Monday, July 30, 2012

Making stuff up

I met Jonah Lehrer once after a talk he gave discussing his last book, How We Decide. He's an entertaining speaker and writer. His books are designed to convey complicated scientific information to general readers, and they succeed pretty well at that. I was saddened to learn that he is now in big trouble for inventing some of the quotes in his latest book, Imagine. What exposed Lehrer is that he made the mistake of inventing quotes from Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan is someone who has fans dedicated enough to notice quotations that do not appear familiar, and who will take the trouble to dig out the sources. Jonah Lehrer should have known that every word uttered by Bob Dylan is scrutinized, catalogued, collected, and argued over. You can't be sloppy about quoting Bob Dylan. If you make up a Dylan quote, you are going to be asked to document where you got it from. Jonah Lehrer could not survive this test.

One lesson from this story is to be careful in choosing the authors of quotations you use. You're less likely to get caught making up quotations if you choose a more obscure source, preferably one who has been dead for awhile, and who does not inspire an army of scholars who are familiar with all his words.

But the safest thing of all, if you're going to make stuff up, is not to attribute your statements to anyone other than yourself. The pundits on cable news shows, and even reporters writing for prestigious magazines, glibly make assertions all the time that they cannot prove. But they get away with it because they are not trying to attribute their statements to someone else. They just say things as if they are common knowledge. It's only if you say that someone else said something, that you must be strictly accurate about what that other person said. (It doesn't matter as much whether the thing the quoted person said is true or not. What's important is that you quote it accurately.) One reason Jonah Lehrer has severely damaged his career is that he never claimed to be original. He doesn't do original work in psychology or neuroscience. He is just good at explaining the experiments done by others to the rest of us. We appreciate having clear writers like Jonah Lehrer explain difficult concepts to us, but we impose publishing death on them if they do not convey the work of others accurately.

It's probably good that we're tough on writers like Jonah Lehrer. But it would probably also be beneficial if the tale of Jonah Lehrer inspired us to raise the bar just a bit on all the other journalists and pontificators who feel free to make up all kinds of stuff. The people who claim that humans are not causing global warming, for example. Or that we can solve all our energy problems by drilling for more domestic oil. Or that we can reduce taxes, increase defense spending, and still balance the federal budget. Or how about those who claim they got where they are without any help from anyone? People get away with making all kinds of fantastic and nonsensical statements only because they are careful not to use quotation marks. Or they accurately quote all kinds of nonsensical and fantastic statements by others, giving those statements the ring of truth. But you can't make a statement true just because you quoted it accurately. Nor is a statement necessarily false just because you made it up. It could be that some of the things Jonah Lehrer falsely claimed that Bob Dylan said are more true than some of the things that Bob Dylan actually said. I say that not to excuse the crimes of Jonah Lehrer, but only to suggest that using quotation marks accurately, while extremely important, is not the only test of truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment