you're right that it's inevitable. I bet it's a treacly horror -- or maybe an attempt to do science "right." One or the other. Probably not both.

Anyway, I truly appreciate your thoughtful response, and I think we agree almost all the way down. My clumsy initial question, I fear, steered us astray, so let me try to correct my goof: I don't think popular science writing is inevitably inaccurate or unintelligible. Nor do I think the best stuff has to be diluted for airport audiences. Science writing can surely be both accurate and compelling, and though I'm sure I've read much less of the good stuff than you have, I've read enough to know that. Apologies for defining the "genre" so imprecisely.

But I'm not sure we should put Lehrer in the popular science writing camp at all. He's writing about science, sure. And he uses science-y sounding vocabulary. But Lehrer's writing is to science as cheez-whiz is to cheese: Sort of similar; kind of related; but one is only really pretending to be the other. That makes it all the easier to stray from the science -- to be, in this metaphor, less cheese -- when it'll sell more books. Cheez-whiz would be made entirely of plastic if they thought they could sell more of it. (N.B. -- It may be made entirely of plastic.) Lehrer would be writing about craftmaking, not science, if he thought that's where the sales and the fame were. So maybe he doesn't belong in the dairy section. Maybe he belongs in the self-help-by-opportunists section, if Barnes and Noble still has one of those.

Is that all wrong? Eager to hear your thoughts. Thanks again for a fun post.

Sam Bagenstos

I really liked this New York Magazine piece on L'Affaire Lehrer (an affair of which I was only dimly aware before the piece, I must admit):

Michelle N. Meyer

Thanks for linking to the Kachka piece, Sam. I should have noted examples of others who have critiqued Lehrer along lines similar to those I've sketched here. A couple more examples if you found the Kachka piece illuminating:

As for Lehrer as cheez-whiz, SM!, I agree that we shouldn't be comparing Lehrer's writing to the written reports of science itself, published in Science, Nature, PNAS, and so on. By "science writing" (my turn to apologize for being imprecise), I indeed meant writing about science, usually for an intelligent lay audience. That genre includes super famous people like David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, and Lehrer, somewhat less famous freelance science writers and bloggers, like Rebecca Skloot (of Henrietta Lacks fame) and Deborah Bloom (of The Poisoner's Handbook fame), David Dobbs, Ed Yong, Maryn McKenna, Carl Zimmer, and Bora Zivkovic, and others who write at SciAm, Wired, Discover, etc., and the various permanent science writers at WaPo, WSJ, USAToday, and NYT. These writers usually discuss science-per-se in some detail; sometimes they discuss a particular study, and sometimes they pull together lots of studies and strands of (usually others') research and try to say something about what it collectively tell us about the world or ourselves, or where the state of that science has been or is headed. This can be done better or worse, along multiple axes, and it's the others in this genre of writing-about-science against whom I'm comparing Lehrer. That is, I wouldn't compare Lehrer's writing to science at all, but rather to science writing, as defined above. To categorically banish a science writer from the dairy aisle entirely (to return to your metaphor), I think she would have to be writing badly about pseudoscience, a la The Secret or half of what Dr. Oz discusses. Lehrer writes about real science, he just too often gets important details of that science wrong, and still seems not to fully realize that.

In Lehrer's defense, I will say that neuroscience and genetics are perhaps the two sexiest areas of science -- but also the two most difficult to get right, and he writes in one of them. For an egregious example of bad science writing that straddles behavioral genetics and neuroscience, see this NYT piece from last week:

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