with the truth
Why was US journalist Jonah Lehrer shamed for making up Dylan quotes and not for his cod-neuroscience?
It appears that for his latest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, American author and journalist Jonah Lehrer was himself a little too creative.
The first chapter of the book covers the genius of Bob Dylan and explores where Dylan’s creative genius came from. Lehrer’s thesis in Imagine is that creativity somehow bubbles out of the brain. Lehrer quotes Dylan as saying, ‘It’s a hard thing to describe, it’s just this sense that you got something to say’ and, ‘I just write them [songs]. There’s no great message. Stop asking me to explain.’ These quotes support Lehrer’s thesis that creativity is not explicable, that it is grounded in the inexplicable workings of the human brain in a particular context. Lehrer argues that, in Dylan’s case, the context was Dylan taking a break in an upstate New York cabin after a gruelling two-week tour of England.
Except Dylan never said those things and he didn’t go to upstate New York after his tour of England. Lehrer made stuff up and cobbled together quotes and pieces of Dylan’s life in order to support the ideas in his book. Lehrer has issued a public apology, resigned his post at the New Yorker magazine, and his book has been recalled. His career lies in tatters.
To an extent, Lehrer’s disgrace is contiguous with a number of recent scientific scandals. Last year, Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of psychology and evolutionary biology, was forced to resign after accusations that he falsified data relating to how cotton-top tamarins might learn rules relevant for language. Also last year, Dirk Smeesters, a social psychologist at Erasmus University, resigned after massaging his data to support different influences of colour on consumer behaviour. This year, Lawrence Sanna, another social psychologist, resigned from the University of Michigan after retracting a paper describing increased altruism when people are physically elevated, such as when riding an escalator. Clearly there seems to be more than just one journalist or scientist prepared to make things up to support an idea.
Making things up is scandalous, and rightly punished. But even without the fabricated quotes and journeys, Lehrer’s book was already scandalous. Lehrer essentially cobbled together a series of disparate findings from psychology and neuroscience to support a story about creativity involving interactions between the left and right brain, random collisions between people and an ability to step outside the mainstream. Thus, Dylan wrote ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ by engaging his right brain and vomiting text on to a page without concern for order and organisation (which is a left-brain preoccupation). Similarly, musicians liberate improvisation by silencing their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. So it’s said that Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M, came up with the idea of Post It notes by daydreaming about bookmarks and glue, when his brain was presumably more open to associations. Ruth Handler came up with the Barbie doll after mistakenly picking up a small sex doll in Switzerland. Pixar was successful because Steve Jobs organised it so that everyone was forced to intermingle, which is also apparently why cities generate more patents - because more people bump into each other.
While all those statements are loosely plausible, none of them is scientifically supported. Even without the fabrication, there is next to no evidence that musical creativity involves engaging the right brain over the left. Very broadly, the right brain is more involved in emotion and the left brain in analytical thought, but it is a very broad statement and, as songwriting involves mood as well as lyrics, it is highly unlikely that any study could definitively point to one side being more involved than the other. To my knowledge, nobody with half a brain has ever written a successful song.
Similarly, for every successful invention that arrives off the back of daydreams and random associations, there are likely to be many millions of utterly hopeless daydreams and random associations. Cherry-picking the occasional example of successful daydreaming is not a good basis for encouraging everyone to daydream. Lots of inventions come from entirely structured and ordered thinking over a protracted period of time by people very much locked into what they are doing (rather than stepping outside it).
Handler’s accident resulted in a Barbie doll, but more often accidents just end up creating amusement, embarrassment or both. And, yes, on the whole, two heads are better than one - and more heads are better than two. But the idea of people interacting to generate creativity collides directly with Lehrer’s contention that Dylan was creative because he locked himself away in a cabin, even though Lehrer was himself being creative with the facts of Dylan’s life.
Lehrer will be remembered as the journalist who tried to deceive the world with fake Dylan quotes, which is fair enough. But the fact is that Imagine was deceptive without the made-up facts, because it merely alighted upon an assortment of findings selected to support Lehrer’s random ideas about what causes creativity. That Lehrer might have got away with that deception is testament to our surprising lack of critical outlook with regards to cutesy ‘science’ findings in general and neuroscience findings in particular. A lack of criticism that seemingly extended to not noticing the many times Imagine itself was contradictory.
Stuart Derbyshire is a reader in psychology at the University of Birmingham. He is co-producing and speaking at a session for the Battle of Ideas festival called Trust in Science.