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The SA Incubator

The next generation of science writers and journalists.

Jonah Lehrer Turned His Back On Science

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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.

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

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