What to Believe?

You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.” Abraham Lincoln*

The rapid fall of Jonah Lehrer reflects a problem with all secondary accounts of scientific findings—on the Web, in the press, in books, conversations, etc. You can’t always believe them.

Lehrer was forced to resign from his position as a blogger for the New Yorker when it was discovered he had fabricated several passages from a purported interview with Bob Dylan and had reused material previously published on his blog at Wired magazine. Having read those blogs, I was quite puzzled to see them once again on the New Yorker’s digital pages.

Since then his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, has been withdrawn by its publisher, and Wired magazine, where he had blogged before coming to the New Yorker is reviewing all of his previous posts. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is asking bookstores to returned their unsold copies for a full refund and the same offer has been made to readers who purchased a print copy of the book.

From a star in the blogosphere, Lehrer has almost overnight been ostracized to a writers no-man’s land, to be shunned as if he carried around some dread virus. One wonders what will become of him.

Absent the original report in a peer-reviewed (ideally) journal, it is hard, no, impossible to determine the reliability of the kind of secondary accounts Lehrer published. They could be subject to any number of reporting biases, errors, outright deception, or simple fudging.

Apparently this was true in several and perhaps others yet discovered in the blogs and books of Jonah Lehrer, whose popularity was not unlike that of Malcolm Gladwell. And it may also be true of the several blogs I have written about Lehrer’s posts and books that are even further away from the original sources than Lehrer’s.

I first started reading Lehrer on his blog, the Frontal Cortex. I liked the way he attempted to integrate scientific findings with ordinary experiences. Eventually, his blogs became more neuroscience and less psychological and, in turn, I didn’t follow him as often as I used to, as I’ve never been particularly enamored of neuroscience and its presumption of “at last we know.”

I knew all the evidence he cited from experimental studies was a secondary account, but I had no reason to believe he fabricated anything or distorted the findings one way or another. Therein lies the problem of a reporter, like myself, or a reader. How can you trust such accounts when you don’t have the original research upon which it is based or even know how to interpret it if you did?

When I was a social psychologist, I uniformly went to the original studies I talked about in class or cited in my research. I read them as carefully as I could, tried to interpret the increasingly complex statistical analyses, and checked to see that the investigator’s conclusions didn’t go beyond the data. I can assure you this was never easy. And how often have you read lately about researchers who have fudged on their data or even in some cases actually made it up?

Apparently Lehrer did fudge and did distort and did also invent what he claimed to be true. Should I remove the several blogs where I have cited his work? No, I’ll leave them up for a while and suggest you read them, as well as all other secondary accounts of the research I discuss with considerable caution.

* Note: The Abraham Lincoln quotation was drawn from Jonah Lehrer’s blog, "Deception" written in November, 2006.