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Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched


Conceived in literature, tested in psychology
Literally Psyched Home

The ultimate judge and jury of journalistic responsibility: We, the readers

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


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Picture the following scenario. A well-respected surgeon successfully concludes an operation. It’s the end of a long day, and he is looking forward to going home for a well-earned break. Everything proceeds smoothly. The surgeon promptly forgets surgery and patient alike.

Surgery has come a long way since the Civil War. But thousands of "never" mistakes still happen every year.

The following year, our patient doubles over with stomach pain. Other problems soon follow: digestive failure, fever, swelling. A trip to the ER and an involved, six-hour-long surgery later, an errant surgical sponge is removed: the surgical team had left it behind during that earlier procedure. And though, this time around, the sponge is gone for good, the damage has been done. For the rest of her life, the former nurse will be unable to work and will have problems with her digestion—and that’s not to mention the depression and anxiety that have already set in. The doctor, of course, will suffer, too: a malpractice record, a hefty settlement, potential probation and disciplinary action by the state medical board, a black mark that will follow him through Google searches and the cursory checks most well-informed patients now conduct prior to committing themselves to anyone’s hand. It’s a different kind of suffering, to be sure, but not entirely painless.

That’s not a hypothetical scenario. It’s a composite of thousands of cases where surgeons leave behind more than their patients had bargained for. And leaving behind a sponge, while the most common occurrence, is far from the worst. Not only do far larger items—clamps, scalpels, and the like—often find themselves on the inside looking out after a patient has been stitched up, but doctors sometimes find themselves operating on the wrong body part, performing the incorrect procedure, or, in 17 reported cases between 1990 and 2010, performing a surgery on the wrong person entirely.

Regardless of the specific error, one thing ties these physicians together: for the most part, they suffer the consequences of their actions. The latest data on these “never” events—that is, events that should never, ever—happen, come from national malpractice claims: the patient has brought a suit against the physician, the suit has not been dismissed, and a judgment or settlement has been reached. Or, to put it in other words, the medical practitioner has been called out for doing something wrong. He has made a mistake and is being brought to account.

Or, imagine this. A lawyer—and not just any lawyer; one who holds a lifetime achievement award from his state bar, who used to have his own television show, who is, most would agree, an example of what professional success looks like—lies to his clients and the press, mismanages his clients’ money (and demands more than he has earned), fails to show up to depositions, and takes on cases that he then doesn’t properly work up, missing court dates and becoming unreachable to any and all inquiries. His clients lose money and cases. What has at one point been a rumble of discontent becomes a full-blown avalanche.

Again, not a hypothetical example, but rather the case of Glenn C. Lewis, former lawyer extraordinaire. The result of his failures: he was disbarred by the state of Virginia and will no longer be allowed to practice law. No amount of past success can shield a record of persistent misdemeanors and actions that have gone against the core of his profession.

Each profession comes with its own gavel of justice: you uphold your end, or suffer the consequences.

That’s the point. You undermine the tenets of your profession, you suffer the consequences, visibly, legally, and financially. A surgeon who has committed multiple errors isn’t rewarded with a department of his own. A lawyer who has acted wrongfully with respect to his clients isn’t handed a docket with more high-profile cases. Fingers crossed, he has learned his lesson, let’s see how he’ll do with this one!

Every profession comes with its own guidelines and principles, the rules that you expect its members to follow. Sometimes, it’s as concrete as the Hippocratic Oath or the state bar Oath of Office. Sometimes, it’s less formalized, a set of ethical guidelines or rules of conduct: an honor code in school, say, or a simple common-sense understanding that you uphold the core standards of your profession. If you’re an engineer, you don’t build a bridge that may or may not collapse, no matter how pretty it is (and even if it did hold out for that one year). If you’re a trash collector, you don’t just hide the trash in a secret location that makes people think you’re the wunderkind of sanitation workers because you can get everything done so much more quickly and take on all those extra routes as a result of your super efficiency, rather than drive it to the landfill (or wherever it is you’re supposed to take it). And so on.

Your career has rules. You follow them. It’s a contract you make with yourself and the people who rely on you. Simple.

