Early Monday afternoon, the popular neuroscientist and author Jonah Lehrer resigned from his post as staff writer for the New Yorker, in response to a scandal over falsified quotes in his latest book, Imagine. I watched the news, almost as it broke, in the form of a series of tweets from Reporter Julie Bosman of The New York Times, quoting the full text of Lehrer’s resignation in seven under-140-character snippets:
"Three weeks ago, I received an email from journalist Michael Moynihan asking about six Bob Dylan quotes in my book IMAGINE. / The quotes in question either did not exist, were unintentional misquotations, / or represented improper combinations of previously existing quotes. / But I told Mr. Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan's representatives. / This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr. Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. / The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down. / I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker."
I wish that my head had been inside an MRI machine while I’d read each tweet, mapping my neuron pathways in red and blue, so that Jonah Lehrer could explain what was happening inside my brain.
“See, here’s your fusiform gyrus, recognizing the words: ‘improper’, ‘panic’, ‘lie’… and here’s your DLPFC and your midbrain dopamine neurons expressing a discrepancy between your expectation that I was trustworthy and what you’re reading now… in other words, here is where you’re surprised that I lied. This sets off your pituitary-adrenocortical system, causing anger which is going to struggle against the whole pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with logic and reasoning…”
This is the clear, colloquial way that Lehrer has written and spoken about the inner-workings of our brains since 2007, in three bestselling books, a column in The New Yorker, and as a frequent guest on WYNC’s Radiolab. Publishing his first book, Proust is a Neuroscientist, at the age of 26, Lehrer had a unique vision of the potential within the emerging study of the brain, using it to examine the minds of great artists from Whitman to Cézanne to Woolf.
It would have been easy, no doubt, to use modern neuroscience to minimize the giant accomplishments of these artists – to argue perhaps that old Walt just had a hyperactive hypothalamus which aided his sense of rhythm. But Lehrer instead examined how verses in Leaves of Grass like “I sing the body electric” actually prefigured neuroscience by a hundred years. Lehrer argued that through artistic contemplation Walt Whitman was able to intuit things about his own nervous system that microscopes would not uncover for decades. Lehrer writes, “Modern neuroscience is now discovering the anatomy underlying Whitman’s poetry. It has taken his poetic hypothesis – the idea that feelings begin in the flesh – and found the exact nerves and brain regions that make it true… the mind stalks the flesh; from our muscles we steal our moods.” With this light, poetic style of his own, Lehrer’s eight analyses in Proust illuminated a place where the divided paths of art and science could come together, so that each might inform the other.
Lehrer has been called a prodigy, a polymath, and a genius. Indeed, it is rare that someone his age can speak so eloquently and knowledgably about such a wide range of topics, writing equally well about the intricacies in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the aspects of corticofugal feedback in the brain – and all in the same breath. Students of mine have invariably responded well to Lehrer, even those like myself who have very little background in science. A good teacher, like Lehrer, shows you why you should care, neither talking down to you, nor over your head.
Imagine, his latest book, continued further down the joined-path of art and science, in search of the source of inspiration and the roots of creativity itself. But as writers Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist at The Millions pointed out in an early review, Lehrer’s ideas seemed to be getting ahead of the science, as he argued points that did not quite seem to be in evidence, like that creativity was the main feature separating us from the animals. They felt, too, that he stretched the findings of various studies towards conclusions that they could not quite reach. But Lehrer responded to these criticisms within hours, patiently engaging the two writers in a polite debate throughout the rest of the day. He did not succeed in fully addressing their concerns, but he spoke in great detail, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, as usual.
A stark contrast now, four months later, to the clipped language Lehrer used in his admission of guilt in fabricating the Bob Dylan quotes, which has prompted Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to immediately cease shipping new copies of Imagine and to stop selling all e-book versions. David Remnick of The New Yorker has confirmed Lehrer’s resignation, saying, “This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”
Remnick and the New Yorker had chosen to stand by Lehrer just a month ago when other allegations surfaced that Lehrer had plagiarized his own work in several blog posts. The duplications were quite extensive, and Lehrer apologized for not having clarified his repeated use of his own material. At the time it seemed like these might simply have been ill-advised shortcuts, made by a young writer overwhelmed by his work. I even imagined (no pun intended) that he might have cut the old material and pasted it into his notes, and then in a flurry of handling other details, forgetting to go back and fix it. I even made myself believe that he could have done this multiple times without realizing, even as I knew it was much more likely that he’d gambled on getting away with leaving it as is, thinking that no one was likely to notice.
Now we know that there were far bigger shortcuts he was taking, but worse, we know that as he explained himself to his readers and to The New Yorker, he must have known that these larger lies were still out there. He could have taken that chance to come clean about the wholesale fabrication of the Dylan quotes, but he either arrogantly believed he could conceal the truth or he feared the consequences too much to own up to them.
Even now there is something vaguely disingenuous about his statement. He says he received an email from Moynihan, in response to which, he “spoke” lies in a “moment” of panic – as if he’d verbally blurted out something untrue without thinking, when presumably he had whatever time he needed to consider and write out his full response. Perhaps this, too, can be clarified. Or perhaps as time goes on and other reporters look in deeper they will uncover even larger lies. Because Lehrer wrote about research done by others, it is doubtful that any scientific data got misreported or totally falsified to create links where none existed, a la Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent links between Autism and vaccines. But if Lehrer was willing to put words in the mouth of a legend like Bob Dylan, then it is not hard to imagine he might have gone “the full Stephen Glass” and completely invented sources or anecdotes. The full truth will, most surely, come out in time.
The final section of Proust was a Neuroscientist is titled “Coda”, a well-suited musical reference, and he begins it with a quote from American philosopher Richard Rorty, “To say that we should drop the idea of truth as out there waiting to be discovered is not to say that we have discovered that, out there, there is no truth.”
It is a fitting reminder to us now that we should not dismiss everything that Lehrer has brought to the table, simply because he lied and cut corners. We’re all too inclined to do this, though I’m not sure why exactly. We might need an MRI to find the neurological source of it, but literature has long understood the deep distrust sown among men by even the smallest lies. That “tangled web that we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
We are inclined to hone in on one small deception and dismiss the rest entirely, even when the rest can be verified independently, as in the recent case of Mike Daisey, who went to China and uncovered gross working conditions at Apple’s factories. In an effort to make it a more compelling story, he unfortunately, lied on the radio about some of the details. This gave many listeners a pretext to ignore the majority of his report on the dozens of other human rights violations that were true.
Jonah, where is the part of my brain that lights up when the little boy who cried “wolf” gets eaten?
Lehrer writes in his Coda about the necessity for the two cultures of art and science to come together into an “expansive critical sphere” which will help us to better understand both the universe of matter and the universe of thought. He writes, “What the artists in this book reveal is that there are many different ways of describing reality, each of which is capable of generating truth.”
That there are multiple truths out there is a difficult concept in both modern art and science, and this can even lead us to fool ourselves into believing that in an age of uncertainty and mystery, the truth has no bearing. In fact, the confusion of our age makes the truth only more important, and I suspect that Lehrer knows that.
Lehrer breached our trust, and for that we are right to be skeptical. But we ought to bear in mind that the truth is always mixed with mistakes. In his conclusion to Proust, Lehrer quotes the philosopher Karl Popper, “It is imperative that we give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is grope for the truth even though it is beyond our reach."