Monday, January 14, 2013

You are the storyteller, not the story

I've been envious of Jonah Lehrer for years, ever since I started reading his neuroscience articles in Wired.

I've also been a fan of applied neuroscience and psychology for years, ever since I discovered some of the early figures in the field of positive psychology like Edward Deci and Martin Seligman. I always fancied that I might help popularize their ideas. So when I started reading smart, well-written articles from Lehrer in Wired and other outlets, I was jealous.

Here was a guy who had it all figured out--he had studied neuroscience, and now he was using the deadly combination of his science training and writing skills to do what I had always wanted to do.

As it turns out, Lehrer was a fraud. He straight made up quotes and lied about doing it. His career and reputation are in tatters. And worst of all, it was all unnecessary.

New York, one of my favorite publications, produced an excellent piece on Lehrer's rise and fall; it's well worth reading.

"Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again."
The writer of the piece, Boris Kachka, argues that the rise of the writer as rock star (fueled in equal parts by Malcolm Gladwell and TED Talks) made it all too tempting to swing for the fences with "Big Insights"--even when those insights weren't backed by the data.

I see marketing run amok.

As a marketer and storyteller, your first loyalty has to be to the truth. Selling sow's ears as silk purses isn't good marketing, it's lying, no matter how successful, and in today's highly connected world, the truth tends to come out, whether you're a philandering politician or a best-selling plagiarist.

Lehrer lost sight of this fact.  Rather than focusing on unearthing new truths and insights from real scientists, he made himself into a intellectual "guru."  Rather than trying to enlighten others, he focused on exalting himself. Once you place the needs of the storyteller ahead of the story, it's all too easy to find "facts" to fit the story, rather than finding a story that fits the facts.

There's nothing wrong with making things up to tell a good long as your books are shelved in the "Fiction" section of the library.  If you're going to claim to be a non-fiction writer, your first allegiance should always be to the truth (and your second to providing a great experience for your readers).

The sad thing is that those original articles that Lehrer wrote, and that I loved were actually true.  He was a truly gifted writer, and had he stuck to the truth, he'd probably still have the success that he lied for and destroyed.


EV said...

It's not clear that the truth actually does come out. I'm not nearly as optimistic about that as you are.

Consider John Edwards -- while he ultimately didn't win the presidency, he was a few hundred thousand voters of becoming VP. He was a fraud and security risk, yet he was almost a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Or even Lance Armstrong. He cheated for years. Got rich off it. Covered it up with lying. Denied the obvious with terrible sanctimony. Threw a few dollars to charity and became an internationally adored figure. Sure, it's kinda catching up with him now, but he's still going to be very rich because he viciously attacked the people who told the truth. Most of those folks are busto/unsuccessful/etc.

EV said...

Second thought: what do you think of Michael Lewis?

Anonymous said...

For me, the whole thing Jonah was just a sense of puzzlement...maybe because he's so supersmart that he simply does not fear the public/masses? maybe he's so smart that even his articles felt like high school pieces and he didn't care about people who hyperventilate about journalistic integrity? I just didn't feel like this was like Jayson Blair, who made up stories and called himself a "New York Times reporter". For me, Jonah just seemed like a lazy, indifferent writer, rather than a malicious and deceptive one.