Or rather, it should be simple. Sometimes, things don’t quite work out that way.

***

Over the last year, I’ve purposefully avoided writing about Jonah Lehrer. At first, because I was, by and large, on his side—self-plagiarism was bad, sure, and something easily avoided, but it didn’t seem to merit quite the level of outrage that was being leveled at him—and later, because I didn’t want to give the matter any more of my attention or brain power. With each revelation, he became in my mind less and less worthy of the title of science writer or non-fiction writer or journalist.

The absolute breaking point came when Daniel Bor revealed that, as far back as 2009, Lehrer had thrown his editor at Nature, Brendan Maher, under the bus, blaming him for Lehrer’s own mistakes. Two days later, Seth Mnookin pointed out ever-more egregious falsehoods and failures to correct or repent, going back years – and that’s not to mention the actual problems with the science in Lehrer’s science writing, made clear by careful reviewers like Christoper Chabris* and Isaac Chotiner. After Imagine was pulled from the shelves, How We Decide all too naturally followed – and today, I learned that even though Proust Was a Neuroscientist remains on the shelf, it, too, is plagued by serious and seriously troubling errors. Why am I not surprised?

Lehrer is not the writer who simply made up a few Bob Dylan quotes and self-plagiarized (the way he’s portrayed in recent accounts of his latest book deal). He is the writer who got the science wrong, repeatedly, who made up facts, misrepresented information, betrayed editors, and lied, over and over and over again, for many years, in multiple venues, not just in a single book. He is, in other words, the writer and journalist who went against the basic tenets of the profession, and did so many times over. He is the surgeon who botched surgery after surgery, the lawyer who screwed up case after case, the engineer whose oh-so-pretty designs toppled after a year or two, not once, but multiple times, and on and on. Why, then, is he not seeing the consequences the way he would have necessarily done in most other professions? Why is he instead getting the equivalent of a fresh docket of cases or a new departmental job: a coveted book deal with a prominent publisher?

Therein lies the reason behind my decision to break my self-imposed Lehrer silence. I’m hoping, through this piece, to at least begin a conversation that convinces others of the need for a different approach to dealing with such blatant malfeasance in writing, whether it be on the part of Lehrer or others.

Lehrer's "apology" speech--at none other than the Knight Foundation for "quality journalism."

The outrage surrounding the sale of Lehrer’s new book proposal is entirely justified. I would expect nothing else. But here’s the thing. Lehrer is not the villain here. Simon & Schuster is not the villain here. The only possible villain in this scenario is us, the reading public.

Allow me to explain. Of course Lehrer is going to want to make money off of his non-downfall—and of course he’ll do it in the same way he always has. Why expect anything else? The best predictor of future behavior, as they say, is past behavior. And, as Mnookin has eloquently argued in the past, the guy had no moral compass to begin with. Not ever. Why develop one now? (Over at Slate, Daniel Engber finds the exact same types of things wrong with Lehrer’s proposal as in his past writing. Surprise, surprise.)

Now for Simon & Schuster. Publishing is a business. To succeed, you need to come out with books that make a lot of money. Yes, the editor’s stated rationale for buying Lehrer’s book is a belief “second chances,” but the real rationale is financial, pure and simple. Lehrer was a best-selling author. His new publishers expect to make a whole lot of money on his next book. They will undoubtedly lose money on many others. Who’s to blame them for wanting a “sure thing” in the mix? Yes, you can go all moralistic on them, but come on; they have to be businessmen. I can’t entirely blame them.

And that’s why we, the readers, are the only possible villain—that is, if we choose to be, by continuing to pay attention to Lehrer, by continuing to cover his work, by buying his new book and reviewing it and drawing attention to it. By making it possible for this book of love to be another best-seller.

So let’s make a choice. Let’s not do it. Let’s show Simon & Schuster that they backed a losing horse that has run its last. Let the book flop, not sell. Don’t buy it, resist the urge “just to see” what the fuss is all about. We make Jonah Lehrer. Without an audience, he is nothing, plain and simple.

