Lehrer was a Science Journalist

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I always thought Proust was a Neuroscientist was a terrible title. It promises to dazzle, surprise, and delight me in a way that I will find singularly exhausting. “Did you realize,” it says to me, “that in addition to shaping the course of 20th Century literature, the author of a novel in which, famously, a flood of memories comes rushing forth as a result of biting into a pastry,” and here it stops to catch its breath, and dab the corner of its mouth with a pocket handkerchief, “Would you believe that this same author had interesting things to say about memory?”

I was pleasantly surprised, then, whenever I actually read Jonah Lehrer in his various blogging capacities or heard him talk on Radiolab. He was usually a refreshingly reasonable voice in a sea of people urging us to reduce our children’s “screen time,” or, on the other end of the spectrum, play them Mozart, or squirt oxytocin up their noses, or telling us about how Democrats and Republicans have different patterns of brain activity, and so on.

Here he is warning readers of the Wall Street Journal about the difficulties of interpreting fMRI data. Here he is sounding the alarm about “no lie fMRI.” Here he is giving a nice primer on Hume’s skepticism and the problem of determining causality. I wasn’t particularly keeping score, but he impressed me more often than not as a welcome counterpoint to the hyperbolic claims and false sense of closure offered by most other popular writing on the brain.

In fact I had an amicable disagreement with him once. He thought my review of Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought was “snarky” — fair enough, snark is my reflexive response to obvious bullshit — and admitted he didn’t entirely follow my argument about how the errors produced by a computational model of constraint satisfaction in syntactic ambiguity resolution can’t really be used to refute the theoretical position of radical pragmatics — again, fair enough, I could have unpacked that a bit better. He went on to make some good points about how we could use more, not fewer, public intellectuals who are well-versed in neuroscience, and restated part of my argument more concisely than I had managed: “The problem, as I see it, is when we automatically grant ambiguous scientific data some sort of exalted epistemic authority.”

I was thinking about that interaction this week, in trying to make sense of the career-ending kerfuffle over his made-up Dylan quotes and self-plagiarism, and it prompted me to look back at what I’d actually said in my review:

The pressures of writing for a general audience are different. Here, the goal is to present a clear, compelling narrative that will be attractive to an audience of non-experts, who want to come away feeling as though they’ve learned something. Who wants to buy a book called “How the Mind Works” only to discover that scientists don’t really agree on the most fundamental issues regarding how the mind works?

I think there is probably an audience for a measured, nuanced account of the various internecine struggles among scientists who are ostensibly working together to understand the mind, but it is probably much smaller than the one for a book that “explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life.

I wasn’t intentionally saying that popularizing science per se is problematic — although that’s largely what I was criticized for, and not just by Lehrer. I was saying it is perilous because it is too easy to privilege story over facts. I was also making the narrower point that Steven Pinker rarely publishes peer-reviewed research anymore, and instead makes his contributions to the scientific literature in the form of non-peer-reviewed non-fact-checked monographs that bypass the usual channels of scientific discourse. This is a problem because it is easy for the uninitiated to take the pronouncements of “one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists” as something much more authoritative than what they are, i.e., the opinions of an incredibly clever guy who reads a lot. In this case, the “exalted epistemic authority” accrues not to the data themselves, but to the story they are being used to tell. Importantly, this exaltation is the calculated effect of a public relations process whose goal is to make the story appealing to the largest possible number of people.

In the intervening years, Lehrer himself arguably surpassed Pinker as popularizer-in-chief for the field, and largely for the better. But he too seems to have fallen prey to the allure of sense-making, and the seductive power of having an authoritative voice to make sense with. In their review of Imagine for The Millions, Tim Requarth and Meehan Crist see Lehrer as making the same logical leaps he has pointed out as problematic in others’ work. In the comments section, they hit the vein I seem to have missed in my Pinker review:

Musing, a great generative force of world literature, science writing included, allows the writer to engage in reflection, meditation, and suggestion—in other words, to juxtapose any number of thoughts or fields or findings. We fully support such writing. However, writing that starts with a thesis, provides supporting evidence, and draws a conclusion, must be held to different standards. An endemic problem in popular science writing is that what should be musing is presented as argument. Such misrepresentation is a disservice to readers and, ultimately, to science, as it clouds public perception of how science actually works.

This quote is filed in my Evernote library under the heading “yes yes yes a thousand times yes.” There has to be a way to present difficult, unresolved puzzles without trying to turn them into digestible answers to the burning questions of the book-buying public. Musing, daydreaming, even bullshitting, are all reasonably parts of any creative process, including science — they serve a real productive purpose, and the popular literature is a fine place to work these things out. But I still maintain that the temptation to present the results of these processes as if they were answers from science is one of the perils of popularization, and something to be avoided as studiously as cutting and pasting from your previous published work, or fabricating quotations.


- image from edwardkimuk’s Flickr stream

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