Jonah Lehrer is/was as big as it gets in science writing and two weeks ago proved the adage that the higher one climbs the farther the fall after admitting to some false content in his stories. This is bad news for him, but may be much worse for all of us interested in making science and innovation knowledge accessible for reasons that have as much to do with the audience as it does the message and messenger.
Jonah Lehrer was one of our most prolific and widely read science writers until he admitted fudging some quotes about Bob Dylan in his new book, Imagine, which looks at the process of discovery, creativity and innovation. The discovery by fellow journalist (and fervent Bob Dylan fan) Michael Moynihan set off a wave of reflections and investigations of Lehrer’s work revealing passages in the book (and other pieces) that had been reused from his other writings without proper self-attribution and sparking questions about the integrity of the author’s entire body of work. The “fall of Jonah Lehrer” was big news at a time when the London Olympics were dominating most of the media’s attention.
This case is a testament to the wide appeal that Lehrer’s work had beyond the usual ‘science geeks’ while illustrating the power of the internet to enable the kind of curation and investigation to support on and offline fact checking. But what it spoke to most for me is the role
The Writer and his Craft
Much digital type has been spent on the Lehrer incident. Search Google and you’ll find dozens of commentaries looking at how things transpired and how Lehrer ironically succumbed to the cognitive biases he wrote about.
Roxane Gay, writing in Salon, took a gendered approach to the issue and questioned whether our fascination is less with the science and more about the ‘young male genius’. Lehrer’s youth was something she saw as critical to amplifying the fascination with his work. She writes:
When young people display remarkable intelligence or creativity, we are instantly enamored. We want or need geniuses to show us the power and potential of the human mind and we’re so eager to find new people to bestow this title upon that the term and the concept have become quite diluted.
I agree with her on the point about our desire to over-inflate the accomplishments of youth (as if we are *amazed* that any of them could possibly do anything brilliant, which is as offensive to them and it is to older people), although a careful look at Lehrer’s articles and much of the press around his work suggests that he was much less a focus of the attention than his ideas.
Call it “Gladwellization.” It’s not just lucrative, but powerful: your ideas (or rather, the ideas you’ve turned into compelling anecdotes for a popular audience) can influence everything from editorial choices across the publishing world to corporate management and branding strategies.
But with this comes mounting demands to produce, and to recycle. You have to be prolific, churning out longer pieces that give your insights some ballast, and brilliant, bite-sized items. And yet you can’t be too new either: people want to hear what you’re already famous for. In this cauldron of congratulation and pressure for more and more, it’s not hard to see how standards might erode, how the “ideas” might become more important than doing the necessary due diligence to make sure they sync with reality.
‘Snappy Science’ and Synthesis
Innovation is about ‘new’ and there are good reasons why its a challenge to get the message out that this ‘new’ can be adapted, small, and unsexy and still make a large difference in the long run instead of big, bold and transformative right away. We are in an age of selling “snappy science” and it says more about the media and audiences than the authors and scientists producing the original work.
This snappy, bite-sized science might sell books and make for great TED talks, but it is a misrepresentation of what we actually know and do as scientists. Rarely does a single finding lead to a solution, rather it is an amalgam of discoveries small and large brought together that gets us to closer to answers. Synthesis is the driver of change and synthesis is what journalists do particularly well. Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson and Jonah Lehrer are among the best synthesizers out there and I would imagine (no pun intended) that they contribute to more to public and professional understanding of social innovation than all of the original-sourced scientific knowledge on the subject combined.
When I hear Malcolm Gladwell cited as an original source in serious discussions with colleagues on scientific matters, I realize we have a problem…and an opportunity. Gladwell’s writings popularized the concept of tipping points, but his work is based on a wealth of scientific data on complex systems. They are not his original ideas, but they are his syntheses and (sometimes) his interpretations. This is important work and I am not taking anything from anyone who makes science data digestible and accessible, but it is not the original science.
