The Sciences

On Jonah Lehrer

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 8, 2012 8:32 AM


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Since Jonah Lehrer came up in the open thread last week, I'm going to mention it. First, I'll preface this by saying that my interactions with Jonah, who I labeled the "boy king of cognitive neuroscience" jokingly at one point, were all positive. Since Jonah quoted me in The Wall Street Journal I received an email from a fact-checker asking me about this. He didn't misquote me, and on the contrary, he was punctilious about correcting a misspelling of my name. I liked what I knew about Jonah as a person, and the whole episode has left me rather depressed. Plagiarism, fabulism, whatever you call it, what he did was horrible. But what really sent me over the edge was the possibility that Jonah threw an editor under the bus, casting blame elsewhere to cover up his sloppiness. The main reason I post this is that I want to reproduce a comment which illustrates the sort of error Jonah regularly made:

If anything I was a little surprised that you thought it was fit to mention Lehrer’s post on the decline effect in one of your posts lately as noteworthy exception to poor science journalism industry (if I can recall correctly). To me, this man is dangerous because he demonstrated in that article that he was willing to fabricate things in order to prove his point. More specifically, in order for this thesis to have science-wise applicability, he decided to invent evidence about Physics, the most robust of the physical sciences. He wrote that the ‘weak coupling ratio’ of a decaying neutron had fallen by ten sigma. Since my area of relative expertise was Physics and that my instructor for a course that semester was in the team at NIST who study neutron decay, it became instantly clear that this man didn’t know what he was talking about. (in fact, it was in the ‘not even wrong’ category, as what he probably wanted to say was axial vector in the weak coupling constant, which we use to calculate a ration) Anyway, no amount of emailing or writing the new-yorker to retract this assault against fundamental science was useful. I remember just being really annoyed with how you can get away with something if it’s cryptic enough and not published to an audience who has any level of expertise or understanding of the subject matter. I wrote to this man again recently, asking him to do the right thing and own up to all the things that he has made up because undoing and erasing the internet’s memory of falsehoods is almost impossible, even if new yorker retracts or corrects something. I am just pissed off that it has to be an inconsequential Bob Dylan quote that has caught the publics attention and not the important frauds.

This sounds familiar. In 2006 the blogger behind Mixing Memory, Chris, kept telling me that Jonah simply did not know what he was talking about in the details. This area of cognitive neuroscience was one where I didn't know enough to judge (though I did know enough to know that Chris' critiques of Jonah's representation of Freud were accurate). But after all, Jonah was a Rhodes Scholar who also studied neuroscience at Columbia. How could he not know! Meanwhile, Chris was also very knowledgeable in his domain. But what about evolution? RPM of Evolgen also noticed some problems with Jonah's handling of the details of science. So the warning signs were there if you chose to look. I didn't look. Jonah was nice, and had an impressive pedigree. It was enough that I ignored very compelling criticisms from people who I trusted. Perhaps it is a time to reflect on how we decide who we trust.

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