Jonah Lehrer and the Problems with "Pithy" Science Writing


There is little doubt that Jonah Lehrer is a brilliant writer and fluid storyteller, but let’s face it: the reason he jumped to the top echelons of the media landscape in so short a time at such a young age is the type of stories he chose to write: behind-the-scenes looks at how our brain and psychology work, philosophical insights into what makes us successful (or nervous), and the science behind intangible things such as creativity and altruism.

In the past few years, American culture has harbored an insatiable love affair with snappy, part-science, part-anecdotal pronouncements of the abstract.

With a global economic crisis fueling rampant job losses, scarcity of resources inflating the price of everything from food to oil, and unforeseen terrorist attacks stirring up debate over privacy and security, delving into obscure concepts presents a sort of balm to problems that we can’t solve with real, tangible solutions.

In such a situation, arose first Malcolm Gladwell and then Lehrer, espousing theories about modern life and culture, overlooking real problems, and offering pithy observations and insights, with just a hint of scientific backing. In an era where it isn’t sufficient to rely on one’s own hard work and mettle to make it anymore, it’s easy to grab on to the surefire trends and magic bullets that these writers so convincingly present to us.

The world economy is crumbling and unemployment is soaring. But let me talk to you about an intangible tipping point that could change your life forever or tell you what happens in your brain when that proverbial light bulb goes off in the cartoon equivalent of a thought bubble. Because talking about the actual economy is much too real and depressing.

Eric Garland puts this better than anyone else in his piece, “Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and our thirst for non-threatening answers.” 

Of course, not every journalism piece ever written has to have a real-world immediate-impact objective to it, but these authors don’t seem to fulfill an educational goal either. While there is a pretense of breaking down complex concepts to a popular science level, the scientific basis of both Gladwell and Lehrer’s writings have been widely questioned.

Science writers have always had to try harder to be interesting. In trying to entice the general public with the tedious, sometimes boring work that goes on in a research lab, they often reduce the nuances and complexities of science—workings of intricate systems like evolution and the human body, the mathematics of financial bubbles, and the inevitable warming of the earth— to interesting tales that combine a tiny bit of data with copious amounts of speculation without context or background. This is what leads to stories with ridiculously overreaching headlines like “Rain causes Autism,” withering portrayals of very complex ailments like depression and addiction as the cause for all evil, and dueling wars between opposing camps around one dubious aspect of a rising epidemic.

Pop-science writers like Gladwell, Lehrer, Dan Ariely, and Charles Duhigg take a slightly different approach—they combine decades of scientific research with hearsay and speculation, metaphysical analysis and societal trends, and offer it to the audience in bite-size palatable pieces. Hip, new phrases to be thrown around in water cooler conversations—real or virtual—such as Gladwell’s “stickiness factor,” Lehrer’s “bias blind spot,” and Duhigg’s “power of habit” as proxies for real explanation don’t hurt.

As Eric Price puts it, “That's exactly what smart, curious, and busy readers like you and I want: surprising, Fun-Size ideas with just enough academic heft.”

In addition to trivializing scientific studies, which may present an even bigger danger, these works are peppered with frivolous analogies (think Gladwell’s comparison of epidemics to the hushpuppy trend), conclusions far removed from the original research, and misinterpretations of scientific studies based on inconclusive data.

Lehrer’s neuroscience in Imagine contains some obvious elementary errors—arguably more dangerous than a couple of manufactured Bob Dylan quotes. While Gladwell talks about our amazing powers of cognition in Blink, he doesn’t venture to give a detailed account of how these processes occur in the brain.

Perhaps, telling us about the cognitive feats would lose a huge slice of the audience, but that’s a chance you have to take if your real intention is to explain science.

In addition, these authors cherry-pick anecdotes and observations to support their claims. Selectively reporting on results that further your case (while omitting countering research), drawing causal conclusions from correlational data, and failing to reliably reproduce experiments are serious mistakes for a scientist—as they should be for a journalist, especially one who has spent sufficient time in a research lab to know better.

Our blogging culture is partly to blame for this. The demand of our 24/7 news cycle, first created by cable television, and now carried on by minute-by-minute updates on the Internet creates constant demand for new information that never quite satisfies the insatiable appetite of the limitless Web.

Scientists, meanwhile, make breakthrough discoveries once, if at all, in their lifetimes. There simply aren't enough stories in neuroscience and social psychology to report breakthrough ideas every week.

And this disconnect between science and journalism doesn't stop at timeframes.

Consider the contrast between the professions themselves. Science is not meant to be pithy or snappy. It is not even meant to be conclusive on a day-to-day basis. There is so much background literature, fact-checking, data assessment, and replication involved that the kinds of conclusions scientists come to on a monthly or even yearly basis would seem way too trivial for a news headline. Which is why reporters are constantly making science out to be what it isn’t and scientists are almost always unimpressed with journalists reporting on their work. The point is, this messiness of science with its endless years of research cannot be summed up in a few hundred words and neatly tied with a bow harboring a big idea or mindblowing theory.

What a newspaper or magazine would call ‘A model to help cure cancer,’ for instance, could realistically only be “an adaptation of a previous model to simulate cancer tissue in order to determine if it can be used to study cancer cells and eventually help find a cure.”

Want to try that for a headline? Exactly.

Confirming a hypothesis or a hunch with empirical evidence is the very essence of science, whereas in journalism—like much of the humanities—theories and schools of thought can rest on their own. However, science journalism, like science, needs to be rooted in fact and observation, without which it would lose its basis.

Another worrying feature about Gladwell and Lehrer’s general theme is the role that chance, intuition and gut reaction—things that we have no control over—play. The premise of Gladwell’s Tipping Point is that there exists a moment when an idea crosses a threshold to spread like wildfire, just by being at the right place at the right time, or being seen by the right people, and Blink waxes eloquent about the triumph of intuition and the subconscious over careful and deliberate thought.

And what is worse, reading about the power of snap judgments by a wide variety of people, one doesn’t come away with a sense that one can acquire this marvelous trait or train the brain to be intuitively right.

Lehrer has his own share of unmediated yet productive occurrences, such as, Nike’s Dan Wieden coming up with the Nike slogan after a random conversation, and Bob Dylan’s serendipitous vacation break after which, songs just started to flow.

The problem with these examples is not that they are untrue, but the helplessness and futility of the advice. What are you to do to make these “breakthrough” moments happen? Nothing, apparently, except wait for them.

In a journalistic equivalent of motivational speeches, these erudite writers hail subconscious processes in the brain that we have almost no control over, stopping just short of saying, “it will happen if you believe.”

“This is what we sound like when nothing is holding us back,” is a line right out of Imagine, for instance.

And it isn’t a stretch to say that science writing today is beginning to resemble the self-help industry, for these same writers have alternative gigs as public speakers. Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that science writing isn’t public speaking.

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his brand of writers—their books and articles make entertaining reads and add much to literary journalism and nonfiction—I just have a problem with it being called scientific writing. I read actual science on a daily basis. This is not it.

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