‘We have seen the enemy … and he is us’
We have long espoused the seemingly preternaturally gifted science writer Jonah Lehrer, who has written a great deal about creativity and the brain. When his 2012 book Imagine: How Creativity Works hit shelves, we were as excited as the hundreds of thousands who purchased copies. We were then confused and upset when Lehrer was accused of plagiarism. This left us wondering: What exactly did Lehrer do that was wrong, and did it deserve the media firestorm?
For the uninitiated, Jonah Lehrer is a 31-year-old neuroscientist/journalist who quickly rose to prominence writing about how the brain works. He published his first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, at the tender age of 26, and was thusly anointed “boy genius.” His enthusiasts appreciated Lehrer’s ability to explain complex scientific research in ways that everyone could understand.
People are hungry for the secret switch in their heads that allows them to be creative and productive.
But then accusations began cropping up that Lehrer plagiarized himself, i.e., published content for multiple sources under the pretense that the content was new. His publishers and employers stuck by him until early 2012, when Tablet blogger Michael Moynihan published an explosive article containing proof that Lehrer fabricated several Bob Dylan quotes in the opening passages of Imagine.
The media firestorm was immediate and unyielding. As a result, Imagine was pulled from shelves, Lehrer lost his job, and his name is now muddied, often mentioned in the same sentence as famously disgraced New York Times wunderkind Jayson Blair.
A perusal of the scandal begs the question of just how egregious Lehrer’s missteps were. The Dylan quotes were by no means vital to the content of the book; had they been eliminated entirely, the content and message of the book would have remained intact. Although this led many to wonder how much of the rest of the content was plagiarized, the answer is probably not that much. Lehrer has a real degree in neuroscience, which leads us to believe that, unlike Jayson Blair, he probably didn’t make things up simply because he didn’t know enough about the topic.
It should be stated that, while portions of Lehrer’s book are insightful, it is a fitful read often going off on seemingly pointless tangents, at one point talking about how speed addicts are riotously creative, then giving us little resolution or tie-in to any of the other content, leaving us with the conclusion that perhaps speed addiction is the magic secret to creativity.
The message is still the message
Quality of the writing aside, Lehrer probably should have known the accepted ethics of journalism. How did he figure that self-plagiarism was acceptable? Did he do it once, not get caught, and decide to do it again and again? Did his ego take over to the point where he thought he was untouchable?
The role of authority is a curious thing. Once the world saw Lehrer as the new authority on a hot topic, his publishers were willing to spend a lot of money making sure he stayed that way. After all, people are hungry for the secret switch in their heads that allows them to be creative and productive. The fact that such a switch doesn’t exist does little to deter people from running in droves to buy self-help books.
The furor over the Jonah Lehrer debacle does concretely prove one thing: research in the field of neuroscience is not only necessary, it’s hungrily anticipated. In the end, Jonah Lehrer is just the same as the rest of us: He, too, struggles with coming up with brilliant new ideas.
Research into the scientific basis of creativity wasn’t harmed in the least when Lehrer’s reputation went down. The exciting search to unlock the secrets of the brain goes on; we just shouldn’t be too quick to accept easy answers. Imagine that!
This article is abridged from a more in-depth article that can be viewed at the Manns’ blog at centerforimagina tion.org. The opinions of other writers about the Lehrer issue are also available there.
Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”
© Michael Mann, 2012, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.