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How we decide (to falsify).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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At the tail-end of a three-week vacation from all things online (something that I badly needed at the end of teaching an intensive five-week online course), the BBC news reader on the radio pulled me back in. I was driving my kid home from the end-of-season swim team banquet, engaged in a conversation about the awesome coaches, when my awareness was pierced by the words “Jonah Lehrer” and “resigned” and “falsified”.

It appears that the self-plagiarism brouhaha was not Jonah Lehrer’s biggest problem. On top of recycling work in ways that may not have conformed to his contractual obligations, Lehrer has also admitted to making up quotes in his recent book Imagine. Here are the details as I got them from the New York Times Media Decoder blog:

An article in Tablet magazine revealed that in his best-selling book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Mr. Lehrer had fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan, one of the most closely studied musicians alive. …

In a statement released through his publisher, Mr. Lehrer apologized.

“The lies are over now,” he said. “I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers.”

He added, “I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed. I have resigned my position as staff writer at The New Yorker.” …

Mr. Lehrer might have kept his job at The New Yorker if not for the Tablet article, by Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist who is something of an authority on Mr. Dylan.

Reading “Imagine,” Mr. Moynihan was stopped by a quote cited by Mr. Lehrer in the first chapter. “It’s a hard thing to describe,” Mr. Dylan said. “It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

After searching for a source, Mr. Moynihan could not verify the authenticity of the quote. Pressed for an explanation, Mr. Lehrer “stonewalled, misled and, eventually, outright lied to me” over several weeks, Mr. Moynihan wrote, first claiming to have been given access by Mr. Dylan’s manager to an unreleased interview with the musician. Eventually, Mr. Lehrer confessed that he had made it up.

Mr. Moynihan also wrote that Mr. Lehrer had spliced together Dylan quotes from separate published interviews and, when the quotes were accurate, he took them well out of context. Mr. Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, declined to comment.

In the practice of science, falsification is recognized as a “high crime” and is included in every official definition of scientific misconduct you’re likely to find. The reason for this is simple: scientists are committed to supporting their claims about what the various bits of the world are like and about how they work with empirical evidence from the world — so making up that “evidence” rather than going to the trouble to gather it is out of bounds.

Despite his undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer is not operating as a scientist. However, he is operating as a journalist — a science journalist at that — and journalism purports to recognize a similar kind of relationship to evidence. Presenting words as a quote from a source is making a claim that the person identified as the source actually said those things, actually made those claims or shared those insights. Presumably, a journalist includes such quotes to bolster an argument. Maybe if Jonah Lehrer had simply written a book presenting his thoughts about creativity readers would have no special reason to believe it. Supporting his views with the (purported) utterances of someone widely recognized as a creative genius, though, might make them more credible.

(Here, Eva notes drily that this incident might serve to raise Jonah Lehrer’s credibility on the subject of creativity.)

The problem, of course, is that a fake quote can’t really add credibility in the way it appears to when the quote is authentic. Indeed, once discovered as fake, it has precisely the opposite effect. As with falsification in science, falsification in journalism can only achieve its intended goal as long as its true nature remains undetected.

There is no question in my mind about the wrongness of falsification here. Rather, the question I grapple with is why do they do it?

In science, after falsified data is detected, one sometimes hears an explanation in terms of extreme pressure to meet a deadline (say, for a big grant application, or for submission of a tenure dossier) or to avoid being scooped on a discovery that is so close one can almost taste it … except for the damned experiments that have become uncooperative. Experiments can be hard, there is no denying it, and the awarding of scientific credit to the first across the finish-line (but not to the others right behind the first) raise the prospect that all of one’s hard work may be in vain if one can’t get those experiments to work first. Given the choice between getting no tangible credit for a few years’ worth of work (because someone else got her experiments to work first) and making up a few data points, a scientist might well feel tempted to cheat. That scientific communities regard falsifying data as such a serious crime is meant to reduce that temptation.

There is another element that may play an important role in falsification, one brought to my attention some years ago in a talk given by C. K. Gunsalus: the scientist may have such strong intuitions about the bit of the world she is trying to describe that gathering the empirical data to support these intuitions seems like a formality. If you’re sure you know the answer, the empirical data are only useful insofar as they help convince others who aren’t yet convinced. The problem here is that the empirical data are how we know whether our accounts of the world fit the actual world. If all we have is hunches, with no way to weed out the hunches that don’t fit with the details of reality, we’re no longer in the realm of science.

I wonder if this is close to the situation in which Jonah Lehrer found himself. Maybe he had strong intuitions about what kind of thing creativity is, and about what a creative guy like Bob Dylan would say when asked about his own exercise of creativity. Maybe these intuitions felt like a crucial part of the story he was trying to tell about creativity. Maybe he even looked to see if he could track down apt quotes from Bob Dylan expressing what seemed to him to be the obvious Dylanesque view … but, coming up short on this quotational data, he was not prepared to leave such an important intuition dangling without visible support, nor was he prepared to excise it. So he channeled Bob Dylan and wrote the thing he was sure in his heart Bob Dylan would have said.

At the time, it might have seemed a reasonable way to strengthen the narrative. As it turns out, though, it was a course of action that so weakened it that the publisher of Imagine, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has recalled print copies of the book.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. aidel 11:07 am 08/1/2012

    I have an idea ‘why they do it,’ it has to do with pride and vanity. I know this sounds rather religious instead of a matter of rational ethical reasoning (which is still necessarily normative), nevertheless, I think some scientists/journalists/countless others have lost (or never had) a sense of humility — which I believe is an important quality in any person. How’s that for a run on sentence?

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  2. 2. kclancy 8:36 pm 08/1/2012

    Thanks for writing this, Janet. Truly thoughtful stuff! And I can really understand Lehrer’s temptation. I know that nagging feeling that I’m right about something, that surely I read it was true somewhere. But I’ve been wrong about what I “thought I read somewhere” enough times that I now know to always look it up, and then not write that last sentence of a blog post, or manuscript introduction, or grant proposal background, even if it sounds really good. I hope Lehrer has a chance to learn from this experience rather than just get booted from the community.

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  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 9:01 pm 08/1/2012

    At 31, I think Jonah Lehrer has time to redeem himself and earn back trust and stuff like that.

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