That's a legendary, Jayson Blair kind of plummet.
Idea poaching was basically harmless. We all get inspired different ways, it just depends on what you do with it. This piece, for example, is here because I want to highlight the work of people who have said what needed to be said and this is the mechanism of Science 2.0 to give out a shout out to someone in a direct way. I obviously would not address the topic if someone or something had not inspired the title and the concept in their work - Lehrer is writing true pop 'science', it isn't anything for our audience, so without it being news I would never have noticed his controversy. Spreading the word of people is network theory, a key aspect of Science 2.0. If I just link to their article on Twitter, it goes nowhere. But Bora Zivkovic put one piece up on Twitter and I read it, and some of that author's work is highlighted here, and Alex Berezow had links in emails, and some of that is included here, and I had compiled other interesting snippets from other people that also never merited me doing something on their own, so instead I discuss them when I have enough, with my own context. But it's easy to attribute work to people. Why not do it? And yet he didn't. Worse, than self- or regular plagiarism is just making stuff up. Somewhere in between, and what I want to talk about, is getting a lot wrong because the subject matter and the evidence are so fuzzy they can mean anything to anyone.
There are two things I see as patterns or at least rails of thought after reading all these talented writers pontificate on the matter; one is that the system works. Not necessarily the traditional publishing system. Some writers contend that Wired has the most thorough fact checking in the world but Lehrer wrote tens of thousands of words for them and they found nothing wrong. But the power of crowdsourcing works in broad media just like it works in science; bloggers tripped up a stealth Creationist paper that peer review missed, as one example. The system kicked in and a guy with 50,000 Twitter followers and a new, swanky gig at a prestigious old publication to go with those CNN appearances was suddenly being disowned.
The other aspect is perhaps that the current intellectual climate (read: something cranky old people do not like) has its downsides, as Dr. Stanton Peele notes. Even a giant scandal isn't going to do anything at all about brain science reductionism, Peele says, because it is dismissed as an ethical failure and not a science one. Now, I did not read Leher's book. I didn't read any non-source books while I was writing a book, that seemed like a bad idea, and it was not sent to me by the publisher, which basically eliminates it from getting read ever. But I know 2012 was a bad year for the brain. It was all hands on deck to try and woo up epigenetics, psychology and neuroscience for the latest culture war nonsense. It isn't hard. Someone, somewhere is surveying college undergraduates and crunching some statistics to create almost any meaningless correlation about politics, purchasing and sex. The rampantly unscientific nature of broad psychology claims about people and their brains led, Peele says, to "making outlandish, unscientific, and obtuse assertions" to "like-seeming memes in neuroscience".
Is he lumping a whole lot of frustration about modern times on one guy? Perhaps a little. If you are not one of the people making a buck promoting sociological woo as fact, it can be alarming to see how much of it has arrived on bookshelves. Yet that is nothing new.
But Peter Sims at Harvard Business Review, in something of a defense, contrasts it to another business; finance, where scandal is nothing new Financiers obviously committed far greater crimes than anything Lehrer did. I am not absolving him, in the aftermath lots of people have analyzed and cataloged how he was making up stuff or being obscenely wrong all along. But financiers don't get public attention on an individual scale the same way because the community is not holding each other accountable, as media is.
"Lehrer’s weightier confusions cast doubt on his glib interpretations of brain experiments" wrote Isaac Chotiner in The New Republic in early June - weeks before the scandal broke. "The reason for dwelling at length on Lehrer’s consideration of Dylan is that almost everything in the chapter—from the minor details to the larger argument—is inaccurate, misleading, or simplistic", he wrote about the Dylan bits, the very thing that would get Lehrer called out. Others recited their stories. Dr. Daniel Bor wrote Jonah Lehrer Charmed Me, Then Blatantly Lied to Me About Science and Sims and Bor and others are all people who basically like the guy. But Bor sees the same issues Peele does: "I’ve written before about the problem of fact-checking and trust within the neuroscientific community (specifically surrounding problems in neuroimaging reporting). But the issue in scientific journalism and book publishing is so much worse."
Where are those insiders calling out finance people? I don't see any.
So publishing may not be perfect but it never was; publishers want to make a buck and a book of outrageous claims will do that, as the upcoming 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" will remind us - and it is easier if the science is so 'soft' as to be relativistic. Plus, fact-checking an entire book is hard, that is why they pay real people with credibility to write non-fiction books, rather than the fiction model where you write it first and then shop it around. Fact-checking a blog makes me chuckle, though. When did blogging become so mainstream it needs fact checking? I have been wrong plenty and the audience are the fact checkers and I made edits and credited the people who caught the error. Fact checking is one thing, outright manipulation is another. I often go out of my way to turn the tables on people who manipulate statistics for their own ends; so it becomes easy to note that religious people in Mississippi are more pro-science than atheists in Washington or that male-dominated fields like engineering are more fair about gender than female fields like environmentalism.
But I don't get paid to blog for billion dollar corporations, there is no pressure on me. If I don't want to write, I don't write. If I write a crap article, well, even Elvis had bad albums, but I also have no boss examining my page views and looking at CVs from other bloggers who want to take my place. Some months I only have 200,000 readers for my personal column, some months a lot more. The audience is smart and they fade away if the content is not good overall so that keeps me on point. And everyone else too. Science is big, there is no reason to make up woo about how liberals will have prettier children or how only super-smart people become Republicans or that inventing a Bob Dylan quote is the only way to get a point across.
The fad of claiming a neuroscience or psychology or epigenetic hook to everything about people or culture is dying fast, and good riddance. Now serious people in those fields can get back to serious work and not have to worry that their efforts are not goofy or outrageous enough to merit attention.
Maybe blogging needs to get back to its independent roots too.