That Jonah Lehrer is as well known as he is tells me that there is an appetite for science and I’ll freely admit to using his work (and that of the other authors I’ve mentioned) to inform what I do in a general sense. It is good work, however I also acknowledge that I have the scientific training to know how to go beyond the initial articles to critically appraise the information, place it in context, and I have the resources to go to the original sources in academic journals. Most people (professionals and lay people) do not. This access is going to decrease as resources shrink.
It is for this reason that synthetic work is so important. My Twitter feed often is filled with references to such synthetic work, rather than original works of research because I aim to fill role that is somewhere between journalism and the science of design, systems and psychology. I am not a pure science blogger, nor am I speaking to the lay public, but rather other professionals seeking to enrich their knowledge base. That is a role I’ve created for myself, largely because there is a high demand and low supply.
We have a need for synthesis and a demand for it, but little acknowledgement of the value of this role in professional scientific circles. Yet, when we leave journalists to do the work for us, we allow a different system to take charge. John McQuaid ended his article with this caution:
Book publishers don’t do fact-checks, so there’s no fail-safe, just the conscience of the writer. Reach that point, and all is lost.
Filling the gap, meeting a need and shooting the messenger
Journalists like Johnson, Gladwell and Lehrer fill a gap, which is why I am saddened by the loss of one of them and angry at what has transpired. While there is no doubt that Lehrer made mistakes, they were of a rather minor nature in the grand scheme of things. Synthetic work is designed to provide a big picture overview, not guide microscopic decisions. I would like people to read Lehrer and learn about the creative process and the role of neuroscience in making our lives better, to appreciate systems thinking and decision making because of Malcolm Gladwell, and see innovation, emergence and discovery in new ways because of writers like Steven Johnson.
Yet, when we seek more and more from these authors, we might get less and less. This is what happened to Jonah Lehrer. As more people found themselves drawn to his work, the pressure grew for doing more, faster and getting that ‘snappy science’ out the door. GOOD magazine in the ‘tyranny of the big idea‘ goes further:
The problem is that it’s unreasonable to expect that every new piece of media should upend conventional wisdom or deliver a profound new insight. To think that Jonah Lehrer could expose an amazing new facet of human psychology every week, in 1,000-odd words no less, is ludicrous. There are only so many compelling, counterintuitive, true ideas out there.
But the demand for them doesn’t abate. That’s why you see so many science writers talking about the same handful of studies (the Stanford prison experiment, the rubber hand illusion, Dunbar’s number, the marshmallow test) over and over. That’s why you see pop economists who should know better creating flimsy and irresponsible contrarian arguments about climate change for shock value. That’s why you get influential bloggers confessing they’re only 30 percent convinced of their own arguments but “you gotta write something.” That’s why the#slatepitches meme hits home.
Search Censemaking and you’ll find many of these topics not just because they are punchy, but because they are useful.
I hope we haven’t lost Jonah Lehrer as a voice just as I hope more people stop putting writers like him on a pedestal, where they don’t belong (nor do the scientists who produce the research). Synthesis is about bringing ideas together to produce innovative insights that often lead to bigger conversations about how to socially innovate. Synthesis is bigger than science, but dependent on it. It means paying attention to parts and wholes together and is the epitome of systems thinking in knowledge work.
It also means taking responsibility as knowledge producers and consumers and be wary of shooting the messengers while asking more from the messages they deliver.
Unless we are prepared to give people time to search, appraise and synthesize research on their own — and train them to make informed choices — the role of synthesizers – professional, journalistic, or otherwise – will become more important than ever.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons and is used under licence.
Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.
Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”
Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90′s and low 100′s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.
But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.
It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).
Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).
Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.
From present delays to future/tense
The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.
Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.
It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.
Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)
The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.
Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.
We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.
Science fact as science fiction
The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.
We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.
Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.
It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.
To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.
The future is ours to write.
For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.