We certainly needed to point out the errors in Lehrer’s past work—and have a responsibility to continue to do so. But we have no responsibility whatsoever to create a platform for his future work. Why not simply ignore it and let it collapse with a thud? If there’s no one in the forest to hear that tree fall…

True enough, there’s a flaw in that plan. Many writers have argued (correctly, I think) that we face a tremendous disconnect between the science writing, journalistic, and editorial communities and the reading public at large. That is, the professionals know how big the problem is, but the rest of the world blithely continues to hail Lehrer’s authority and talent. That is an important, valid concern. If we minority shut up, there will no longer be anyone to withstand that tide of popular ignorance.

But what if, when the Book of Love, or whatever it will be called, were coming out, everyone refused to review it? The reviewers, after all, are the professionals. What if the science editors of the papers and the magazines, the book review sections and the feature pages were to simply pass on this new creation, as they already do on so many deserving books? What if the radio stations didn’t pause for an interview or a story, didn’t so much as remark on the fact that the book had been published? What if the bookstores didn’t place it on the front table but instead put it in the back section—or, god forbid, didn’t stock it altogether? Again, that is the fate of all too many incredibly deserving books every single day. The general public simply doesn’t see them.

I doubt this will become a reality—and a lot of the moving pieces are in the hands of specific editors and producers and storeowners and publications, not ours (unless we are one of the above). But the ultimate, last-say power is with the readers themselves. If readers don’t spend the money, the books will sit, unsold. That part of the equation is simple enough.

Journalism is a tricky business. It doesn’t have an equivalent of the malpractice suit or disbarment.  Instead, it has readership. Writers are successful if people read their writing. They fail if they go unheard. When we pay attention to someone, we signal that they matter—and we also fail to pay attention to someone else, whose work we could have been reading at the same time. Each time we read an article or a book, we make a choice. And by our choices, we show who is at the top of their game and who has screwed up surgery, not once, not twice, but over and over again. The readers are the ultimate ethics board. They are, after all, the ones who make up the sales figures.

***

Allow me to go back for a moment to that Johns Hopkins study. Apart from the number of never errors that the researchers discovered, they found one other thing: the incidence of repeat offenders was high. Very high. 62 percent of the surgeons, to be precise, figured in multiple malpractice reports—and 12.4 percent were involved in separate kinds of never errors. The best predictor of future malpractice? Prior malpractice.

It makes sense. When it comes to systemic behaviors, people rarely change. Yes, there are exceptions: the amazing surgeon who caught a bad break and will then redouble his vigilance and never, ever allow this to happen again. But for the most part, if you’re sloppy, you stay sloppy.

Jonah Lehrer didn’t have one bad surgery. He practiced sloppy medicine for years. We can’t keep a hospital from hiring him onto their staff, putting his face on their website, having him on faculty, or recommending him to you for a consultation. But we can do what any informed patient does before placing himself into a physician’s hands: conduct a quick background check and go see someone else. I mean, would you really want someone with multiple severe malpractices to cut you open?

And just as you wouldn’t sign up for a consult “just to see what all the fuss about that awful surgeon is all about,” so too you can make the conscious choice to side-step a journalist who has betrayed all fundamental tenets of journalism. Don’t gawk. Don’t review. Don’t buy it just to see. Simply ignore. A surgeon without patients, however prominent and gregarious, however decorated and once-upon-a-time successful, won’t last very long. He won’t last long at all.

*An earlier version of this article inadvertently attributed the review to Daniel Simons. Thank you to Hal Hershfield for the speedy correction.

Image credits: Civil War tools, Ryan Soma, Flickr. Gavel of Justice, Columbus, Ohio, Sam Howzit, Flickr. Jonah Lehrer, Knight Foundation, Flickr.

