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Jonah Lehrer Turned His Back On Science

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

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Three days ago famous science writer, Jonah Lehrer, was revealed to have fabricated quotes in his book, Imagine, which he subsequently attempted to cover up by repeatedly lying to a fellow journalist. Lehrer resigned his staff position at The New Yorker the same day. While his actions were largely interpreted as being an affront to journalism, they amounted to much more: a disrespect for and a betrayal of the fundamentally pure enterprise that is science.

All the lies and deceptions cannot tarnish Lehrer’s ability as a writer. He may not have been a great journalist after all, but he was a great writer. He had a fabulous way with words and could make complex science reasoning accessible to a more general audience. He was able to convey some epic science by using poetic and eloquent narratives which touched and stuck to readers.

One can argue that his demise comes from an accumulation of tiny missteps. To quote a tweet by Ed Yong: “Big mistakes are rarely the result of plans. Rather, a hundred small missteps, each barely considered. [Should] remind us not to take 1st one.”

Do not take the first step. Do not make that first mistake.

It might be tempting to tweak a quote make it fit perfectly in a piece, but it is unethical and wrong. Fabrication, falsification, plagiarism are all no-gos. As a writer, you have the obligation to be honest and transparent to your readers. But as a science writer, you have an added obligation to also represent science—the people behind the researches, the society it feeds, the industry it represents and perhaps more importantly, the message it preaches.

Science progressed from man’s logic and ingenuity as we sought to uncover how nature works. And at its very core is the search for truth. It can gracefully turn the complexities of the world into the wonders of nature. It is nature’s eloquent narrator. It is a beautiful way to decypher the beauty of the world we live in.

This is what science represents to me. And I would never dare drop even the tiniest of stains onto this immaculate canvas. Lehrer blotted all over it. Granted, Lehrer’s mishaps did not involve the science he tackles in Imagine per se. But the fact remains that Lehrer was a science writer who knowingly wrote a lie in a science book. And when he did that, he knowingly turned his back on the enterprise he vowed to respect and represent.

Science, fortunately, will survive. No one person is bigger than science. But let’s not make the same mistakes Lehrer made. Surely, if we focus solely on the grandness of science, we won’t.

Khalil A. Cassimally About the Author: Khalil A. Cassimally is the Community Coordinator of The Conversation UK. He's also a science blogger. He hails from a tropical island and is a happy geek. Subscribe to his updates on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @notscientific.

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

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  1. 1. 3:36 pm 08/2/2012

    SAD SAD SAD. But the “much more” in the first paragraph implies an exceptionalism about science which is common, but faulty. First science isn’t pure, because its practitioners routinely fail to be adequately open-minded. Secondly, the underlying problem here is not unique, or even uniquely applicable to, science. Lying is lying regardless, when the context and implication are that you are attempting to tell the truth, as truth is commonly understood. Cassimally’s own words demonstrate the remarkable similarities between journalism and science, done right. Research, and the best and truest communication of that research, are at the core of each endeavor.

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  2. 2. Mythusmage 5:32 pm 08/2/2012

    Science is all of matter of people looking at somebody’s claims and going, “Oh really?”

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  3. 3. Carlos Solrac 9:32 pm 08/2/2012

    We, humans are but builder of a sky high pile of lies. A big rainbow of lies: The classical lies of mythology and religion. Traditional lies told to children. The statistical lies of the economist. The boldface lies of the politician. The precise lies of the physicist. The deadly lies of the pharmacist. The profitable lies of the banker. The colorful lies of hollywood.
    Lies trickle down from the powerful in a convoluted cascade over the bewildered masses. Lehrer is just one of us.

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  4. 4. brs04wsc 1:55 pm 08/3/2012

    Lehrer lost his way w/ the Truth Wears Off, so I’m happy to see his voice invalidated as a science writer.

    He was shown many times that his woo-ish conclusion for that piece was nonsense and that declining effect sizes could be explained by complicated, but well understood, causes.

    Instead, he decided to misinform the public with post-modern ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’ tripe where science is just another epistemological system (for another take on this, see Carlos Solrac’s comment above).

    That’s not what a good science writer does, but it is how a smart writer advances their career with less work put in.

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  5. 5. brs04wsc 2:00 pm 08/3/2012

    “First science isn’t pure, because its practitioners routinely fail to be adequately open-minded. ”

    Science isn’t pure because people do it. It’s a social enterprise. But it’s also self correcting, and in this sense it’s better at finding truth than anything else mankind has.

    Scientists are much more open minded than the public at-large. I’d like to see scientists take more chances, but the problem here has more to do with the funding structure than closed minds.

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  6. 6. Jonathan Reynolds 4:17 pm 08/4/2012

    As a Maya archaeologist, I am absolutely disgusted by some big-name peers who are known to have fabricated results from their digs. Falsifying scientific data has got to be one of the biggest crimes; much worse, it seems to me, is falsifying data if you are an established name with a reputation.

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