An editor’s note below Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker piece about brainstorming says the staff writer presented quotes from a 2011 story in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review as if they’d been told to him:
Noam Chomsky’s comments about M.I.T.’s Building 20 were not made directly to Jonah Lehrer, nor was a colleague’s description of Chomsky’s and Morris Halle’s offices as “the two most miserable holes in the whole place.” Chomsky and his colleague were interviewed by Peter Dizikes for his article in the November/December issue of Technology Review.
A closer read of those two pieces reveals another problem: Lehrer treats those quotes cavalierly, smooshing them together in ways they weren’t originally spoken.
Here’s Dizikes quoting Chomsky:
“Building 20 was a fantastic environment,” he says. “It looked like it was going to fall apart. There were no amenities, the plumbing was visible, and the windows looked like they were going to fall out. But it was extremely interactive. At RLE in the 1950s there was a mixture of people who later became [part of] separate departments—biology and computer science—interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.”
And here’s Lehrer, who elides Chomsky’s quote in several spots without acknowledging his surgery:
“It looked like it was going to fall apart. But it was extremely interactive.” He went on, “There was a mixture of people who later became separate departments interacting informally all the time. You would walk down the corridor and meet people and have a discussion.”
And not to compete with Edward Champion, who’s fast becoming the Boswell of Jonah Lehrer’s recycled journalism, but here, via a tipster, is an instance of self-borrowing or whatever we should call it that I don’t think has come out yet: Similarities between a 2007 article in Seed Magazine and a 2010 one in The New York Times Magazine:
This new science of cities wouldn’t exist without the work of a little-known Swiss-American biologist, Max Kleiber, who spent most of his career studying dairy cows. In the early 1930s, Kleiber began measuring the metabolic rate of a vast range of different animals. He discovered a striking pattern: In virtually every species, the metabolic rate is equal to the mass of the animal raised to the 3/4 power. (Or, the metabolic rate increases on a scale three-quarters that of mass.) This simple equation could describe cows and humans and elephants and mice. It didn’t matter what the creature looked like, or where it lived, or how it evolved. The formula always worked.
The mathematical equations that West and his colleagues devised were inspired by the earlier findings of Max Kleiber. In the early 1930s, when Kleiber was a biologist working in the animal-husbandry department at the University of California, Davis, he noticed that the sprawlingly diverse animal kingdom could be characterized by a simple mathematical relationship, in which the metabolic rate of a creature is equal to its mass taken to the three-fourths power. This ubiquitous principle had some significant implications, because it showed that larger species need less energy per pound of flesh than smaller ones. For instance, while an elephant is 10,000 times the size of a guinea pig, it needs only 1,000 times as much energy. Other scientists soon found more than 70 such related laws, defined by what are known as “sublinear” equations. It doesn’t matter what the animal looks like or where it lives or how it evolved — the math almost always works.
After analyzing the statistics, the answer was clear: Cities are like elephants. They get more economical with size. It doesn’t matter whether the city is located in China, Europe, or the American Midwest; every city is simply a scaled version of the same city. In metropolis after metropolis, the indicators of urban “metabolism”—like the per-capita consumption of gasoline or the surface area of roads or the total length of electrical cables—scaled to an exponent of (population)0.8, which is very similar to the biological equivalent of (mass)0.75. This means that a city can double its population without doubling its resource consumption.
After analyzing the first sets of city data — the physicists began with infrastructure and consumption statistics — they concluded that cities looked a lot like elephants. In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent.
This simple observation has some unexpected consequences. When most of us think about environmentally friendly places, we imagine rural landscapes and bucolic open spaces, a terrain untouched by concrete. Cities, in contrast, seem like ecological nightmares. They are polluted, artificial environments where nature consists of cockroaches, pigeons, and florist shops. But according to Bettencourt and West, the conventional wisdom is exactly backward. Cities are bastions of environmentalism. People who live in densely populated places lead environmentally friendly lives. They consume fewer resources per person and take up less space. (On average, city dwellers use about half as much electricity as people living outside the city limits.) And because efficiency scales with the size of the population, big cities are always more efficient than small cities. An environmentally friendly place is simply one with lots and lots of people. While rural towns might look green—all those lawns and trees are reassuring—their per-capita rates of consumption and pollution are significantly higher. The secret to creating a more environmentally sustainable society is making our big cities bigger. We need more metropolises.
This straightforward observation has some surprising implications. It suggests, for instance, that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability. According to the data, people who live in densely populated places require less heat in the winter and need fewer miles of asphalt per capita. (A recent analysis by economists at Harvard and U.C.L.A. demonstrated that the average Manhattanite emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually than someone living in the New York suburbs.) Small communities might look green, but they consume a disproportionate amount of everything. As a result, West argues, creating a more sustainable society will require our big cities to get even bigger. We need more megalopolises.
There’s more, but I don’t want to repeat myself.
More Lehrer stuff from today: Lehrer apologizes: “It was a stupid thing to do and incredibly lazy and absolutely wrong” (New York Times) | Jonah Lehrer Just Does Not Know How to Do Journalism (Gawker) | Jonah Lehrer’s misdeeds require new phrase (The Washington Post) | Questions About Jonah Lehrer’s reporting were raised in 2009 (Jim Romenesko) | Jonah Lehrer ‘understands he made a serious mistake’ (Jim Romenesko) | Jonah Lehrer is the latest target of Google Game, crowdsourced investigation (Poynter) | How Jonah Lehrer should blog (CJR) | Corbett: ‘I think we should all stop using the term “self-plagiarism” ‘ (Poynter)