The Decisive Moment: When Jonah Lehrer decided to lie… repeatedly

Jonah Lehrer didn’t crop up on my radar until quite recently. A couple of months ago I treated myself to a trio of general audience psychology books, after reading a Lehrer-penned taster of his latest book Imagine: The Science of Creativity.

He must know what he’s talking about; just look at those snazzy glasses.

Having put that in my Amazon basket, I noticed that he’d also written a book called The Decisive Moment: How the Brain Makes Up Its Mind. I may or may not have bought it because it has a giant red button with DO NOT PRESS on the front, and I may or may not have chosen a third book by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons called The Invisible Gorilla purely for the title. Whatever my whimsical reasons for choosing them, I was excited to read them.

After finally finishing The Invisible Gorilla the other week – dense but well worth a read – I’ve been looking to start one of Lehrer’s books, and was just about to start reading Imagine when I came across ALL OF THIS.

Twitter wasn’t especially happy with him either.

Turns out that Bob Dylan’s words in Imagine weren’t quite what Lehrer was looking for, so he changed, fabricated or joined together mismatched quotes. Michael C. Moynihan, who describes himself as a ‘Dylan obsessive’, unearthed Lehrer’s mistakes and published this article in The Tablet, the ramifications of which have led to Lehrer’s resignation from his post as staff writer at the New Yorker.

I don’t particularly like Bob Dylan so I’m not offended on a personal level. I am angry, however, that I’ve spent a fair amount of money on works I can no longer trust. Overreaction? I’m not so sure. One article by Daniel Bor – it’s only one, but it’s enough – alerted me to errors in his previous book, The Decisive Moment. Rather than risk plagiarising, here’s the relevant quote:

The writing [in The Decisive Moment] was utterly engaging, charming, oozing with talent, but at the same time peppered with basic errors. For instance, on page 100 he writes, “This kind of thinking takes place in the prefrontal cortex, the outermost layer of the frontal lobes.” This is anatomical rubbish – the prefrontal cortex instead, as the name implies, is simply the front-most section of the frontal lobes. Layers have nothing to do with it. I expect such mistakes from less able undergraduate students, who are too lazy to read the first line of the relevant Wikipedia article, but never ever in a respected science book. Then on page 112-3, he writes “the first parts of the brain to evolve – the motor cortex and brain stem.” Where did this come from? The brain stem very probably evolved hundreds of millions of years before the much more recent cortex, which the motor cortex is obviously a part of. So this is completely wrong as well. One last example (of many more) on page 100 again: “Neanderthals were missing one of the most important talents of the human brain: rational thought.” To me, rational thought is what keeps most species of animals alive, but at the very least can you make advanced tools and use fire, as Neanderthals did, without “rational thought”?

Naturally I grabbed my own copy and read the quotes in context (and scribbled BOLLOCKS against the ones that enraged me most). Sadly, Daniel Bor’s article was right: the science was pretty guff. Not only that, but Lehrer has, in the past, self-plagiarised. The more I look, the less credible his writing becomes.

Making up Bob Dylan quotes on its own would irritate me, but I would still have read the book if it weren’t for the anatomical errors in The Decisive Moment. Now I’m stuck with two books that I don’t particularly trust (and one is covered in biro expletives).

It’s such a shame, as I’m always excited when psychological or neurobiological books catch the attention of the media as it means more interest is being expressed in the subject. The way Lehrer writes is accessible and informative, and it’s sad he felt able to fabricate quotes and not check his facts – something highlighted in this excellent article from Roxane Gay. Lehrer published his first book at 26, and has experienced success after success since then. You can almost forgive him if you think of the pressure he would be under to produce, produce, produce and to such a high standard. But Gay sums up my own feelings well when she says:

In the age of the Internet, when everything is just a click away, how did Lehrer think he wouldn’t get caught, both when he plagiarized himself and again when he simply lied over and over? What else is fabricated in his books? Does he think that little of his audience?

I’m hacked off. I’ve got two books that I can’t trust, and I don’t know what to do with them. In sharp contrast to The Invisible Gorilla, which contained so my footnotes and references I began to get annoyed with all the tiny numbers sprinkled throughout the text, they feel flimsy. Both books will sit in my ‘to read’ pile for a little longer, until I either see them as a test of my critical capacities or merely a waste of time.

Edit: Sept. 1st Apparently the transgressions don’t stop there – this article was published yesterday claiming that plagiarism, fabrication and recycling has been a constant in Lehrer’s career. Wired, where Lehrer had a long-standing blog, has also issued a statement in regards to the investigation.

Leave a comment

5 Comments

  1. This is unfortunate…haven’t heard of these books before, but they definitely sound like something I would read, if not for the plagiarism and forgery on the author’s part. It’s especially unfortunate because it’s so unavoidable, but for some reason people think they’re going to get away with something so obvious.

    Halie

    Reply
    • Hopefully it will help pave the way for more rigorous editing for general science books but I’m not holding my breath.

      Reply
    • Hopefully it will help pave the way for more rigorous editing for general science books but I’m not holding my breath.

      Also, thanks for the comment and the follow :-)

      Reply
  2. It certainly makes you see why the fuss about academic integrity is justified. There are plenty of people who would steal your purse, and even more who don’t boggle at intellectual theft or lies.

    Reply
    • Exactly. It’s not like “oh, he just made a few quotes up” and so on – he’s helping to perpetuate lies in an entire industry.

      Reply

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