I don’t intend to cite this quote as a bit of claim chowder, but to illustrate a point.
Lehrer fashioned himself as an ‘explainer,’ a person whom can take complex ideas and boil them down to simple, understandable stories. But not all concepts are simply explained.
Reading Michael Moynihan’s excellently researched piece (which uncovered Lehrer’s fabrications), we’re confronted with the costs of Lehrer’s simple explanations. To illustrate and support his thesis regarding Dylan and creativity he resorted to to out-of-context quote usage and outright fabrication. The facts didn’t fit the neat narrative. The tale was too complex to boil down to a simple ‘turns out.’
Let’s not understand Lehrer’s fall as arrogance, lies, or one man’s mistake. Let’s use this event to remember that some ideas are not simple, are complex, and difficult to grasp. Let’s respect them as such. Reducing them down to sound bites or accepting cheap understanding when it’s offered has a cost. Sometimes – in fact quite often – life isn’t simple and we shouldn’t try to pretend that it is. Doing so keeps us from striving to understand and appreciate complexity.
Agreed. Life isn’t as simple as a TED talk, nor should it be. A thought on TED: If all it took were 20 minutes to learn what the presenters were so passionately communicating, do you think they’d be up there, so stoked on talking to people about their work?
The researchers who Lehrer cites in order to build his narratives all look at their work in a fundamentally different way from the way Lehrer does. Real scientists are open to being proven wrong. They’re open to the possibility that the complexity and frustration of what they’re investigating will mean that they’ll say wrong things - and they’re OK with that, because it’s part of the gig. It’s part of the thrill of honestly following a research question. You look at the dead end you’ve come to and say, “well shit, the truth will work things out.” WIthout that commitment, nothing of consequence could possibly be discovered.
The truth often does work things out, and it can even make narratives better and more beautiful. Sometimes it might mean being anti-narrative, but you wouldn’t have given up on narrative unless you were committed to being fair to the truth.
Alternatively, you can give up on truth, but then you’re very much not in the business of learning, researching, or teaching (non-fiction writers of Lehrer’s ilk certainly think they teach). Instead, you’ve drifted deep into the realm of entertainment. Which is to say: you’ll get invited to Radiolab 17 times, but you’ll have committed yourself to intellectual bankruptcy along the way. And what is intellectual bankruptcy? It’s just ignoring the world, because the world is getting in the way of your tried-and-true method for making sense of it.
Jonah Lehrer seems to have really passionately wanted to become an important writer person. The world made sense for him when he sold lots of books that explained complex things simply. Maybe, now that he’s been fired from his job at the New Yorker, and that his publisher is recalling his fabricated book, he might wonder what it actually takes to be an ethical or honest writer, too, and what the world might look like when truth is treated with the gravity it deserves.