Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sorta political: Jonah Lehrer doesn't look lazy to me

In the wake of the demasking of Jonah Lehrer we see the same explanation popping up everywhere. A couple of weeks ago,  Ta-Nehisi Coates titled a post on the subject "The seeds of lazy journalism". John McQuaid at Forbes makes the laziness point in terms of a failure to sweat the details:
And his fall shows what can happen when the personal brand supersedes everything else, including the drab scutwork of journalism.
Again, Lehrer seems to have been willing to do lots of drab scutwork.

All of this is dodging the central point which is that Jonah Lehrer made shit up. His crapulous and shoddy book Proust Was a Neuroscientist was not a product of laziness but of dishonesty.

With that in mind, take a scan around at the reviews you can find through Google. There are a  few negative ones here and there but there are a lot more positive ones. The positive ones show no evidence that the reviewer took the trouble to look for any evidence beyond what Lehrer himself provided for his various claims. The gate keepers just opened the door and said, "Come right in Mr. Lehrer." And that brings us to the second problem. He got away with this stuff for a long time. If you read the article in The Tablet that appears to be the final nail in his coffin, you'll notice that there was lots of evidence that something was amiss with Lehrer's work.

So how did this clown rise to the top of his profession?  That's the question that needs to be asked. He wasn't just any journalist. Like Stephen Glass before him, he was a star in his field. It's great that they finally caught him but how did he get through the gates in the first place?

To put it another way, we hear a lot about "meritocracy". Well, here's a troubling thought: this guy made it all the way to the top of a meritocracy without, what do you call that stuff, oh yeah, merit. How did that happen? And he is not the first or even the second or third "brilliant journalist" to turn out to be a fraud. If this was a field journalists covered, instead of the one they work in, they'd be screaming for a full inquiry.

(It's scarier if you think about how he might have gotten a way with it. Dylan is a special case. Any other celebrity and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to verify the quotes.)

The problem is that the guy was credentialed. He went to Columbia and then got a Rhodes Scholarship. When committees review your application for some academic honour, the very first thing they check is what other academic honours you already have. One honour tends to beget another.

Along the way, he learned how to flatter the vanities of other members of the credentialed class. His "Proust was ..." book, for example, was all about how major discoveries of brain science were supposedly "re-discoveries" of things novelists and painters had already figured out. Well no, they weren't but anyone who has been anywhere near a university any time in the last 100 years knows that academics love to entertain themselves with the notion that they aren't studying just stories and pictures so much as "explorations of human consciousness". (As dodgy as the claim that Proust was doing neuroscience is, it isn't even an original dodgy claim.)

Lehrer fed them exactly what their vanity was seeking and that is why they ate it up. His most recent book is called, vomit, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Was the launch party in Strawberry Fields?

This scandal isn't about a lazy journalist, it's an indictment of the entire credentialed elite and the era they rode in on.

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