Jonah Lehrer and the Crisis of Knowledge Synthesis

Jonah Lehrer - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
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.

John McQuaid‘s take on the affair in Forbes speaks to a larger issue:

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 experimentthe rubber hand illusionDunbar’s numberthe 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.

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