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

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





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  1. 1. curtrice 5:54 pm 06/10/2013

    Good piece raising the right comparisons. Two comments: One is that self-plagiarism is perhaps morally less bad than non-self-plagiarism, but I think we forget the legal side of things: self-plagiarism is basically created by a publishing system that requires signing over copyrights to companies. I riffed on this a big, connecting self-plagiarism and open access models of publishing, at: http://bit.ly/QGKmad
    Secondly, while the Lehrer case is particularly noxious, the explosion of retractions in scientific journals is in fact largely do to deliberate violations of ethical codes. In other words, he’s bad, but he ain’t alone. Related riff: Why you can’t trust research: http://bit.ly/XVC4ca

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  2. 2. chefgerman 7:30 pm 06/10/2013

    Before Lehrer was caught, the science community had no problem with his frequent misrepresentations of data and theory because he was generating positive buzz. I’m no fan of Lehrer, and I’d be happy to see him quietly go away. But the self-righteous indignation coming from the science community at this point is more than a little hypocritical. And, if we’re going to pile on Lehrer, maybe we should agree to show a little less patience with other science writers who are getting it wrong (even if they’re not Bad People and even if we like the positive buzz).

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  3. 3. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 7:35 pm 06/10/2013

    That’s actually not true. Both Chabris and Chotiner (cited in my piece) went after him for that very thing before the whole plagiarism/falsification thing. And they are not the only ones.

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  4. 4. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 7:38 pm 06/10/2013

    Good points, both! Thank you for raising them.

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  5. 5. chefgerman 7:47 pm 06/10/2013

    Ok, it’s not *entirely* true. But it was mostly true, especially among those in fields pimped by Lehrer.

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  6. 6. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 8:39 pm 06/10/2013

    Well, Chabris is a psychologist…and one who writes popular books.

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  7. 7. kstarr 12:02 am 06/11/2013

    “But it was mostly true, especially among those in fields pimped by Lehrer.”
    I have to disagree. I’m currently writing a book for Penguin; several neuroscientists and psychologists I’ve interviewed cited Lehrer as a reason for being hesitant to talk to writers and journalists, out of fear of having their work misrepresented.

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  8. 8. Ian Leslie 3:00 am 06/11/2013

    This an elegantly constructed and interesting addition to the genre of Lehrer-responses, which owes a debt to Lehrer’s writing in structure and style. Unfortunately it suffers from one of Lehrer’s weakness, which is a lack of analytical depth. For instance, Maria spends spends the best part of a lengthy article comparing journalism to other professions without making the simple point that journalism is not a profession in the same sense that law and medicine are, and nor should it be. Its barriers to entry – and exit – are much lower. It’s a more democratic form.

    Maria is essentially asking the same question as nearly all the other Lehrer responses – how can we exclude this terrible person from our tribe? But chefgerman is quite right to point to the unexamined question underneath. If Lehrer was such a terrible journalist, why was the scientific and journalistic community overwhelmingly positive about his writing for the overwhelming majority of his career? Maria talks about his long list of egregious errors as if they are obvious fact, but if they are so obvious why didn’t anyone notice or call them out in the first place? I think this is because apart from a very few blatant and entirely reprehensible falsehoods, Lehrer’s writing met the standards of popular science writing, for better or for worse. In my view, for better, actually: journalists are doing something very different to scientists and should be confident enough to admit it rather than instinctively quailing before their criticisms.

    There’s an odd lack of ‘there but for the grace of god’ empathy in the Lehrer responses, at least in public. Is Maria really confident that if Chabris had been given her work to review he wouldn’t have been able to rip it apart in the same manner he did Lehrer’s? Is she also confident that if her entire body of work had been subject to Charles Seife’s absurdly pompous exercise in post-hoc nitpicking she wouldn’t have achieved the same score? Good for her if so. But unless journalists concede that to reach a popular audience (beyond scientific readers) they need to great simplify complexities and force theories into stories then they’re kidding themselves.

    The urge to punish a miscreant within a group is strong, for understandable reasons, but it’s also not to be trusted, because it can generate a lot of self-deception, not to mention mean-spirited and ungenerous sentiment. Hey, someone should write a book about that.

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  9. 9. hb 5:25 pm 06/11/2013

    I agree with Maria Konnikova that it is up to the reading public to end the publishing career of a proven fraud like Lehrer. Who would even want to buy and read anything coming from such a source?

    I do not agree, however, with letting Simon & Schuster off the hook so easily:

    “Yes, you can go all moralistic on [Simon & Schuster], but come on; they have to be businessmen. I can’t entirely blame them.”

    Why should ethical standards apply to everyone except big business?

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