Science writers: Jonah Lehrer's scientific errors worse than fabricated quotes

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Jonah Lehrer's fake Bob Dylan quotations detract from a more serious problem flagged by scientists while he was a rising star: his habit of misstating and mischaracterizing scientific facts. The problem, according to science writers, is that Lehrer isn't a scientist, nor are his editors or readers.

A Discover Magazine commenter says he spotted an error in a 2010 New Yorker article by Lehrer, but "no amount of emailing or writing" The New Yorker would correct it.

I remember just being really annoyed with how you can get away with something if it’s cryptic enough and not published to an audience who has any level of expertise or understanding of the subject matter. ...
I am just pissed off that it has to be an inconsequential Bob Dylan quote that has caught the publics attention and not the important frauds.

Razib Khan writes that he ignored similar criticism from people who knew what they were talking about, partly because of Lehrer's pedigree (Rhodes scholar, undergraduate degree in neuroscience from Columbia). "I ignored very compelling criticisms from people who I trusted. Perhaps it is a time to reflect on how we decide who we trust."

Daniel Bor describes in Psychology Today how he spotted a "glaring factual error" in an article Lehrer wrote for Nature. Bor writes that he was surprised that critics hailed "How We Decide" when the science "was error strewn and somewhat superficial."

Most reviewers know little science in detail, I suppose, so don’t notice these errors that scream off the page to a jobbing research scientist. But at what point should these errors be caught?

Bor praises The New York Times review of "Imagine" by Harvard scientist Christopher Chabris, which pointed out some of Lehrer's simple scientific errors, which Bor says are worse than the fake quotes.

Imagine is sold as a science book, and so the explanation of science doesn’t really suffer if the odd Bob Dylan quote is made up. So although such an act is utterly sloppy, potentially fraudulent and very embarrassing, I don't feel that this is the aspect of the book we should be pouring the majority of our scorn over. ...

Chabris’ review came out on May 11th, and it should have been at this stage that the publisher stepped in, and pulled all copies of 'Imagine' off the shelves for a few months, until a factually accurate replacement was available (preferably checked by an actual scientist). And the newspapers and magazines that Lehrer contributed to should have paused and thought about fact and source checking at this point, in early May. Instead, Lehrer was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker a month later.

Karthika Muthukumaraswamy says in The Huffington Post that science is difficult to write about, not just because it's complicated and boring, but because it's more incremental and less conclusive than journalists desire.

This is why reporters are constantly making science out to be what it isn't, and why scientists are almost always unimpressed with journalists reporting on their work. The point is, this messiness of science, with its endless years of research, cannot be summed up in a few hundred words and neatly tied with a bow harboring a big idea or mindblowing theory.

Bor calls for scientific review of science books that are written for a general audience, as well as for newspaper and magazine articles about science. Journalists and scientists should pair up on stories, he says, so they can apply their respective skills.

But you don't have to be a scientist to raise questions about Lehrer's facts. You can be a "Dylan obsessive" or a "Penn and Teller nerd." Or maybe you just know a lot about the meetings industry.

Sarah J.F. Braley describes listening to Lehrer's keynote to the Meeting Professionals International's World Education Congress — the day before the fake Dylan quotations were revealed — and being surprised when he said attendance at meetings had risen 30 percent since Skype was invented. Lehrer may have made some good money speaking to conventions, but she's covered the industry for 18 years.

Braley asked Lehrer where he got that information. His opaque answer: "From a conversation with a Harvard professor who has done some research on this." Braley writes, "If you're going to put a statistic like that in a speech to 2,200 people, it needs a solid source. Because you're going to be called on it."

Related: Jonah Lehrer fabricated quote from magician Teller (Poynter) | Library pulls "Imagine" from shelves (Mukilteo Beacon)

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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